BY HARRISON CHUTE
Joss Whedon is no stranger to revisionist media, and Drew Goddard equally no stranger to approaching old forms in new ways (Cloverfield). Their film, The Cabin in the Woods, is a ‘love/hate letter’ to the horror genre, and evenly in step with their combined filmographies. The 2012 genre piece takes a look at much-maligned horror conventions and archetypes, and sends them up in a decidedly non-Scary Movie way. This is no spoof, and yet it is comedic. A solid formula that’s served many films well (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead), but what’s lost upon Whedon and co. here is how all of the puzzle pieces fit together.
For the pieces themselves, it’s slightly more difficult to point to specific personnel when correlating say cinematography, direction, and writing, because this is a true collaboration. Goddard directed and co-wrote the film, while Whedon also wrote it and produced it. In any other case, we’d say that Goddard is majority shareholder on creative influence, but Whedon is such a known quantity when it comes to signature themes and style. This is also a directorial by Goddard, but clearly his industry experience was complemented by the team — they weren’t about to push him onstage without a cue card. And even if they were to do that, he’d come up with something similarly polished.
Visually, this is a film with an eye for color, something often lost on its contemporaries: the grimy, washed out genre pictures so confident in a time-tested grimness. There is a certain richness to the texture of the image that’s paid off well when the more outlandish creatures and effects appear. There is brightness and color, though appropriately, there is an underlying streak of darkness.
Sound design is critical in a horror movie, and the creeping terrors are indeed anticipated by whatever nebulous hums and whirrs the genre has manufactured over time. Of course, herein begins the central trouble — appropriate horror noises sure, but in service of what? The key issue with The Cabin in the Woods is that by function of its premise, it has an identity problem. Not the traditional case of non-mixing horror and comedy elements, but a story premise that precludes an address of character, plot, and most astonishingly, theme. This is a horror revision, and yet very little is said.
The idea with Cabin is that horror movie clichés are orchestrated by a secret cabal to sacrifice teenagers to seemingly Lovecraftian gods. There’s a morality play somewhere in there — is it right to kill a few innocents to save us all? Well yes, though maybe not in our current post-post-9/11 American culture, but what does that have to do with the horror genre, the frequently self-proclaimed subject of the movie? Examining horror itself makes it clear that this genre is something much more elusive than previously thought.
As it goes, you scream at your TV for the young woman to not open the door. But why? It can’t be because we don’t want her to die, because the dying is the whole point. So now the genre has a conflict of interest built into its very premise, and that’s related to the positive want of a negative scare. In The Cabin in the Woods, the issue is acknowledged, and works as a theoretical exercise, but in practice splits our sympathies between diametrically opposed parties. The archetypal screamy, horny teenagers, and the puppet masters, whose office-camaraderie and banter are certainly the raison d’etre of the film.
Looking at the teenagers in this light may acknowledge something, but the movie becomes a victim of what it’s parodying, such that there’s no audience-alignment to any one character. Because Cabin occupies the genre it satirizes, it doesn’t escape its shortcomings, regardless of how much it’s aware of the shortcomings.
A less thematically disconnected version of this film is Tarantino’s Death Proof, which uses its revision of the slasher genre to explore something real, in this case feminism (give me that if you’ll please excuse Tarantino’s obsession with women’s feet). There is no endgame in Cabin, no particular focus. The premise and the morality-concerned ending are only very loosely connected.
Because Cabin is so preoccupied with criticizing a genre, however inadequately, it doesn’t get the basics right, and this is the true sin of the movie. Skipping on holistic thematic continuity is one thing, but creating a film where reaching out to grab at intellect compromises emotion is creating a film nearly devoid of content. It looks like people are talking and walking around, doing stuff, but what’s the product? Tension? Drama? Comedy?
The horror element here is primarily these hillbilly zombies, which in the unique context of this movie are incredibly hard to make scary. Movie monsters are only scary when they’re mysterious, when they dwell in the realm of the unknown — you know just enough about them to know nothing. By function of the story, the hillbilly zombies here are demythologized beyond utterly, so it’s a wonder that Whedon and Goddard pulled any semblance of tension from them.
And if you want funny, the usual cheeky Whedon dialogue is limited here. What’s served so perfectly by a Han Solo rogue-type played by Nathan Fillion is lost upon the archetypes here, lined up for customary slaughter: the jock, the stoner, the shy girl. It isn’t a film structured around characters, but ideas. Such a template doesn’t set up many opportunities for comedic set-pieces. Aside from the actually humorous office guys on the other side of the glass, the jokes in the film are the premise playing out in a variety of ways — to get the group to split up, like they do in the movies, they hit Chris Hemsworth with horror-guy stupid gas. That is so absurd!
As a thought exercise, The Cabin in the Woods falls short, and as entertainment, there are better options. The 2011 home-invasion thriller You’re Next, released in 2013, was pitch perfect, and could be read as reconstructionist if The Cabin in the Woods didn’t so wholly miss the mark on deconstruction. The thematic aspects of the movie undermine its shock and humor, and as revisionist commentary, the moral endgame distracts from the inherent criticism of the premise. Despite a few moments of original spectacle, a talented cast, and confident direction, The Cabin in the Woods is a unique approach that approaches two steps and asks you to go further.