Sunday, 6 January 2013

2012's Finest: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

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THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

People talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’.

That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start.

So I'm just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably.

A cabin, in the woods

Drew Goddard (director, co-writer, of Cloverfield, Lost, Buffy fame) and Joss Whedon (co-writer, of being Joss Whedon fame) apparently wrote this film over a furiously creative weekend, locked in a rented bungalow until it was finished. That feeds noticeably into the film's feel, its tone and density, but really I’m really just bringing it up as a historical sidenote. Going into the cinema, I was excited to see a new Whedon film, but that was quickly jettisoned in favour of just trying to keep up.

Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you.

The film's 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It's actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime.

Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin.

Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world.

Five Kids. One Cabin. Lots of Violent Murders.

Each half-hour segment could almost be its own film. It’s standard slasher-film business, I believe, to set up the characters in a non-murderous status quo, but I really would pay to see that Goddard/Whedon teen comedy. And it’s impressive how close to the half-hour mark each act change comes.

…Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids.

Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968.

It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off.

On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films.

Hot makeout scene

And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little.

Yes, it plays with horror tropes, to varied effect. The clich├ęd ‘creepy old guy at the gas station’ is played for laughs, but the way the kids are sorted into ‘whore/athlete/scholar/fool/virgin’ archetypes, while making it clear that none of them really fit that role, is a serious criticism. But Cabin in the Woods isn’t that interested in making a single argument, about horror or otherwise, as much as revelling in the joy of just arguing.

It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom.

Bonguarde

Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, more importantly, they get a lot of the best lines. Meanwhile, those last two survivors – who are in many ways, the exact opposite of the cast of Buffy and Angel, unwilling to sacrifice themselves, even to save the world – aren’t damned for that decision.

It’s a really inclusive horror movie, and not just in terms of its characters. The thing that hurts the most about Cabin in the Woods being pigeonholed as a po-mo clever-cleverfest is that implies it thinks it's better than its audience, or at least the audience of your standard slasher flick.

It’s happy for the viewer to take the ‘leave your brain at the door, and enjoy the ride’ approach, and just enjoy the ride. There are gruesome murders, and action, and jokes, and boobs (and abs), and a mile-a-minute plot.

Visual metaphor, #2

There’s enough stimulation here for two or three films (at least the way Peter Jackson makes ‘em – ZING). There’s too much to possibly take in. The CCTV screens commonly overlay four or five different camera angles, or characters in different rooms. The pause button-demanding whiteboard with dozens of different monsters scribbled on, and then, later in the film, when it shows you them, all at once, encouraging you to squint. Probably the film’s pivotal moment comes when the zombies finally catch up with the final survivor. The screams are drowned out by the power-chords of REO Speedwagon’s Roll with the Changes, as we cut back to a party at the super-secret underground HQ.

The violence is being shown from multiple angles on screens, but people keep walking in front of the action with beers and cocktails.

It’s a sharp bit of commentary, yes, but it’s also sheer sensory overload, and that’s good. Switching your brain off for two hours isn’t a bad thing. That’s one of the most beautiful things about art.

Visual metaphor, #1

I keep coming back to the poster for the film, which is actually a masterful bit of marketing. Its Rubik’s Cube cabin gives nothing away, but hints to expect something a bit different, a reshuffling of the usual stock elements.

It’s a great visual metaphor, a picture worth a good chunk of the 1,351 words I’ve written so far.

Cabin in the Woods is a puzzle to be solved, something to turn over in your mind. It hands the viewer chunks of knowledge, and challenges them to put it all together before the film gets round to explaining them.

Meanwhile, it’s doing the same thing itself, taking the hundreds of horror films Goddard and Whedon have seen in the past and constructing its own internal logic for them so they fit neatly alongside one another. It doesn’t just point out that the characters in these films do things you’d never do, hahaha, it actually tries to find a reason why they’re behaving like that – they’re being manipulated by unseen forces, spraying pheromones and closing off doors – and explains why they’re there in the first place. It even takes a moment to explain why horror traditions are so different around the world.

That’s nicked straight from Escher – an optical illusion which hurts your brain (and eyes) to look at at first, but which, the longer you look at it, starts to makes sense.

Or is it a Picasso, and the Cubist idea that you can only get at the truth by viewing it from all different angles? The film, like the image on the poster, is something multi-faceted, as I hope I’ve shown. Many of those facets
are contradictory: It cares for all of its characters; it’s totally happy to throw them to the wolves. Jules is being mind-controlled into wiggling her bum around in hot pants; she’s an attractive girl wiggling her bum around in hot pants. The film begs to be picked apart; it’s sheer escapism.

Cabin in the Woods both has its cake and eats it, to such an extent that Whedon and Goddard must’ve stumbled on the secret for an infinite cake-machine. That might be off-putting. It might sound ethically unstable. It might sound like a film-student manifesto. It actually does undermine the scariness of the film.

But for every piece you don’t like, there are usually three others running simultaneously you might enjoy. You can opt to ignore a layer – like closing one eye behind your 3D glasses – and still be bombarded with enough stimulation/ideas/excitement/stuff for a film twice the length. That’s what I mean when I say Cabin in the Woods is a maximalist horror film, and it’s what I mean when I say that it’s the single most interesting film I saw in 2012.

Arrivals.

4 comments:

getfrank said...

I thought the idea was poorly executed...

(Not your article, the film)

Alex J Spencer said...

Fair enough, each to their own.

I thought the presentation of the film - clean direction, snappy dialogue - was actually pretty tight, which is something I don't deal with much here.

But in terms of executing the idea... my entire point is that there isn't one single idea to be executed. Maybe the high concept doesn't play out that well, but that's because there's so much else going on.

Looking at it from the other side, maybe I'm wrong about being able to ignore one element. If you went in hoping for a good unpicking of the problems with horror, I can see that all the other stuff might get in the way, and leave its critique looking underdeveloped and shallow.

Shimmer-man Producitions said...

I'm with you Alex, I loved it. What I felt though was that, yes you could read all of these clever subtexts into everything and pick out all these amazing nuanced details if you wanted to. Alternatively, the film was structured and executed in such a way that the message was clear even from a cursory viewing. The insanity at the end is almost the opposite of Funny Games- instead of saying, WHY ARE YOU WATCHING THIS!? it instead goes, you want to see the other monsters...mmmmmm.....OKK!

It's Whedon at his utmost best, doing horror without the real nasty scares and leaving you with the feeling that you've seen more than you first though, a la Angel season 5. In fact, Cabin is basically Angel season 5 but in 90mins and with a bigger budget.

I do wish there was more Amy Acker though.

Alex J Spencer said...

The Angel S5* comparison is a good one, actually. There's a lot of the same touchstones, from the giant string-pulling 'evil' organisation and humanising the pawns within it, to the way it embraces humour (e.g. the Mexican wrestler episode in Angel, the Merman here) without letting that undermine the other stuff.

*I also finished watching Angel last year, and agree with what I think you said to me at the outset, Reece, that the last season is a serious contender for the best TV season of all time. OF ALL TIME.

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