“If you don’t like The Cabin in the Woods, you’re wrong,” says Joss Whedon, co-writer/producer of the upcoming horror film, directed by Drew Goddard, the other half of the film’s writing team. “Bad call there.” Whedon’s kidding, of course: he knows that the film is likely to divide audiences – or, to put in genre terms, slice them down the middle – between those who love it and those who hate it.
But then, love and hate is something which goes hand in hand with The Cabin in the Woods, according to a recent interview with Total Film. “It’s basically a very loving hate letter,” he told them, cryptically. “On some level it was completely a lark, me and Drew trying to figure out what the most fun we could have would be. On another level, it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/ identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.” Could this be Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, pulling a Funny Games* – i.e., making the audience complicit in the horrors unfolding on the screen. (As if every horror film isn’t already doing that.) Whedon isn’t saying. Neither, thanks to the heavy embargo laid over the film until its world premiere at SXSW on March 9th, is anyone else – at least, not if they want to stay on the Lionsgate Films mailing list. The embargo is understandable – nobody wants to steal SXSW’s thunder – but it’s a bit rich, considering the film was shot between February and June 2009, and has been lost in the vortex of MGM’s financial woes ever since. It’s a long time to keep a lid on a secret, especially with a million strangely spoiler-hungry horror fans waiting to find out what all the fuss is about.
Publicity materials – actually a single sheet of paper bearing little more than the names of the cast and crew – declare that The Cabin in the Woods will “turn the horror genre inside out.” They don’t mean literally, of course. So what do they mean? Is there a precedent for doing for the horror genre what Seth Brundle did for baboons? Well, let’s look at the milestones of recent history: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) didn’t turn the genre inside out, exactly, but it broke new ground for the horror genre by winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Not that the marketing mavens didn’t try to convince the world that the film was a thriller, rather than a horror film, which it patently was – being, by popular definition, a film which set out intentionally to horrify.) It could be argued that Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) turned the genre inside out by applying the concept of post-modernism to the genre – yet the director had already flirted with this idea in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, two years earlier. How about The Blair Witch Project (1999), with its faux-documentary/found footage stylings – a trend which films like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism continue to follow? Perhaps – except you could argue that Tobe Hooper got there first, exactly a quarter century earlier, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s faux-documentary feel, and that Ruggerio Deodato had the found footage idea back in the 1980s.
What we suppose, then, when we are told that The Cabin in the Woods will turn the genre inside out, is that it will be a different spin on the traditional horror film; one, if the title and tagline (“You think you know the story”) are anything to judge by, will take familiar horror tropes – the title being an obvious one – and, if not exactly turn them inside out, at least mess with them a bit. Of course, we’ll have to wait until the embargo lifts before we find out exactly how. All we know for now is that we have some enticing actors to look forward to: not only Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, but Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under’s dead dad) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing’s Josh Lyman), as well as Amy Acker and Fran Kranz, two alumni from Whedon’s TV show Dollhouse. “Honestly, I’m a horror film fan, and it’s a crazy movie,” Kranz told MTV. “I think you could pitch it as the ultimate horror film. It goes in such a crazy direction that’s unexpected.”
Some critics and other commentators have suggested that The Cabin in the Woods fails on the most basic terms; that it simply doesn’t deliver the horror which would seem to be a fundamental requirement of the genre. While I disagree with this assessment – there’s plenty of stuff in The Cabin which anyone would describe as horror – I think the problem is that the format, which cuts back and forth between the kids in the cabin and the puppet masters pulling the strings, dissipates any tension which Goddard has been able to build. Imagine how much less scary the Paranormal Activity films were if, every ten minutes or so, they cut away from the found footage ‘action’ (I use the term loosely) to, say, a talking head interview (not an actual talking head, you understand) with someone commenting on the action. The Last Exorcism just about got away with the interview segments, and The Blair Witch Project put its interviews at the beginning, the makers of both films having the good sense to know when, and how, to keep the tension building once the idea had been established. By letting the audience see what’s behind the curtain – Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins et al. – and how they are pulling the strings, Whedon and Goddard rob us of the opportunity to enjoy the horror-movie elements for what they are.
But does that automatically make The Cabin in the Woods a failure? That depends on what you expect from the film. Whedon says he set out to make “a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies,” and The Cabin in the Woods certainly does that: in some respects, it’s an essay in film form, a manifesto from two lovers of the genre, commenting on the demands of the audience (represented here by unseen demonic forces) and the motions which horror filmmakers (represented by the pseudo-governmental agency for which Whitford and Jenkins presumably work) are forced to go through in order to appease them. In that respect, it can be read as quite a bitter attack on the state of the genre, which comes to bury rather than to praise. We’ve seen this kind of deconstructivism before, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which used the multi-part comic book format to examine the superhero comic by telling a superhero story within a multi-part comic book – yet Moore’s (and Gibbons’) evident love and respect for the superhero comic shone through. Whedon and Goddard’s film feels more like what Watchmen might have been if it had been published during the late ’80s comics boom, with its multiple covers, fake issue #1s, silver inlays, ashcan editions and other gimmicks designed to shift more copies of a particular comic. Filmmakers are pandering to the audience, Whedon and Goddard seem to be saying, giving them familiar tropes and trite formulae, instead of innovation. That may have been true when the film was conceived, back when the umpteenth Saw movie and Hostel films were making torture porn/’gore-nography’ the new horror – but things have, to an extent, moved on: en masse, the audience has decided it’s done being grossed out – now it wants to be scared, not repulsed. So is The Cabin in the Woods still relevant, as a comment on the state of the art? Not especially. Is it fun? Sure. But it doesn’t turn the genre inside out. Instead, it feels as though it’s on the outside looking in.
*I refer here to Michael Haneke’s original, although his remake works almost as well – with the exception of Tim Roth’s disastrous American accent