Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: A Final Comment on the Horror Genre

Frickin' Rubik's Cube of the Damned, this is.

Fair warning: with this assessment of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's "Cabin in the Woods", there will be a certain amount of plot point divulging, meeting somewhere between a review and a summary.  It's been interesting to note the reaction of people that have seen the film, in that they do not seem to want to give away too much to those that have not seen it.  In that spirit, it's a thin line that critics must walk in order to properly examine a film who's layered approach entertains audiences best when they have less information going in, while not fully divulging too much actual content.

While we're at it, let's look at this brief reversal of standard gender roles in slasher flicks, through a one way mirror.

The initial premise is very basic.  It is, on the surface, the most trite cliche of the horror genre.  Five fresh-faced college students go to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of fun and things go horribly wrong.  Any viewer remotely familiar with this premise can guess that they are in store for a little sex and a lot of violence.  Anyone familiar with Goddard's work on the ABC series Lost or Whedon's with Buffy the Vampire Slayer can also make a safe bet going into the film that there will be a twisting convolution of the initial premise and an honest love of the horror genre, for all of its faults.

The five characters are designed as archetypes, distinct from the usual stereotypes prevalent in every single film following this one's basic premise.  The fool, the warrior, the scholar, the virgin, and the whore. In the first five minutes of the film, however, we are introduced to two other character types that are more uncommon in horror and actually seem more suited to office comedies.  The older project head and the office joker with woman problems, Sitterson and Hadley.  These men and the project they are working on are interspersed with the plot, since it is obvious that they are the masters of ceremony for the events taking place.  They also serve as ample comic relief throughout the film, and can be interpreted as in-film proxies for the writers as well as the audience.  But more on that in a moment. Elements of The Truman Show and The Matrix bleed through almost immediately upon our exposure to the banks of computer monitors that Sitterson and Hadley are surrounded by, but these similarities are compounded when it's established that they can pump mind-altering substances in through the cabin's vents as well as the forest floor, that they run environmental controls around the cabin, that they are the ones that open the cellar door kick-starting the horror, and that every nook and cranny of the cabin and forest is lined with tiny fiber optic cameras. "Watch the master at work," indeed.

Where we, as the audience, are expected to do our part, comes in our exposure to any horror movie that has ever been written prior to this one, a partial awareness of each trope.  There are standard reactions to be expected from us, outside of chainsaw-themed dreams after the film.  We flinch, we squeal, we yell at the screen, we laugh, we curse the idiotic heroes and we cheer the villains that lay out brutal justice on horny half-wits and jerks.  We, as the audience of individuals, relate to certain characters while loathing others.  We invest ourselves in the movie's aura,  whether in the shrine of a cinema or the pale glow of a computer screen, and we react to the input with output.  Even though we suspend disbelief and dislocate reality, and in doing so buy the mythology laid out by the film-maker, we must ultimately embrace the real one.  

This movie plays with all that while maintaining a cool comic timing, but it expects more.  The question is asked, where does our fascination with horror come from?  What is the root of fear? We see certain lines blurred and expectations burned, right from the start.  Sublime terror of suburbia, Hadley at the water cooler, complaining that his wife has put child safety catches on all the drawers in their house, even though they just started fertility treatments.  Just another job, just another schlub.  The familiarity of this banter and the humorous nuance of the kids preparing to go to the cabin is set up to endear us to them, early on, in a manner that many horror movies fail to even hint at in an entire course of the film.  Laughter.  The genuine laughs throughout this film are what draw us in more than anything.  The horror genre has been bent off its axis and fused with comedy, without losing our interest. The game has officially been changed, or rather, it returns to the purpose it should serve, which is catharsis.

The distinction of course being that we are dealing with professionals here, both on-screen and off.  The operation that brought these kids to the cabin in the first place is a strong part of the social system that binds, an idea pointed out by the fool character early on.  The production company that made this film is part of a similar social system that plays itself out in all media, just as binding, but less Ancient Evil God oriented.  Or is it?

At a certain point, a Marine guard, the audience's stand-in for a fresh point-of-view in the operation cut-away, asks why the nudity of the whore is necessary.  The response could very well be a representative of the movie company, speaking for shareholders. "We're not the only ones watching here. We got to keep the customer satisfied. You know what's at stake here."  Being prepped is not being prepared.

In any event, rather than giving a simple play-by-play of the entire film, we'll continue our analysis by touching on a few major points where The Cabin in the Woods intersects with other films of its genre, while sussing out the resonance of certain lines and scenes with their "meta value", then break down the overarching impact of Lovecraftian mythos, and how, with this film, they trump all other forms of horror.

When the characters arrive at a gas station and meet the Harbinger, a throwback to the angry spirit of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we get our first clue of titles and intents, set up in plain sight.  Soon after, this tension is diffused into comic relief when the Harbinger puts a call into Sitterson and Hadley, ranting about blood sacrifice for a while before realizing that he's been put on speaker phone.  This sort of undercut is played out with almost every tension built by the horror element of the film, working for it on first viewing, but perhaps not on successive ones.

Our textured protagonists, meanwhile, are enjoying their arrival at the cabin.  A scene is inserted to play off stereotypical gender roles from slasher flicks gone past; the scholar character removes a disturbing painting from the wall of his room to discover that he's on the transparent side of a one-way mirror. Of course, the virgin character enters the room and start primping herself in the mirror. Then undressing.  The natural conclusion is curtailed for a moralistic flip flop, where after switching rooms, the virgin sees the scholar undressing, and he is ripped.  While this is not akin to any specific film from the horror genre, it is a blatant commentary on standard stereotypes in the "slasher sub-genre",  famous for idiot starlets getting naked for a brief visceral thrill before dismemberment.  The one-way mirror scene subverts and twists that, backhandedly but uniquely.

Bypassing a silly tag line repeated throughout the film ("Let's get this party started!"), the inevitable game of Truth or Dare finishes up with the cellar door banging open, immediately reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, which from the first shot of the cabin soaks this film like brine soaks a pickle.  After daring the virgin to go down the stairs, the quintet discovers a collection of interesting items immediately familiar as the objective correlatives to monsters from horror movies: a conch shell, an amulet, a puzzle box, a ballerina music box, and of course, a diary from which an ancient Latin invocation is read aloud by the virgin.  This invocation summons a family of zombified pain-worshipping backwoods cannibals, whose dramatic arrival is undercut, as is standard, by Sitterson and Hadley's "monster betting pool".  This is them blowing off steam in the same way that we, the audience, laugh at the on-screen brutality.

At the end of the day, though, the humorless cosmic toxicity of H.P. Lovecraft's Ancient Evil makes its presence known in the film, and ends up subsuming all that came before it, literally.  Less blatant than the Necronomicon of Sam Raimi's day, the construct of this film, the bound-in sacrificial pit of the forest and the cabin, serves as a sacrifice of the archetypes to a sleeping Ancient One.  Since the operation our movie is involved in is global in scale, we can presume that there are multiple Ancient Ones throughout the world, accepting their yearly offerings in exchange for relative peace.  This is exemplified best in an invocation made by our goofy office-mates after the death of the whore. "This we offer in humility and fear, for the blessed peace of your eternal slumber. As it ever was."  The key line of course being the last, for in the Lovecraft mythos we find the invocation of the Old Ones as "The Old Ones are. The Old Ones were. The Old Ones will be."

After brutal deaths of all archetypes but the virgin and the fool, an elevator into the lower levels of the sacrificial forest is discovered.  Here, likely by design, we find elements of the movie Cube, as well as a hint of the anti-bureaucratic sentiment of that film.  There is a menagerie of monsters, too varied for a viewer to take in with only one sitting, set up and awaiting the activation of the appropriate objective correlative in the basement of the cabin.  The virgin finally establishes that they have been puppets all along, victims of fate, or rather, sacrifices to a vast creature of unimaginable evil.  Another exchange from earlier on in the film, between the Marine and a Chem Department scientist, gives us more of an idea of the puppetmaster the fool can only speculate on for most of the film.  The monstrous menagerie, or stable, is populated by remnants of the "old world" courtesy of "You-know-who" (pointing downward).

Lovecraft's Cthulu is often called the dreaming god, and the Ancient One addressed with sacrifice in this film is similar in scope if not location (Cthulu sleeps underwater, in R'yleh). Perhaps the concept of dormant but stirring cosmic evil controlling social norms behind a sticky curtain resonates with the core of humans more than we are likely comfortable with admitting.  It is not terribly far-fetched, the idea that society sits at the edge of chaos, binding, as it is, with laws and debts and pragmatic dismissals of pure autonomy, and it is rare enough that any horror film outside of a zombie apocalypse flick would approach this matter, let alone with such nuance as Cabin in the Woods manages.

In the final analysis, this movie is less about exploring the stereotype of Chris Hemsworth's "No matter what, we have to stay together" than it is about the less-lightly explored resonance of Sigourney Weaver's "It's our task to placate the Ancient Ones, as it is yours to be offered up to them."  In an interview regarding the film, Whedon cited John Carpenter as an influence, and likely the movie he was considering when he said that was the highly under-rated In the Mouth of Madness, perhaps the purest Lovecraftian movie to be made without being a direct translation. 

Before concluding, we'll dwell momentarily on the idea of the Ancient Ones presented by Goddard and Whedon, and  or Elder Evils, Lovecraft's take on a clearly Gnostic (and fittingly, very old) concept known as the Archons.  Imprisoned in gross matter, the souls of the world seek reunification with the Wholeness. The corrupted and complicated machinations of the Archons, rulers of this world, keep mankind from achieving spiritual fulfillment.  And as evidenced in our own world, the many must suffer for the few, and vice versa.  To this end, and along these lines, correlatives to Cabin in the Woods emerge, if you look at the content and themes touched, only slightly askance. 

We live in a world of true horror, and evil in the form of negligence and corruption and bigotry.  On grander scales, the still-mounting nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil horror, the forever threat of terrorism at home and abroad, and so many other things brought about by society's trends towards mankind's detriment dwarf any mythological beast we can conjure with our most fevered imaginations, but they arise as a direct response to such things.  Our need for catharsis through control is our reaction to true dread, our desire is to undercut our feeble fragility in the face of pure and pungent terror.  So it is that we express ourselves through the opiates known as television and the movie theater.  The audience seeks control, the same as the operators of the sacrificial cabin, and they serve faceless entities with all the rights to and none of the joys of humanity.  The audience is the sacrifice to those faceless entities at the same time.  The idea of control is illusory and at best temporary.  Chaos runs rampant, regardless.  Like Cthulu, the audience dreams, unwitting, on the Plateau of Leng.  

The time will come that a tremendous hand shoots out of the ground and strikes you, ending your fantasy, your brief comfort.  Same as it ever was. 

Sweet dreams.   

I don't get it.

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