Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Sometimes the world turns in a strange way. Last Thursday, I had a choice of three films. Sadly, the first two proved less than enjoyable so, today, I came to the third which has been much hyped. Indeed, it was the degree of enthusiasm in the marketing that has been mildly off-putting — regrettably, I’ve a slightly perverse streak and the more someone tries to sell me something sight unseen, the more resistant I become. However, given all the hoopla, I braved today’s rain and, with a few other stragglers, began the less than scientific experiment to see if “three’s a charm”.
Cabin in the Woods (2011) is being sold in two quite different ways. The first relies on the name of the screenwriter. Joss Whedon is currently fêted as the best thing to emerge from the television networks since JJ Abrams sprang fully formed from Lost‘s head. With the Avengers just a couple of weeks away, this man is going to do the superhero thing and rescue Hollywood’s bottom line with at least one major financial success this year. At the time of writing, Cabin in the Woods has apparently grossed nearly $36 million worldwide which, for an R-rated horror movie strikes me as a reasonable revenue in the first two weeks. We should note, however, that because of the occasional swearing and a few body parts on open display —some moving under their own steam — the family values police have been on a crusade to protect the young from moral corruption. Obviously, the rating limits potential audience numbers. The second touted virtue is that this is an example of meta-horror. Well, this I gotta see. If it was the usual slasher film with an inbred upcountry family hacking innocent young tourists to pieces, I wouldn’t bother. But this is a marketing strategy to break the mould. Actually using the meta prefix proclaims the film as potentially intelligent. Ah ha! So that’s why audience numbers are low. Horror audiences are notoriously conservative and only interested in gore. If brains are involved, it should only be as an appetiser, not the red-meat main course. Yet, I’ve seen an interview with Joss Whedon discussing the extent to which audiences can be manipulated. It all grows out of the blurring of the line between fiction, scripted reality shows and documentaries. As we viewers grow more sophisticated, we’re more difficult to please. Most reality is actually boring most of the time so, if a major studio was to bring a documentary about animals to the screen, it would have to create excitement and drama by editing moments taken out of context to build what appears to be a linear narrative. A group of animals comes under threat. Clever look-outs sound a warning. Mothers encourage their young into places of safety. You know the kind of thing. It’s the same with reality shows. Teams of writers suggest things for the participants to say and do as they try to survive. Everyone wants to come out of these television shows looking good — that’s what sells the advertising.
So here’s a film that expects the audience to know and understand what’s supposed to happen to people in a horror film when they’re daft enough go to a remote cabin in the woods. After being introduced to the camera, they have to stop and buy petrol from Mordecai (Tim De Zarn) — a local who’s intended to inspire fear and loathing. More importantly, it focuses our attention on the choice. These potential victims are told to stay away, but ignore the warning and become complicit in the plot to make themselves victims. So far, so good. Yet it’s when we see the fate of the bird paralleling the RV that the extent of this film’s presumption is exposed. We accept the opening scenes as part of a puzzle, storing away basic questions: who are these pen-pushers, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Amy Acker with the usual middle-age hang-ups in their marriages and office relationships? what are they preparing? why are they spying on these five young people? and so on. Yet when the bird reveals technology on such a vast scale, this immediately takes us way beyond anything “ordinary”. This can only be one of the most powerful of corporations or it must be government. But that sharpens our new question. Why would such vast resources be deployed?
As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the distinction various religions make between worship and propitiation. If we travel back in time to the groups worshipping the sun as a god, we see a balancing of expectations, hopes and fears. These groups have never known a time when the sun did not come up and then go down again. It’s as regular as clockwork. They hope it will always continue because they fear the world would be less pleasant if the sun failed to appear. So, they try to encourage the sun in its routine by offering gifts. It’s at this point that the priesthood gets involved. There will be times when mere prayers will be sufficient. But there may come times when gifts or sacrifices must be made to avoid losing the god’s favour. Even modern Christianity is based on the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a potent symbol in our material age.
Having thought about the ending which, for obvious reasons, I cannot discuss in detail, I’ve decided that what the film lacks is a Sigourney Weaver character. In the Alien films, the quality we admire is her willingness to die in order to save the Earth. There she is, heroically standing toe-to-toe with one of the critters and it never occurs to her that there’s anything to think about, discuss or debate. She’s expediency on two legs. So as we approach the critical final moments in this film, it’s that ruthlessness we should be looking for. Somebody should just get the job done.
So that’s as much as I can say without spoiling the film. For me, Cabin in the Woods is the best film of the year so far. Not only does Drew Goddard satisfy us with a cleverly worked sequence of boo-moments to make us jump in our seats, but the script he co-wrote with Joss Whedon is also a highly intelligent take on horror tropes. For once, a film has genuinely earned the label of meta-horror. The five young people at risk are Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth (before he was famous), Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams. They are bright, sparky and immediately likeable. For anyone who has an interest in horror films, this is a must-see! As a final word, I’ll leave you with two things to ponder should you take my advice and watch the film. Exactly what are the office workers betting on and, why is it so pleasing to see a character continuously consuming cannabis?