GREY MATTERS: Cabin in the Woods, Horror in the Dumps

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by Ian Grey
April 20, 2012 12:21 PM
8 Comments
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***SPOILER ALERT: The following piece is one huge spoiler. So, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, consider yourself forewarned.***

If we’re lucky, The Cabin in the Woods will shut down the debased American horror movie machine for a good long while. God knows the damned thing has been creatively moribund for decades and hasn’t had a new idea since Scream, unless you count turning cinemas into torture porn abattoirs as new.

And actually, that was a main reason Joss Whedon co-wrote Cabin with friend and Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Drew Goddard a few years back: as a protest of Hostel and movies of its ilk.

But Cabin—directed by Goddard—got stalled during MGM’s bankruptcy, and here it is, a dark echo of The Hunger Games, another film about kids trapped in psychotically violent arenas. This one, though, gives equal time to the people behind those funny games.

We know this because, right off, the words “CABIN IN THE WOODS” are hilariously stamped over a freeze frame of said masterminds, a bunch of middle management types in lab coats played by Richard Jenkins (delightfully worn out), Bradley Whitford, and Whedon regular Amy Acker. They joke, place bets, and work as surrogates for anyone grinding another massacre movie out during this period of the genre’s debasement.

Meanwhile, five teens get ready to vacation at the eponymous cabin. There’s Jules (Anna Hutchison), the blond who’s only dumb, it turns out, because her Clairol was secretly doped by agents of the lab (!). And Dana (Kristen Connolly), the “mostly virgin” redhead. And Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the hunk, and Holden (Jesse Williams), who’s the nice guy. And stealing the movie like he stole Whedon’s Dollhouse is Fran Kranz, as Marty the stoner.

As the teens drive “off the grid,” the stations of the Craven/Raimi cross are dully ticked off: road to nowhere. Creepy in-bred dude at gas station. And, finally, the saggy-roof cabin itself, courtesy of Evil Dead.

Once inside, Weird Shit happens. Freaky mirrors. Creepy toys. A text written in Latin is read aloud. Zombies rise. And then the violence begins, and we realize that this “cabin” and “woods” were controlled by the lab from the start of the movie, part of a vast underground installation that makes everyone do stupid horror movie stuff ending in sacrificial deaths meant to appease an Entity older than Time, blah blah blah….

Goddard/Whedon stage the first kill with savage efficiency. Three shots: girl gets aroused. Girl shows breasts. Girl gets bloodily skewered. Hip male critics love to excuse this in other films—well, Cabin says, excuse this. (Would the apologists be so enthused if films routinely showed penises being violently, bloodily liberated from their original owners? I know, I know: “Ian, you’re, like, so literal.”)

Generic zombies terrorize and kill in an efficient parody of the prototypical zombie story, which unfortunately drags the film until Marty and Dana break into the installation and find hundreds of Plexiglas cube-cages housing as many monsters for every possible teen kill scenario.

As a black opps cadre confronts Marty and Dana, the latter locates a Staples-style red button that, when pushed, handily opens the cube-cages, and . . . cowabunga! It’s the greatest monster mash in movie history!

It’s as if these beasts flew, crawled and slithered straight out of the last time American horror seethed with invention, due to a cultural cauldron boil of Thriller, the anxieties of Mutually Assured Destruction and AIDS, heavy metal, MTV, MIDI, perms, and a general global urge to out-crazy the next guy. The 80s.

The 80s could cough up an allegory for identity existentialism in the ever-shifting surrealist monster of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the sexed-up, Lovecraftian latex abstractions from From Beyond, and still have time to create a monster metaphor for AIDS in The Fly. (And because Joss is such an Anglophile, Hellraiser and its Pinhead, the poster boy for S&M perversity in the plague years, are directly riffed on here in the form of another leather/razor creature, named “Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain” in the credits.)

Speaking of politics—and you could—George Romero practically screamed his zombie-metaphor leftism in Day of the Dead while Wes Craven reported Haiti’s long suffering under dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier in The Serpent and the Rainbow.

All of those movies, plus Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and dozens more comprise what turned out to be the final flowering of America’s dark imagination, and that’s what’s celebrated in Cabin’s monster mash.

And when all that’s left is a vast pool of blood, it’s like a sanguine sigh, because we all know there’s no room for such lunatic invention in American cinema, not any more.

But I digress.

Cabin ends with a trans-supernatural “Director” urging the campers to use their "free will" to die the way she tells them to. Marty and Dana choose to smoke one last doobie and let the world go to hell. What Whedon asks is: is a species that enjoys watching the graphic rape of a decapitated girl's head and worse in movies like, say, the French High Tension really worth the bother?

Cabin can’t help but be the most slight of Whedon’s efforts, mostly because even a mood master can’t quite negotiate the switches from slaughter to light comedy needed—he’s just not heartless enough. We’re just getting used to the idea that our pitiful heroes might escape, for instance, when one of them motorbikes into what turns out to be a force field that fries him like a gnat in a bug zapper. Cool effect. Which is kind of hilarious. Except then you’re like, "Wait, wasn’t I starting to like this guy?" And yeah, everyone knows Whedon is hoisting us on the petards of our affections—except we never had enough time to really like the zapped biker, so we’re in emotional limbo.

Still, what works is often funny. Goddard directs his first feature with impressive élan, and damned if that monster melee doesn’t inspire: it’s made by people who know that horror cinema can be great art or even awesome trash, carrying out a holy war against what it’s turned into. Plus—if you miss the evil white unicorn, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

But Whedon just can’t hew to the mission statement of creating teen kill archetypes: unable to resist the urge to create characters, he lands somewhere in between sometimes. He can’t even hate the engineers before starting to understand what it would be like having such a soul-killing job. He’s just too humane.

Cabin could, of course, actually fail in its intentions, as it inspires the industry to issue idiot look-alikes about entrapment scenarios that reference other movies, leading us to find, yet again, that nothing can drive a stake in the postmodern monster, because it lives freely on past dreams of the dead, no matter how much you scream.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

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8 Comments

  • Ian Grey | April 26, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    Sorry--but no. Show me what connects the Stuart Gordon films aside from "Lovecraft" (do you really think American filmgoers knew who the hell Lovecraft was?)

    King? So what--the films had nothing in common and some failed at the B.O. and some did well.

    I didn't argue there wasn't crap--there's always crap in every genre. The fact is that the 90s and Oughts have nothing resembling what the 80s came up with in aggregate. I'm not a nostalgia person--I have no personal interest in this race. It's just film history.

    The *reason* filmmakers went for originality--and knock-offs-- was, I think, kind of simple:

    The only place to sell your film was at the video store.

    You could either be a carbon copy. Or you could look way crazier than the other guy. You could have a VHS cover that just plain out-crazied whatever was sitting next to it on the shelf.

    Also--the reasons I outlined in the article. That's what I think and believe.

  • Steve C. | April 26, 2012 8:45 PM

    I could start throwing out titles from the last two decades that disprove that "aggregate" line... but your last sentence there essentially announced that you're not open for more discussion. So, here is where I bow out. Fare thee well.

  • Ian Grey | April 20, 2012 4:12 PMReply

    The important thing to glean from that list--aside from a couple sequels that are hugely different from their originals--is that there is no trend. Pet Sematary has nothing to do with The Blob which has nothing to do with Gothic which has nothing to do with Pumpkinhead. I mean, there are *undercurrents" and of course, Stephen King ruled the culture but the books chosen to adopt were, in style and topic utterly unrelated ( a miserable psychic (Dead Zone)? A haunted car (Christine)? Show me the bandwagon they're riding.)

    This is the amazing thing--to make it in 80s horror, you had to have a NEW IDEA.

  • Steve C. | April 25, 2012 1:01 PM

    Just as an example of the point I'm trying to make here... let's look at 1982. Using the IMDb and sticking only to American films, per the thrust of your article, there's at least one stone-cold masterpiece there (THE THING) and several that have enough defenders that they're pretty solidly in the "good" pile (POLTERGEIST, CREEPSHOW, CAT PEOPLE, THE ENTITY, Q, BASKET CASE). But, you know, that's not all that saw the inside of a theater that year. Some title you may have forgotten:

    AMITYVILLE II
    FORBIDDEN WORLD
    HUMONGOUS
    PARASITE
    MADMAN
    VISITING HOURS
    THE INCUBUS
    THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS
    THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD
    TIME WALKER
    THE FOREST
    GIRLS NITE OUT
    BOARDINGHOUSE

    ...and so on, and so on. And here's the thing: Of all the horror films released that year, what was the #1 grosser? That paragon of originality FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III. Second? HALLOWEEN III. You have to get down to #4 until you hit a film (POLTERGEIST) that's widely acknowledged as good. THE THING was outgrossed by VISTING HOURS.

    So... no, you didn't have to have a new idea to make it in '80s horror. For the most part, you had to be churning out generic pre-sold junk.

  • Steve C. | April 25, 2012 12:34 PM

    (Apologies for not getting back to this sooner.)

    "This is the amazing thing--to make it in 80s horror, you had to have a NEW IDEA."

    Except... not really. Your claim is disputable in the notion of "making it" - a number of the titles you've cited were financial disappointments or out-and-out flops (e.g. THE THING, LIFEFORCE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, PHANTASM II). A lot of them built an audience later, sure, but I'll bet there's still not a whole lot of people out there going to bat for GOTHIC, for instance. And as for "new ideas"... even leaving aside whether or not a literary adaptation can count as a new idea (CHRISTINE was new when King wrote it, sure, but by the time it became a film, it had a built-in audience and the assumed risk was low - and that film was still nowhere near a smash hit), there's still quite a lot of remakes and sequels in that list. Doesn't scream originality to me.

    Also, your article is arguing about American genre films. So ANGUISH and POSSESSION don't really belong there. And NEW NIGHTMARE didn't exist until 1994.

    "Show me the bandwagon they're riding."

    That would be the Stephen-King-adaptation bandwagon. That counts.

    "The slasher cycle started in the 70s."

    And the hicksploitation genre started in 1958 with THUNDER ROAD, but nobody considers it a '50s genre. The tropes of the slasher genre, while codified by HALLOWEEN, were marked in cement by FRIDAY THE 13TH. The subsequent wave of '80s slashers were ripping off the latter more than the former.

  • Ian Grey | April 20, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    The slasher cycle started in the 70s.

  • Ian Grey | April 20, 2012 4:07 PM

    The 80s gave us Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, From Beyond, Re-animator, The Thing, Serpent and the Rainbow, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Pet Sematary, The Blob, Hellraiser II: Hellbound, Hellraiser, Near Dark, Fright Night, Predator, Lifeforce, The Dead Zone, Christine, Return of the Living Dead, Creepshow, Angel Heart, The Howling, Night of the Creeps, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Gothic, An American Werewolf in London, Prince of Darkness, Poltergeist, Pumpkinhead, Aliens, Possession, House, Dead & Buried, Child's Play, Phantasm II, Waxwork, Society, The Beast Within, The Shining, Dead Ringers, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Anguish.

    This is an incomplete list.

    " Things ain't changed a damn bit. "

    I beg to disagree.

  • Steve C. | April 20, 2012 2:48 PMReply

    The '80s? As in the decade that saw the ascent of the slasher movie, the hidebound dreadfully dull genre that is in fact the main target of CABIN IN THE WOODS? Horror in the '80s was pretty lousy too a lot of the time. For every THE FLY, there were three or four rock-stupid films like THE PROWLER, films whose only appeal was how numerous and creative the kill scenes were. Things ain't changed a damn bit. There was more dross than treasure then and now. There's still good horror films out there if you care to go looking for them. (Glass Eye Pix, for instance, has done a lot of good work in recent years.)

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