Poster from Alamo Drafthouse
Reviews and essays abound for Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon's Cabin In The Woods. Some compare Cabin to Scream while others are convinced that Cabin exceeds Scream as a post-modern text. We belong to the latter camp. If you haven't seen Cabin then you shouldn't be looking at reviews so long after the the film's release.
In 1996 Wes Craven along with a brilliantly written script by Kevin Williamson breathed new life into the slasher film. They took all of the archetypical constructs of the slasher sub-genre and directly exposed them to the audiences while staying within the confines of the genre. This was not new, parodies had done this in the past, but Scream kept a straight face and managed to produce fear. Spoof and parody of horror has been around since the days of Abbot & Costello, but more direct to our discussion is the 1982 classic Student Bodies. Made in the midst of the early 80's slasher boom, Student Bodies, features a literal onscreen body count, a wheezy phone prankster, a weapon of choice sequence (a'la Argento's giallo films), point of view kills, & a convoluted ending/jump scare. Student Bodies played up the comedy and was never meant to be taken seriously. Another precursor to the post modern slasher can be seen in Fred Walton's 1986 April Fools Day, known ultimately as the film that ended the slasher cycle. April Fools Day plays out with all the same tropes as earlier films in the cycle and does not go directly for humor (indirectly it is there through poor production). Instead, the film itself is a joke played on the audience. When we arrive at the final reel it is revealed that no one has died, they have all played an elaborate choose your adventure slasher game. If Cabin needs to be compared it comes closer to the post modernism of April Fools Day rather than Scream.
If art describes the modernist movement as the search for universal truth, than the logical evolution would be the deconstruction of those truths. Post-modernism works to exaggerate and replicate earlier art to find new meanings or to destroy earlier preconceived notions. Often the use of pastiche, collage, or spoof are methods toward post modernism. In film there is also literal or homage intertexuality. Scream is home to both, whereas Cabin plays toward homage. The characters in Scream know horror films & they constantly cite genre titles. The irony is that they are living in one. Whedon's script does not rely on literal film language, instead his layered plotline is geared to the intellectual horror fan. For those of us indoctrinated into the genre we know there are homages to Evil Dead, Hellraiser, The Strangers, Corman creatures, Zombies, and countless others. Even though the film is rife with reference never does anyone say, “its like we're in some Sam Raimi film.” Even the stereotypes normally found within the slasher film are present, but through manipulation they are transformed into the whore, the fool, the athlete, the scholar, and the virgin. There are plenty of interpretations of Cabin's plot because of its layered design.
We begin with a couple of middle-management types going to work talking nonchalantly about their weekend plans. A sequence normal enough to the realm of drama or comedy, but unsettling in the slasher genre. We then turn to our group of college friends and our worries are laid to rest. They are going on a weekend trip. We know this story. At this point we understand there will be some inane banter that will hopefully allow us to care about the characters long enough to fear for them and in turn mourn their demise. We know a moral compass will emerge from the group and during our final sequence we will switch our perspective respectfully from the killer/monster to the heroine “virgin” of the group. We also know the prophet of doom will attempt to save them, but through misguided fear and machismo our characters will remain stubborn to their plan. There will be sex, drug use, and incomprehensible reactions to dire situations. Whedon knows the genre and all of these elements are present, it is the controllers that take us out of our lovingly predictable slasher plot.
Richard Jenkins and Bradly Whitford are our controllers, they act as the writer and director of the film we are watching. In interviews Whedon has said that Richard and Bradly are representative of Drew and himself. Tiny bits of plot are released here and there. We learn the prophet of doom is one of their employees and the group is under complete surveillance. Later the controllers' role is made clear, their mission is to place our group into a horrific situation and watch them die. By the end their motives are very clear. Each sector stages an event similar to this one (there are multiple events in case one or more fail) that will sacrifice these Jungian archetypes to appease the dark lords/ancient ones. If they all fail then the dark lords return. Dana (the virgin) and Marty (the fool) survive the terror of the undead redneck family and make their way into the control station. On their voyage through the rabbit hole they see a smorgasbord of evil entities. Horror fans rejoice at naming all the homaged villains. At this point they have realized their weekend was set up. A division of the audience occurs here – the ones satisfied by current mainstream trends and those who are fed up with the recycling of past fictions. The intellectual audience that Cabin caters to is represented by our survivors. Mainstream Hollywood are the controllers. The director of operations acts as a producer of the “film” the kids are in.
We see in the control room that each section has failed. We can posit that foreign horror surpasses US horror. A failed event means the group under attack was more intelligent than the controllers. The subtext here implies that foreign markets are quicker to shed themselves of easily predictable plotlines. On the monitors we see a typical J-horror scenario a'la Ringu or The Grudge and the kids defeat the evil spirit quickly and thus fail the event but win in terms of evolutionary horror. This is Whedon/Goddard's main thesis on horror and mainstream cinema. Through repetition audiences seem sated and the dark lords are kept at bay, but by freeing the dark lords we open the doors to the truly great cinema that studios believe is unprofitable.
The in-depth analysis of current cinema culture is not spelled out in hip citations or a direct violation of the fourth wall, instead these ideas reside right below the film's surface. Cabin is not an inter-textual meta-pop horror film, it's post-modern status is a result of in-the-know horror consumers. If this was your first foray into horror, the subtext and homage would be lost on you. Whereas if Scream were your first, the name dropping of other horror titles would immediately signal the post modern style and consequently enable you to believe yourself to be a slasher connoisseur after your first viewing. Without Cabin's grand themes, layers, and subtext it is easy to spot the voyeurism and torture that inhabit the main plotline. This scopophilia is inherit to all post Blair Witch horror. It may have originated with Hitchcock's Rear Window or Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, but it is in full force with today’s found footage/mockumentary horror movement. We are a culture that loves to watch, weather it be torture videos from the middle east or the cheaply produced reality shows that have filled the network time slots. We love a manipulated showcase of hyper-reality and it is our desire that pays for the staged events in Cabin In The Woods. Even if the events themselves are created to sate the dark lords or the numbed mainstream audience those events are given to the public to be consumed and therefore pay for another event to occur. This is the cycle of horror, and ultimately, the cycle of every consumer fetish that dreads change or progress. Thus Cabin's true goal is to show you the difference between innovation and invention. While there will be mainstream consumers that will walk away from Cabin thinking the ending to be bleak and nihilistic there will be the inventors of progress that will see it as hopeful and uplifting. What camp are you?