My last post kicked off the Halloween season with what I regarded as an appropriately frightening tale, A. S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest.” Nevertheless, a friend of mine said, “Yes, it’s a good post, but it’s not about something like a true horror book or movie. Why don’t you let your hair down and write about something that’s just-for-fun scary and not about so serious a set of moral points?” So, warning my readers ahead of time with a “spoiler alert” (I will be giving away the end of the movie), I’ve undertaken to write a shorter post than usual on “The Cabin in the Woods.”
This post is probably going to be one of the shortest I’ve ever written, for the simple reason that though I am moderately well-trained in other areas of theater, I’ve never taken a film course or been more than a casual film buff. Generally, I respond to movies through their plot devices, character sketches, and most obvious symbolism, as if they were stories written down on the page. Thus, I claim no special status in my remarks about a recent horror-film-with-a-difference which I’ve seen, though I’m proud of myself for even attempting to write down a few observations on the movie.
When a friend of mine who is as clueless as I am about horror films read the blurb on the back of the DVD, she was persuaded that this was a genuinely funny movie, one which two horror film cowards could view with the assurance that they would laugh their way through whatever silly shadows cast by ghostly hands might appear. After all, the blurb said something about a group of producers/directors who are behind the scenes of a scary encounter in a “haunted” house, set up apparently to pull a joke on unsuspecting visitors to/buyers of the property. This, we felt, was going to be good.
Once we started actually watching, there were a few moments of mild humor of a sophomoric sort, but the wittiest rejoinders were always delivered by an engaging pothead who was one of a group of five young people on their way to the cabin for a vacation in the woods. If there had been enough humor in the movie, it would’ve worked better, or if the pothead had had more lines and been less in the shadows of the action, it might’ve been a better movie. Or maybe given my rank amateur status as a viewer of this kind of film, I have no right to complain. But I have seen movies which were both scary and extremely clever and artistic with their humor, such as “The Shining” (“Hi, honey, I’m home!”) and “An American Werewolf in London” (the dialogues with the friend who comes back from the dead, and the main character waking up in the wolves’ cage at the zoo) and I was perhaps spoiled for something as full of the one-trick pony joke as “The Cabin in the Woods” from the start. The joke appears to be that while the adventurous, heroic characters are to be killed off, the inaptly named “virgin” and the pothead are meant to survive, at least to the end of the film, after having been apparently killed off more than once. (I’ve commented on humor plus horror as a workable combination in plays, films, and books before, in my post of August 20, 2012 entitled “‘What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade/Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade?’–Alexander Pope”.)
The best dramatic parts of the film are the sections when the producers/directors of the putative “reality tv show” appear, as it gradually becomes apparent that they are more than they seem: the dramatic tension, such as it is, builds and is invested in watching them trying to kill off the characters. But a large part of the dramatic tension is lost when it becomes apparent that they really are “out for blood,” and suddenly the movie becomes just another horror film in a list of many, and one feels it’s probably not one of the best.
One of the most effective qualities of the filming which I feel I can responsibly comment on (as a person largely disinclined to watch horror films) is the extreme darkness of the scenes. It’s effective in the scenes shot in the woods at night and in the cabin not solely because of any obligation to a supposed realism, but because as Henry James reminded us in writing about his “potboiler” “The Turn of the Screw,” using the reader’s (or viewer’s) mind to half-invent the horrors you want to portray is at least half the battle. The zombies are very bumpy and reddish-black and messy and not backlit, which helps more than actual pale faces and drooping, stained features would have. And by the time “all hell breaks loose” and all the other fantastic monsters and so forth appear, one is more or less preoccupied solely with watching the two surviving characters try to keep their heads above water (and there is a water scene) amidst what seem like incredible odds.
The end of the movie, with the two surviving characters sharing a joint while the world ends, is engaging, but not really believable on some subconscious “okay, I’ve seen all this horror, now deliver the chilling punchline about how some trace of evil has managed to survive” or conversely “now everything’s all right again and we can all draw a sigh of relief” level. As noted before, I’m not an expert on horror films, but the utter devastation in the final scene and the sort of shoulder shrug response of “oh well, let’s just get high and forget about it” is mysteriously unsatisfying, though certainly one has to admit there is a certain justice in the two characters quietly enjoying a joint and accepting that the challenge has been too much for them.
This is about where I stand on the movie “The Cabin in the Woods,” though I am interested in hearing what those with either more film experience or more experience of horror films in particular have to say: basically, I think the most innovative and creative part of the whole movie is its premise, its main idea, that is, that some group of competitive, driven button pushers somewhere is sitting on the powder keg of hell and keeping it under control, and yet that they have constantly to function within the idea of an “acceptable loss margin,” which consists of other people. Have you seen the movie? What do you think?