When wicked bureaucracy and monstrous evil conjoin–“The Cabin in the Woods”

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?

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10 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Other than literary days....

10 responses to “When wicked bureaucracy and monstrous evil conjoin–“The Cabin in the Woods”

  1. As a matter of fact I have seen it because I have become a Joss Whedon addict recently and will watch anything he does. So some familiarity with Whedon helps a lot. He’s is the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most intelligent and darkest TV series ever (which I only just found out, I always thought it’s trash). The end is typical Whedon end. There is always an apocalypse or other. The movie is called mash up and as such I think it woked very well because it really is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster with so many different things taken from different other movies. It’s like a parody and a reinvention of the genre. Last but not least, everything in he Whedon universe is about story telling and that worked well too. The idea that they choose their own way of dying is quite a good idea especially since we later see all the other options which all would have been another story.

  2. Just so there is no confusion. Whedon write the script, he isn’t the director of this.

    • Well, there you go! So really, my problem is that I’m basically unacquainted with the many things Whedon put in the mashup, as you call it. My problem is that (as I sort of thought) I’m undereducated in the horror genre. I do absolutely love the “Firefly” series, though, and the spin-off movie “Serenity,” both of which I bought in DVD form, and both of which I understand Whedon had some connection with. I guess I don’t go much for scary stuff, but I do like some science fiction and lots of fantasy. Haven’t read either of those for a while, though, since I’ve been doing mainly the “mainstream” literary genre. I have, however, been taking notes from your site and others (notably “Shelf Love”) for entertaining fantasy and etc. reads. Thanks for commenting at such helpful length on the movie. There’s nothing to make a person feel dissatisfied more quickly than feeling left out of a joke or reference system.

      • Firefly and Serenity are series he created yes, they were the foloow ups to Buffy and Angel. I haven’t seen them yet.
        I’m really not that familiar with horror either, it’s not my genre but I’ve seen one or two more recent ones which did reference older ones and read a review or two. It’s often the case that the people who have sex in a horro movie will die while the others stay alive.

  3. Have not seen it, though it got some attention due to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) being in it while the Avengers movie was going great guns.

    The one good thing I always hear about Joss Whedon’s writing is that the characters are always three-dimensional, and have natural interactions with each other. Nothing seems forced, which is a very good thing to be able to do in film and/or writing.

    • Yes, I can see Joss Whedon as a true writing force to be reckoned with, and you’re right at least about the Whedon I am familiar with (“Firefly” and “Serenity”), the characters are well-done, three-dimensional, natural, and generally quite humorous, each in his or her own way. I guess I’m just not much of a horror film fan. But I tried.

      • I just got this movie from NetFlix, so am going to wait to read your post! interesting coincidence. I got it on the recommendation of a twentysomething friend of my daughter’s. It’s not my usual fare.

  4. Not my usual fare either, Richard, but I’m told by my other commenters that you get more out of it if you see it as a Joss Whedon “mashup” (I have understood that to mean travesty or parody). All the best.

    • Having just seen it, my first horror movie in many a year, I agree with your take on it, Victoria. It would have been so much better if the pothead had sacrificed himself and saved the world. Somehow it would have justified the whole nihilistic enterprise, but I suppose it says a lot, about something, that he didn’t.

      • Yes, I think his failure to step forth lessened him from the basically oddly heroic character we’d come to expect and made the whole thing actually a lot more nihilistic, to borrow your word.

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