‘Cabin in the Woods’ takes horror self-awareness to new depths
Written by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Directed by Drew Goddard
2011, USA, imdb
Do you like scary movies? – Scream
Yes. God help me, yes I do.
The first time that I saw horror films deconstructed, it wasn’t by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson in Scream, it was by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in their infamous late October 1980 “Women in Danger” Sneak Previews special. Horror fans (especially those old enough to remember the episode) have a love/hate/hate relationship with the episode. On one hand, in 1980, while not as famous as they were to become, Ebert and Siskel were already the most popular film critics in the world, and while they were not fans of the slasher genre, Ebert and Siskel at least took the films seriously enough to criticize them.
On the other hand, for many horror fans that criticism – especially by Siskel – was just so mean. While Siskel and Ebert railed against the entire slasher genre, in the process dropping the names of films that they hadn’t even seen yet and would go on to like, mainly The Howling, they also praised Halloween as a great film.
Halloween is directed and acted with more artistry and craftsmanship than the sleaze films that we have been talking about. As you watch Halloween, your basic sympathies are enlisted on the side of the woman, not with the killer. The movie develops its women as independent, intelligent, spunky and interesting people. Halloween does not hate women. … Artistry can redeem any subject matter.
While it can certainly be argued that Ebert and Siskel missed the boat when they labelled I Spit On Your Grave as, “easily the worst of this bunch,” the main thrust of their argument is that most of the slasher films, especially Friday the 13th, were terrible, an argument I can certainly agree with now and did then.
On the gripping hand, what really grabbed my attention in 1980 was the way that Ebert and Siskel made a value judgement out of the films’ point of view. Describing a scene from Friday the 13th…
Now that scene demonstrates a very common and probably very significant technique that’s used again and again in these films. We view a scene through the eyes of the killer. You never saw the driver in that last scene. Instead, you saw everything through the driver’s eyes. Now, in the traditional horror movie, we often saw things from the victim’s point of view, but that’s no longer. Now we look through the killer’s eyes. It’s almost as if the audience is being asked to identify with the attackers in these movies and that really bothers me.
I had just become a teenager the summer of 1980. Video stores were starting to open. While no one I knew actually owned a VHS or Beta, by pooling money together with my friends, it was possible to rent a machine for a weekend. To justify the expense, film marathons were almost mandatory.
As I watched more horror films good, bad and wretched, I began to see that in addition to films that identified with the victims like Halloween and films that identified with the killer like Friday the 13th, there were films where the killer was also a victim like An American Werewolf in London and, most complicated of all, films where the killer was also a voyeur, like in Psycho, films that didn’t just ask us to identify with the killer, but made us accomplices, complicit in the killer’s gaze that mimics our own.
There’s a sequence in Psycho after Marion Crane has been killed, when Norman Bates, desperate to clean up any trace of the murder, rolls her car into the swamp behind the motel. The white car sinks until it is 75% submerged and then stops, exposed, half-way between concealment and discovery. It is only when the car gurgles and disappears that you realize that, like the car, you were holding your breath and Hitchcock has made you Norman’s silent accessory.
The Cabin in the Woods is a slasher film about five university students who head to the country for a weekend of debauchery and find themselves falling into behaviour that is simultaneously stereotypical and archetypical.
Like Scream, it is a self-aware slasher film, but where Scream was happy simply to turn the genre’s bloody glove inside out and examine the stitching, The Cabin in the Woods has more complicated ambitions. If Scream is a bloody glove turned inside out, then The Cabin in the Woods is a Russian nesting doll described by H. P. Lovecraft and carved by M. C. Escher.
Like Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, The Cabin of the Woods isn’t just about killing, it is about watching (and filming) killing. Our sympathies are torn between the victims being watched and the watchers, including an action sequence modelled loosely on the Psycho car burial. What is perhaps most horrifying is that the watchers are almost bored, like a tired teen yawning while slipping the last film from a horror marathon into the VHS deck.
This is a film informed by weekend film marathons almost to its own detriment. The film is so crammed with film quotes that there comes a point in the final reel when the quotes literally threaten to take over the film. While the film rights itself for the climax, it is a film so steeped in such specific film geekery that the more horror films that you have seen, the more you will enjoy the film.
This is like a final exam for fanboys.
What ultimately redeems The Cabin in the Woods is that it is a horror film that asks important questions. (Many of the same questions that Ebert and Siskel were asking with Women in Danger.) If Scream was interested in exploring What (What are the rules of a slasher film?), than The Cabin in the Woods wants to know Why?
Why do we pigeon-hole young women into virgins and sluts? Why do we stereotype young men into athletic studs, intellectual nerds and comedic fools? Why are their rules to slasher films? Why slasher films at all? Why do we slaughter so many young people on film?
“Because you’re young,” says one of the watchers late in the film. The response is both true and unsatisfying, begging the impossible to answer follow-up question hanging in the air…
Why do we watch the bloody sacrifice?
I can’t answer that question. I doubt that anyone can. All I can say is that this Cabin is one bloody sacrifice that you should watch, that you need to watch.