Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tell Me Why I'm Scared

This piece contains spoilers for The Cabin in the Woods.

I saw The Cabin in the Woods under the best of intentions, albeit not in the exact circumstances that might be the satisfaction of many a reader. So insistent was the secrecy surrounding this movie that some critics seemed to get actively angry at the idea that someone could go in knowing anything, so I'm sorry if I'm disappointing you in saying that, yes, I did know in some vague sense that the movie was about Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford manipulating the events surrounding five college students' venture into the woods. But if the best thing you can say about a movie is "I didn't know anything about it before seeing it," that ain't much of a movie, now is it?

As this is the very model of a modern major crowd pleaser, I was quite happy that the screening room was jam-packed (a benefit of having access to industry screenings is that, even a month after a film's release, you still have a way to see it with a crowd), and geared they were. I've complained in the past about people talking during movies, but there are few more distinct joys than someone behind you whispering "go to the van, go to the van, go to the van," externalizing the tension inside every audience member. And as a guy who only sees a couple of horror films every year, I found the terror in The Cabin in the Woods plenty engaging, though it admittedly lacked the staying, I-can't-go-to-sleep-tonight power of more resonant, mysterious works. Perhaps it's just me, but I've never been scared of a defined threat in films, and as this film's undead-redneck-pain-worshippers (first), and bevy of monster-movie standbys (later), were very easy to define, I didn't find the film all that unnerving.

But then that's not really the point, is it(?). Like a great many modern, almost-clever pieces of popular entertainment, it seems like The Cabin in the Woods is first and foremost about genre deconstruction, a genre unto itself that I approach warily. Even Community, a show I adore and which takes a hatchet everything from horror to sci-fi to action to serialized television to the sitcom to, in many ways, itself, tries my patience from time to time. The Cabin in the Woods is not merely about a cabin, the woods, and the five stock teenage types who visit it, but also a mysterious organization who sets up the whole affair to appease "the ancient ones." Yup yup. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford predictably steal the show as two engineers who construct and maintain a vast board game in which the previously-mentioned teenagers visit the titular habitat only to be killed off in some horrible fashion of their own accidental determination, and it's all a big allegory for the way we consume mechanically-constructed entertainment. Which is kind of like saying "hey, we couldn't construct our own engaging piece of entertainment, so here's a kick in the balls for enjoying all those others movies."

Now, when the kick is delivered with some measure of glee or malice, I can kind of get behind it. I'm a big fan of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which takes almost perverse delight in playing with audiences expectations and desires, but The Cabin in the Woods isn't quite as smart as its admirers posit it to be. It presents the material very literally, and as it goes on, becomes increasingly concerned with the mythological underpinnings behind the need to kill - nay, sacrifice - these teens in so theatrical a fashion. This is met head-on by the most enjoyable part of the film, in which movie monsters of all stripes, which the firm keeps in stock in case a given batch of teens unleash them (a collection of trinkets are left at the house, and whichever one the group engages will determine the eventual threat), are unleashed on the facility, creating a very literal bloodbath. It's a joy, but it is soon mitigated when it turns out this whole exercise was just an exploration of a genre lover's fan fiction, a much more elaborate version of "where does he get those wonderful toys?"

While the idea of an organization that sets up the premise of a vast quantity of horror movies is intriguing, the actual workings of it is considerably less so, and too much of the time spent in the bunker is devoted to exposition, courtesy (narrative-wise) of a new security man who apparently had no idea what goes on when he signed up for the job. So if you didn't find your own employee orientation all that electrifying, I can't imagine what appeal these sections held. Co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also directs) have been praised for their very smart screenplay, and I only wish they held the same opinion of the audience's intelligence as they do of their own. As much as they scramble to cover every empty base, questions still remain - it's said (by...someone) that the young people not only have to die to appease "the ancient ones," but must also suffer. So...THIS is the scenario they concoct? Of all the ways to make someone suffer, they build an elaborate facility with an old house on top of it, stock it with monsters, who are then unleashed according to the actions of the victims? Couldn't they just take over a hostel or something and beat the kids with a lead pipe?

And I know, I know - that's not the point. But then why do Whedon and Goddard spend so much time making that the point? If the point is to undermine genre conventions, just do that. Don't build up an elaborate, meaningless mythology surrounding "ancient ones," tack on some cheap philosophy about how the world needs to end and be rebuilt, and call it good.

The Cabin in the Woods is actually a pretty decent movie, insofar as it's a boatload of fun to watch and when those dozens of monsters are unleashed, it's really a treat, but it also represents everything that is reprehensible about modern mainstream cinema - the need to build a "world," and make sure that all your notes on this world end up in the screenplay so everybody knows you thought this shit out man. There's no confidence in this approach, no bravado, and worst of all, it's just bad cinema to have someone sit characters down and explain the damn thing to them. It's every part of every Charles Dickens story where he just describes the room people are in because he was getting paid by the word. I know many complained about the stock horror-movie aspect, in which the teens are dispatched in relatively predictable patterns (save for jock Chris Hemsworth's glorious, hilarious death), but at least that was a movie.

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