Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Stray Thoughts: The Cabin in the Woods

Mutually-assured Deconstruction

Ahoy, maties! This article is directed at people who have seen Cabin in the Woods. If you haven't, this article is not for you as it is a place of spoilers and detailed analysis. However, I assure you that it's a highly enjoyable experience and is worthy of anybody's time. It's a film best viewed blind, so I will elaborate no more. Everyone else, continue on. Ahrrrrr!

Critical and audience reception to Cabin in the Woods has been mostly enthusiastic, and with good cause. Rare is the mainstream American film tries this hard, and succeeds so wholeheartedly. It's an absolute pleasure watching a film that giddily homages and deconstructs an entire genre, while also crafting a highly enjoyable narrative and lore of its own. What propels Cabin in the Woods in the direction of greatness is how cine-literate it is: its understanding of what exactly makes the horror genre so endearing, and what it is that provokes audiences (or, in this case, the Ancient Gods who lurk beneath the Earth) to bay for the blood of careless innocent in predictable ways. It's a smart film that has much to offer a wide and diverse audience. It's a film that faces the unenviable position of being nearly impossible to market: a film that is built upon surprise and the unexpected.

Yet one criticism of the film frequently rears its head in discussion of the film: that it isn't scary enough. A quick glance at any review aggregator or forum thread will throw up a sizable minority making that particular claim. Now I'm not one to dismiss the opinion of others, but this complaint to me seems inaccurate and somewhat unfair. Not because I don't think the film isn't scary: bar a few well-judged jump scares (especially the inspired title reveal at the beginning), I certainly agree that it isn't particularly scary. But what's important is that the film isn't meant to be scary in the first place.

What we're dealing with here is straight up parody, and arguably the most confident of recent times. It's closer in tone to Airplane than it is to The Descent or The Exorcist. While CitW undeniably bears all the iconography and generic traits of a horror film, it dismantles and deconstructs them with such giddy force that it quickly becomes obvious that this is a comedy, first and foremost. After all, almost every potentially 'scary' moment is either preceded or proceeded by a scene that explicitly plays up the absurdity of the situation. Never is this more obvious than the sequences featuring The Harbringer: where the old horror trope of the manic hillbilly petrol station owner is exaggerated at length for well-deserved laughs. It's seen again and again throughout the film: formula distorted for maximum comic value. Evil Dead 2 is the closest comparison (above even CitW's most obviously deconstructive predecessor Scream): a 'horror' film so blatantly absurd that even the filmmakers are aware they can't take it seriously.

I feel a bit odd defending a film for being a comedy. But to me it's unfair for a film to be so heavily and frequently criticised for what it clearly is not rather than what it is. There are more accurate ways to critique Cabin in the Woods: indeed, the opinion that it's not funny is one that I think is a much more appropriate claim, even if I don't agree with it. It's hardly a perfect film - the CGI, for example, leaves a lot to be desired during it's more hectic moments of monster madness. Yet I don't think it's entirely fair to the filmmakers to dismiss it due to its perceived failings as a traditionally scary film. To me, that is not at all what Cabin in the Woods is. And there's a plethora of entertainment to be found outside the laughs anyway: I took great pleasure in the way the film drip feeds information to the audience concerning the 'grander scheme' in the film's opening half. The unexpected direction it takes in its third act is a subversive joy, and overall it's a strongly directed, written and acted piece. What else would one expect from Joss Whedon and Drew Godard, anyway?

I digress. For me, where CitW undoubtedly succeeds is as a satire. The good name of satire has been sullied somewhat in recent years by the emergence of the likes of Scary Movies and its many, many spin-offs: a series where attempts at insightful genre commentary are replaced by a parade of lazy pop culture references that barely qualify as jokes. CitW is, on the other hand, a film that has a love and knowledge of its target genre embedded in every single frame. It's a merciless deconstruction of countless films, yet its the clear affection for the very same films that makes it so compelling. It goes one step further by having the satire determine the overarching narrative, too. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are avatars for the filmmakers, while even we the audience have a role to play as the angry gods who demand formulaic bloodshed and gratuitous nudity. If ever there was a meta-film, this is it (a fact that has led to a few complaints that the film is 'too clever for its own good': a criticism that again seems to be stretching it somewhat).

As a comedy, Cabin in the Woods is perhaps the strongest in years: one where the laughs are deeply engrained in the narrative rather than a series of loosely connected one-liners (not that the one-liners here won't give you a husband's bulge). Most importantly, the film ends on a giddy punchline. With horror franchises known for their countless sequels, the fact that Cabin in the Woods ends on a rather definitive and apocalyptic note (even if the CGI struggles to render it convincingly) is as suitable a conclusion to this tale as one could hope for. Unless they expand the very amusing 'Happy Frog' scenario (and I wouldn't be entirely adverse to that), Cabin on the Woods concludes with a full-stop rather than the usual ellipsis. To me, that's a brilliant final punchline in a film that's absolutely full of them.

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