Friday, April 20, 2012

The title of this post contains spoilers

Do you think you're ready to read the real title of this post?

Then answer me this: Have you seen The Cabin in the Woods yet?

The real title of this post is not "The title of this post contains spoilers." But I can't reveal the real title at the top of the page, because that would probably reveal a key secret about the movie.

You have been warned: I am going to discuss this movie in detail. I'm not only going to spoil it, but I'm going to discuss it down to the very last shot.

So I'm going to write a lengthy preamble, in order to give you fair warning in case you haven't seen it. (It's been out for less of a week, so I suspect many of my readers have not.) In fact, I suspect you will get tired of this preamble long before I've finished writing it. Hey, what can I say. I have to take into consideration various sizes of monitor, and how much of the screen you are likely to see just by surfing over to my site. And are there vertical monitors? Maybe there are. If you have a vertical monitor, you might as well just stop reading now.

Is this enough? Have I written enough yet? Maybe I should make the poster bigger.

Okay, I think that's enough.

Wait, one more paragraph and one more line break.

There. You gone now?

Horror wrapped inside sci-fi wrapped inside fantasy

You've heard the old adage "A riddle wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside an enigma," right? (I looked up the actual quote and it's "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," but I like this better.)

That's essentially what The Cabin in the Woods is. It is constantly forcing you to reassess your genre assumptions, and that is most assuredly a fun and exciting thing.

The fact that you shouldn't know much about this movie before going in has been much ballyhooed. Unfortunately, I knew more than I was bargaining for simply by seeing a couple scattered images, which featured some kind of high-tech control room. Those carelessly distributed images were enough to ruin one of the key surprises for me: namely, that these horny teenagers (what other kind are there) are not just going off for a run-of-the-mill weekend in the woods. They're the subjects in some kind of vicious and nasty experiment, a la Cube or Saw.

The thing is, one of my first surprises while watching was that this movie is not actually trying to keep that fact from you.

In fact, the first two characters you meet are the ones played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, two of the supervisors of this particular experiment. Scenes of them are intercut with scenes of the teenagers right from the start. You may not know exactly how they relate, but their existence from the starting gun means that you can't really call it a twist, either.

No, the twist comes later. But it's not really a twist, either, because it kind of seeps in. It's not revealed in one shocking moment where the curtain is pulled away with the accompaniment of a crescendo in the score. It is presented matter-of-factly, but it's a surprise nonetheless.

Yes, this experiment -- more accurately defined as a ritual -- is being performed to keep at bay a number of subterranean giants, who will destroy the earth if the ritual killing of teenagers is not performed entirely to their satisfaction.

And to do that, the familiar tropes of most horror films -- which include the virgin girl dying last, if she dies at all -- must be performed in a precise sequence.


Yeah, this movie is goofy -- but in all the right ways.

I don't think we should be surprised at the deconstructive nature of this movie, given that Joss Whedon is a writer-producer and the writer-director, Drew Goddard, wrote Cloverfield and a number of episodes of Lost.

In fact, given Goddard's background in particular, maybe The Cabin in the Woods should not be very surprising to us at all.

See, Lost in particular can easily be seen as a model for this movie. The parallels are obvious. Both Lost and The Cabin in the Woods have a surface level thing they're most obviously about, and it's nothing we haven't seen before: survivors of a plane crash try to get rescued, teenagers visit a cabin in the woods that has a disturbing secret. Then both things shift out a level, where it's clear that the setting is not entirely what it seems -- there are (or were) people behind the scenes, watching them, experimenting on them in some way that is not yet clear, from mysterious control rooms governed by mysterious codes and rules. Then both things shift out another level, leaving that science fiction realm and becoming pure fantasy. The island is really governed by age-old beings who embody such broad concepts as good and evil, and the earth is really ruled by giant creatures who live underground, entirely hidden from the awareness of the average human being.

It's that mixture of sci-fi and fantasy that really throws a person for a loop.

While sci-fi and fantasy may be kissing cousins in some ways, they rarely overlap. Simply put, dragons never appear in movies about computers, and computers never appear in movies about dragons. Oh, there are of course exceptions, but for the most part, these rules are sound. Both genres portray things that don't exist, but science fiction typically portrays things that could exist, while fantasy does not.

And so that's what's supposed to blow your mind about The Cabin of the Woods. You think you're in a horror, but you're really in a science fiction movie. Then, you think you're in a science fiction movie, but you're really in a fantasy. And along the way it's tons of fun, and incredibly funny as well. So does that mean you're also in a comedy?

In what I thought was also a spoiler, a friend of mine told me to think of it like I'd think of Army of Darkness, the third Evil Dead movie. Having now seen The Cabin in the Woods, I realize that a) this was not a spoiler, as he assured me, and b) he's right. Army of Darkness doesn't have the intermediary science fiction level, but it definitely pulls the rug out from under you by going from straight horror to pretty much straight fantasy. If you want to be really technical, that genre shift probably actually occurs between the end of Evil Dead 2 and the beginning of Army of Darkness, but the effect is the same.

Of course, it wouldn't be a true exercise in deconstruction without there being plenty of metaphors at play here about the process of making movies in general.

Clearly, The Cabin in the Woods has fun with the idea that horror movies subscribe to certain formulas, which are pretty darn predictable. In fact, there's that great scene where everyone is betting on which adversary will be chosen to dispatch our horny teenagers. It ends up being a family of zombies, despite the sentimental desire of Whitford's character that a merman would one day emerge as the killer. Really, a merman? Yes, really.

Perhaps my favorite scene, the one that gave me the greatest thrill, was also the scene that reminded me most of Cube. In this scene, the stoner and the virgin find themselves inside an elevator-size chamber that's part of a series of moving chambers that resemble a Rubik's Cube. Each other chamber is filled with some kind of nasty creature -- a wolf, a giant snake, a man with saw blades jutting out of head. The list is pretty much endless, as there seem to be hundreds of these chambers moving and shifting in the Rubik's Cube. It's again a comment on the idea that all horror movies are essentially the same -- what distinguishes them is what kind of nasty creature is chosen to do the killing.

But the most interesting commentary may come at the very end, when the ritual fails for the last time -- hilariously, the life of a stoner, who smokes a bong while driving his car, is prized above the lives of everyone else on the planet. (Incidentally, I love how the stoner character is used in this movie. First, he's the comic relief. Then he's the only one who seems to really know what's going on. Then he's the action hero. And finally, it's because of him that the entire earth is destroyed.)

So rubble starts to fall from the sky, and the final two characters have this kind of conversation that indicates that yeah, they pretty much know this is it. In keeping with the movie's wonderful tone, though, they are not sad or scared, they are just humorously resigned to the fact that this gigantic mindfuck they've been involved in is going to resolve itself in the worst possible way.

And in the last shot, a giant hand -- a giant human hand -- bursts out of the ground where they were sitting. Presumably killing them, but we'll see how well the movie does -- there could be sequels. Though I have to say, if there's any movie that would seem immune to the possibility of a sequel, it's this one. A prequel, maybe.

In their last piece of commentary before the credits roll, Goddard and Whedon give a justification of sorts for their entire movie. There's a reason the hand that bursts out of the ground is human -- it symbolizes the audience. And the audience is tired of this same ritual, in which a series of horny teenagers die, save the virgin who must emerge victorious at the end in order to let us leave the theater without feeling depressed. The audience is rising up and "destroying the world" -- "the world" in this case being all our assumptions about how horror movies are conceived and made. And in a way, that's what Goddard and Whedon are doing here -- they are subverting everything we know and expect about horror with the violence of a giant first bursting out of the ground. And hopefully making a better movie as a result.

Did they succeed? I'd like to hear what you think. After all, if you've read to this point, you've surely seen the movie. I can't say I didn't warn you not to read unless you had.

In the final analysis, you might even say that Goddard and Whedon are subverting the very idea of the twist, possibly the most cliched element in horror movies or any kind of supernatural movies that have been made since M. Night Shyamalan made The Sixth Sense. Much has been made about how this movie contains a twist. But it actually kind of has two twists, neither of which are played like a twist is traditionally played. One twist appears right at the beginning, even before the main story that is supposedly being twisted. And one comes along almost casually, revealed through a fairly banal piece of dialogue late in the second or early in the third act.

So yeah, I'm glad I didn't know much about The Cabin in the Woods Inside a Dome Above a Bunch of Slumbering Giants.

But I think I still would have dug it a heckuva lot even if I had, and perhaps that's the film's greatest triumph.


Monty Burns said...

Good review, Vance. I agree with everything, but have a more literal take on the ending. I can see how the ending might comment on the horror genre, either 'killing it' or, killing it as it now is, so that it can be reborn anew (I like this one better).

I chose to take the ending as only commenting on the action of the film itself. The stoner and the virgin chose to stop the cycle of violence. They decided that 'saving' a species that would actively kill their own innocent young, is not the right thing to do. Humans since time forgotten have placated the ancient ones by murdering their own young. The fool and the virgin decide that we as a species are not worth saving, if we must become what we beheld in order to be saved. The brilliant use of "last" by NIN in the closing credits illustrates this. "This was not meant to last, this is for right now". Enjoy life, and be good to each other, because life is short. Selling out your morals to live a little longer, is no life at all.

I think the deconstructing happens in the 'rules' of slasher movies, and how they are explained as ritual, as well as the awesome third act with all the typical horror baddies going nuts on the humans who would use them against innocents.

Loved this movie, it works on surface, meta, spiritual, and commentary levels, and it's just a fun and funny thing to sit and watch, too.

keep up the good work, Vance.

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