(The following review is by Scott Jones. Scott is a writer, poet, and spoken word artist from Victoria, BC. He’s the author of the short story collection SOFT FROM ALL THE BLOOD, available now from Martian Migraine Press. A new collection, THE ECDYSIASTS, will be released in May. You can follow him on the twitter @PimpMyShoggoth)
The long-held understanding that horror films serve a complex series of base human drives is lovingly exploited in Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods. This is a brilliant film on a lot of levels, and though on the surface an affectionate send-up of the genre, it is actually a fairly serious film. The Cabin In The Woods raises great questions: in a rational age, where do we keep our monsters? Why? What purpose does keeping them serve?
Or is it the other way around? Are we truly the keepers, confident holders of keys to locked doors beyond which lurk outdated superstitions and unnameable horrors which only seem cliché because they are behind those doors? Are we safe on the viewing side of a one-way mirror into the unconscious? Are we safe in our seats in the dark cave of the modern theater, on this side of the celluloid?
Also, make no mistake: The Cabin In The Woods is a Lovecraftian film through and through. Brook no argument from those who would claim otherwise (note: tentacles do not a Lovecraftian film make), or deliberately misunderstand the bone structure that supports it: HPL lives in this movie, right down to its abyssal incandescent core. There’s nihilism here (“society needs to crumble” says the stoner-character Marty very early on), but it’s of the insane, gleeful variety that HPL was working toward in his fiction before his death.
I cannot say that I am in any way a Whedon-ite: I’ve enjoyed his writing in the past and appreciate the way he makes us care for his characters, even as he takes a certain pleasure in killing them off. If I’ve any complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to fall back on tropes, to 5-Man-Band it up with his casts. Sure, he breaks apart and reformats them in interesting ways, but over the course of several seasons (Buffy, Angel, looking in your direction) watching this process can get a little dull. However, Whedon makes it work and work well (with solid direction from Goddard) in a one-off situation like this one.
Right off the bat, the film begins to play with the viewer, dredging up from their movie-watching history literally every silly horror/slasher flick cliché: the opening credits roll over blood-drenched woodcut illustrations of ritual sacrifice, only to jump-cut to a perfectly banal coffee break environment where two staid bureaucratic types engage in perfectly banal coffee break banter. Banal, sure, but lightly sprinkled with unsettling references (to their work, their quotas, a hilarious rivalry with their Japanese counterparts, and their mysterious employers and customers) that cue us to the not-quite-rightness of the film. By the time the title card smacks us in the face, we’re sure of one thing only: get ready for some strange new territory.
(One word on the casting of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in these office drone “just following orders” roles: inspired! Jenkins is the Everyman: he’s your dad, your sweet uncle who works too hard, he’s just doing his job. A lovely and, by the end, actually poignant performance. And it was fantastic to see The West Wing’s Whitford Josh-Lyman-ing it up the way only he can. Brilliant.)
From the titular Cabin (which is so close in design to the cabin in the EvilDead films as to make no difference… alright, no porch swing, but still!) to the let’s store every occult-nasty trigger device possible here-cellar below the cabin, the film weaponizes all our preconceptions. It’s played for laughs, sure, but there were moments where I felt that the filmmakers were giggling like maniacs while holding a gun to my head, saying “hey, remember before you got jaded? When this (a psycho clown, Pinhead, zombie, whatever) was totally scary? Remember why?” … before taking the safety off.
Tee hee hee! … BLAM
There is a grim meta-fictional pleasure in watching the stock characters become aware of their nature as stock characters and the role they are filling in a dizzying narrative that goes far, far beyond the stock teens, don’t have sex, or you’ll be punished morality play that most horror films never transcend. Not all the characters reach full awareness, but the ones that do (Kristen Connoly as Dana, Fran Kranz as the tone-perfect ‘stoner with some actual stones’ Marty) make amazing choices once they are presented with the films central question of Free Will v. Determinism… and somehow manage to make the whole thing actually entertaining, and not seem arch or contrived, a feat which is certainly helped by the actors’ chops. We like these kids. We like them a lot.
Now, these are choices which will grate horribly against the sensibilities of the routine consumer of horror, but which will resonate nicely with anyone who knows (and loves) Lovecraft. I prepared for this film by shunning all spoilers online (and kudos to all reviewers who manage a spoiler-free review, as it’s a difficult task!), but I was still keen to see how the film was being received, and I found that a good chunk of the viewers are in fact ‘routine consumers’… and they are upset, genuinely distressed and pissed off about The Cabin In The Woods. Responses range from “not scary at all”, to “dumb” and “where’s the gore?” (this last despite an over-the-top imaginative third act with the most blood I’ve ever seen on screen outside of the elevators in the Overlook Hotel), and of course, griping about the unicorn. But it’s the dietary distress of not being fed the usual pablum they feel, the existential upset of realizing that you’re just smart enough to know you’re actually quite stupid.
(In as perfect an example of my luck as possible, I had an entire row of these people behind me in the theatre. Of course. But they are to be ignored, their opinions do not count, because this film? Not for them. It’s dressed up to look like it’s for them, sure. But it’s not.)
The Cabin In The Woods may not prove that the geeks are inheriting the Earth, but it’s a good argument for why they should. And perhaps, also, a darkly comic reminder of what they might do with it when they do. Treat ‘em right, world. That stoner you deride, that mousey girl who’s too smart for her own good? He sees more and deeper than he lets on and at the end of the day (or even the End of Days), well, she’s still smarter than you.
And that might be where the true horror of this film lies, under the laughs and the smart dialogue, down there in the cellar and sub-cellars and vast underground terror-complexes beneath our collective cabin, in the dark places where we make our decisions about our place in the world, how we interact with others, and whom we serve. R’lyeh rises in every heart, eventually, and we either flee from the revealed knowledge and go back to watching schlock horror movies, or learn to shout and revel and enjoy ourselves in the new age that is revealed.
I’m confident in saying that, once the final credits began to roll, Lovecraft would have opted for the latter, and marched straight out to the box office to buy another ticket.
(Scott Jones is a writer, poet, and spoken word artist from Victoria, BC. He’s the author of the short story collection SOFT FROM ALL THE BLOOD, available now from Martian Migraine Press. A new collection, THE ECDYSIASTS, will be released in May. You can follow him on the twitter @PimpMyShoggoth)