“Don’t Read the Latin!” — ‘The Cabin In The Woods’ Is Serious Meta-fictional Fun

(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)

(Purchasing CABIN IN THE WOODS at this link supports The Lovecraft eZine.)

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 Are we truly the keepers, confident holders of keys to locked doors beyond which lurk outdated superstitions and unnameable horrors which only seem cliché because they are behind those doors?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.

(Purchasing CABIN IN THE WOODS at this link supports The Lovecraft eZine.)

(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)

11 responses to ““Don’t Read the Latin!” — ‘The Cabin In The Woods’ Is Serious Meta-fictional Fun

  1. Completely agree with this review. I found this a refreshing new breath of air in the horror genre (and was secretly hoping for a different “big bad”) and loved every minute of it. Even my future psych major daughter found this a great movie. Now to add this to the collection.

      • Hello. Scott here (I wrote the review)…

        Ah, the Hand v. Tentacle debate! Consider the Masks of Nyarlathotep, reflect upon his many million forms. If the Crawling Chaos be the messenger and soul of the Old Ones (and the Outer Gods etc.) then clearly, we should not be troubled or disappointed when it is His mighty Hand that rises from the hell-pit beneath the Cabin. For within that comprehensible (to us) form festers every incomprehensible and foul shape possible. What bursts from the foetid earth in the final seconds of the film is not truly a mere hand… it is the Hand of Nyarlathotep, which is tentacles, feelers, 9-dimensional claws, and a thousand other manifestations of the principle of Grasping. It is the Ultimate Appendage, and I, for one, was pleased as punch to be fingered by It in such a clever manner.

        Glad folks are digging the review and the film. I hear there are rumours of a sequel! Cheers!

      • Oh, no debate on my end. Nyarlathotep is certainly the scariest of the entire pantheon, as he acts with malicious intent as opposed to some kind of alien need. He doesn’t appear to enjoy his job, knows it’s an eternal one, and he intends to take it out on mankind and the puny gods of men, and for that matter all creatures great and small. I mean imagine if your boss was Azathoth. Terrifying and completely unresponsive at the same time, and you might just be a dream he’s having, so you can never quit. That would put me in a pretty nasty mood, too, so yeah. Scary guy. No problem with the giant hand.

  2. Just bumped it up in my queue. Also, recently watched AM1200; which I found here, or maybe not. That was an awesome movie, I did have to buy it to see it though, I consider it an excellent addition to my collection

    • Larry, AM1200 is an amazing film and the director is a complete sweetheart. He had no problem letting me screen his movie for my HPLs 120th Birthday Celebration & Cthulhu-riffic Cabaret in Victoria back in ’10. Even sent me a poster. It was a huge hit with the audience, that’s for sure. In many ways it’s actually *better* than Cabin.

  3. Terrific review, Mr. Jones. My wife and I saw this at the cinema and couldn’t agree with you more. There was a giddy intensity that built throughout, and also a delight in blowing up cliches like an over-inflated party balloon, then releasing them to jet crazily all over the theater. Plus, the phone call from the Harbinger is classic.

  4. This was a great movie, even outside of the realm of horror it is one of the best films of the year. We have here exactly what horror should be, a modern mythology that explains high ideals in gross details. I skipped this movie in theaters because it looked so average, but I decided to rent it after a coworker at Dish recommended it as being a smart movie. I added it to my Blockbuster @Home queue online, and it came in the mail yesterday. I was so surprised by what I got, and it instantly became one of my favorite movies released this year. I love renting what I think is a B movie and having it turn out to be something great. I think that that is even the feeling that they were trying to give with this movie, so if you haven’t seen it go out and get it now!

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