Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods

Reviews of Joss Whedon’s 2011 comedy-horror picture, The Cabin in the Woods tend toward the laconic and uncommunicative.  That is because there is no way to summarize the film without giving away it’s various plot twists.  But the plot twists are not merely incidental pleasures to this picture and, certainly, don’t comprise an ultimate and shattering revelation such as the disclosure that Bruce Willis is a ghost in the last five minutes of The Sixth Sense.  Rather, the plot twists, which are not particularly serpentine, are the foreground to the picture – they are what the picture is about and so the film can’t be discussed without revealing them.  Since I doubt that any of those perusing these notes are likely to see this film – at least voluntarily – I feel no compunction about disclosing spoilers.  If this bothers you, then, stop reading.  Whedon is famous for his ironic use of genre material – Buffy the Vampire Slayer about a cheerleader who destroys monsters is his signature work.  Of course, the great horror and suspense films were already self-reflexive, ironic, and the famous set-pieces in those movies were already bracketed by “scare quotes,” that is, set aside as cheeky examples of genre that were supposed to make you gasp, shudder, and laugh at the same time.  Horror films are generally about their audiences’ reactions and the emphasis in these pictures is overtly on what they do to you – that is, how they act on you – as opposed to what they show, their content, or their thematic materials which is usually pretty prosaic and lame in any event.  Consider, in this regard, The Bride of Frankenstein or Brian DePalma’s Body Double or, for that matter, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games:  these pictures are entirely about how they manipulate their audiences, indeed, even how they humiliate their audiences into fear and shock in primitive ways.  Ultimately, many horror films are about the process of making a horror film and about how audience expectations can be manipulated to produce predictable effects.  The Cabin in the Woods carries this strategy one step beyond mere manipulation.  The film asks this question:  what is a slasher-teenage massacre movie for?  What function does it serve?   Whedon’s answer, which is both shrewd and shallow, is that horror films enact a ritual sacrifice that involves the butchery of several sexually active teenagers, saving the virgin for the final death, or, sometimes, a final triumph over the forces of darkness.  In this respect, the prototype for horror films is the sacrifice of Polynesian virgins by tossing them into fiery volcanoes, the death of Iphigenia before the Trojan War, the Minoan labyrinth in which unblemished youths were slaughtered by the monstrous Minotaur.  The Cabin in the Woods is a labyrinth in which two couples and two shy losers, the male and female virgins, are sacrificed to monsters.  The film makes Whedon’s conceit as to the function of horror films literal:  humankind is beset by dark and monstrous forces that it holds at bay by periodically sacrificing teenagers.  In The Cabin in the Woods, the teenagers are the victims of a vast industrial machine, a sort of NASA spaceshot control, that has confined every imaginable type of monster in the bowels of a vast labyrinthine military-industrial complex.  The monsters are conveyed by elevator to locations to which the teenage victims have been lured in order to slaughter them.  In this way, the Dark Gods are kept at bay.  This concept, as high as high-concept goes, allows Whedon to treat his horror material on two levels – first, from the perspective of the victims and, second, from the filmmakers perspective, that is from the vantage of the bureaucrats managing the exercise in murder and gore.  Earnest men in white shirts and ties sit in Mission Control scrutinizing huge screens on which the mayhem takes place.  When the final victims seem to have been hacked apart, everyone at Mission Control cheers as if for a successful Martian landing and the technocrats break out the champagne.  The double plot reaches its climax when the two virgins, the surviving victims of the teenager massacre, grasp that they are puppets being manipulated in a splatter film and begin to fight back.  This triggers an astounding climax in which every possible horror is released on the administrators in Mission Control, resulting in a splatter-fest that is a joy to behold.  The film is not very scary, at least, on HBO – the Brechtian alienation effects are so startling and intrusive that the viewer never really gets emotionally invested in the horror film plot:  as one of the bureaucrats say:  Hillbilly pain-worshiping zombie cannibals slaughter teenagers, a summary for the plight of the victims in The Cabin in the Woods.  The film is highly intelligent, the special effects are spectacular, and the final few minutes, when all hell literally breaks out in Mission Control is satisfyingly epic – it’s like The Truman Show with mass murder as its climax. The movies is an elaborate prank, a gory practical joke, but a good one.