Monday, April 30, 2012

The Cabin in The Woods

It's impossible to review and analyze The Cabin in The Woods without giving away significant parts of its plot. Of course, this "twist" is presented in the opening credits and first scene, so it's not as much of a twist as I had come to expect from all the reviews notifying me "there's a twist! And it's big!"

So I'll write my analysis in the hopes that you've seen the film. If you haven't, the rest of this review will enter significant spoiler territory. You've been warned.

So have the five friends who pass by the ramshackle gas station. The backwoods creep tells these friends in ominous tones about their destination--a cabin in the woods. The five friends pay for their gas, insult the guy, and take off, with the creep staring at their departing rundown Winnebago.

If the above scene sounds like a horror movie cliche, that's because it is. The Cabin in The Woods is full of them. This is entirely the filmmakers' intention as they give the audience exactly what they want to see. Filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have created a "meta" film of sorts, deeply self-aware and self-referential. The only thing is missing is the breaking of the fourth wall.

This particular cabin the woods is that cabin of the horror genre. Yet this particular cabin has numerous layers beneath its rustic charm. It is the altar of horror genre sacrifices. An army of office grunts is closely monitoring every action in and around this cabin. They have a control room. They have monitors. They have mood-altering pheromones. And they have monsters. Plenty of them. Monsters with names like "werewolf," "zombies," "vampires," "witches," "sexy witches," "zombie redneck torture family," "angry molesting tree," "sugarplum fairy," and "Kevin." When the monsters are released, the blood of the deceased satisfies the angry "gods" who threaten to destroy our world. The staff take bets on which monster will mete out the pain and punishment on the unsuspecting group of friends.

The five friends are caricatures themselves, though against their own choosing. The men behind the cameras have carefully manipulated these five regular folks to become the cliches of the horror genre. The attractive couple, Curt and Jules, are slowly transformed from being fun and intelligent into the kind of folks who will hear scary noises in the woods and run outside to have sex. Their actions defy logic. Most contemporary horror films do. Goddard and Whedon want their audience to experience a bit of disequilibration--they want us to wake up and realize what we're glorifying.

An early scene shows the friends settling into their rooms in the cabin. Holden discovers a one-way mirror in his room that reveals Dana getting ready to change clothes in the other. As she unbuttons her shirt, Holden is met with a moral dilemma--keep looking, or turn away? In any other slasher flick, the character of Holden would continue to stare and ogle. After all, that's what horror audiences want; they're putting themselves in Holden's place and watching alongside him. (There was an audible cat call in my theater when Dana began to undress.) Holden defies his cliche by informing Dana of the situation. You can almost hear the audience groan in disappointment. Having character and integrity isn't nearly as entertaining as voyeurism.

After most of the friends have been dispatched, the final two--the "virgin," Dana, and the stoner, Marty--go deep into the depths underneath the cabin, discovering a labyrinth of caged monsters waiting to be released on the next five victims. Marty's survival has clearly upset the office workers. The idiot stoner can't be in the insightful hero, right? Marty and Dana's infiltration of the facility results in the monsters' release. The ensuing bloodbath is almost comical in its extravagance--if horror audiences want to see blood, they'll see plenty here. While the conclusion is a bit nihilistic, it's the only one that could make sense in this meta-horror world.

The Cabin in The Woods is a film that wants to make you think, but not too hard. It presents its ideas in a fairly straightforward manner while still allowing discerning audiences to explore those ideas further in discussion and contemplation. Yet there is a glass ceiling to these ideas, as numerous plot holes and the film's tongue-in-cheek tone suggest this is all just for fun. It is a film akin to The Truman Show, Funny Games, and most recently, The Hunger Games. These films ask all sorts of questions about media consumption. What are my expectations as part of the audience? How is this movie shaping the way I think and act in the world? What do my reactions and responses reveal about my own soul?

Perhaps the true horror revealed by The Cabin in The Woods is the contemporary horror audience's vapid desires. Why do the Saw films continue to get made, with the Paranormal Activity films going the same route? Because people will pay to watch them. Quality and morality aren't as important as entertainment and thrills. Like the gods of Cabin, many horror audiences are only satiated with a fast food combo of wanton violence with a side of sex, missing out on the various feasts the film world has to offer. Cabin points out our voyeuristic tendencies, which extend beyond the horror genre to other films and especially television programs. We are a culture that likes to watch. And when we don't get what we want, we're upset that our expectations weren't met.

While I may sound overly critical of the horror genre, let me be clear--horror films and the Christian faith are not mutually exclusive. In a relativistic and sensate culture, horror films can reveal a concrete morality and an emphasis on the spiritual reality in our world. While many other films and media forms advocate a worldview that human beings are inherently good, citing the common mantra of “follow your heart,” horror films brazenly point out humanity’s sinful nature, reminding us that “following your heart” might lead to one’s own destruction.

Perhaps the most beautiful horror story ever told is the gospel itself. Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and a Christian filmmaker, said this in an interview:

I find the cross to be the ultimate merging of beauty and terror. It’s a vision out of a horror film. A man…nailed to a plank. The blood imagery. At the same time, it is transformed by its meaning—and by its artistic representations through history—to become something profoundly beautiful. The great potential of the horror genre is [in] that combination of aesthetic richness and meaningful subject matter…and spiritual significance.

Blood, sacrifice, and depravity are all present at the cross of Christ. The beauty of this horror story is its redemptive nature. Death does not overcome. Life breaks through. It is a story that we don't just have to sit back and watch as we are invited to participate in the healing of an evil and broken world.

For a list of quality horror films worth exploring, check out the Arts and Faith list of Top 25 Horror Films.

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