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Why 'Cabin in the Woods' Isn't As Good As You Think It Is--With SPOILERS

Three things:

First of all, yes! It's a blog post *not* about The Odyssey. Hoo-ray! (More posts on that coming soon, though.)

Second, this post will be rife with SPOILERS for The Cabin in the Woods, which, if you are to believe some, is a movie with more twists and reversals than your typical game of Chutes & Ladders. The fact that I don't necessarily agree with that doesn't mean that I don't feel like I should give you fair warning.

And last, yes, the title of this post is meant to be obnoxious.

The amount of fan fervor that has greeted the just-released (and long-delayed) The Cabin in the Woods has rather surprised me. I was expecting a very fun horror movie done by Joss Whedon and his homeys--which is reason enough to celebrate. But the early buzz was so overwhelmingly positive, I convinced myself that this movie must be something *really* special. So I made haste to go see it opening weekend. And what I saw was, indeed, a very fun horror movie--definitely. But it was not, as I've read numerous places, "a reinvention of the horror genre," or even, God forbid, "the best movie of the year." So I think a little obnoxiousness on my part, just a little, is forgivable.

Cabin is a well-made horror movie that deliberately plays with both audience expectations and the general tropes and rules of the horror genre. The fact that it does this by reinforcing those tropes and rules is a sure sign of its cleverness. But it is not, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, a movie of unexpected and shocking twists and turns. It is, instead, a movie in which the viewer begins expecting one story and instead finds herself watching a different, larger story.

It is a story well-told, but it is classically told, by which I mean no great plot twists are sprung on the viewer without having their foundations first laid down. The fact that the movie works despite this is a testament to the fact that it is a good, solid film, well-executed. The fact that so many people seem to have been unable to anticipate those turns coming is, I think, due more to audience viewing habits than to the movie itself.

Let's start with the opening credits which, if actually watched, give away a major plot element.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE--FINAL WARNING!!!

What we see are repeated images, from throughout human history and from around the world, not of horrible monsters or creepy cabins, but of human sacrifice. The filmmakers are telling you right up front, this is not a movie where people die horrible deaths merely to scare the viewer; instead, it's a film where people will be sacrificed for the appeasement of supernatural beings. This immediately alerts the viewer to start looking at this film from a different angle.

Next, the first characters we meet are not the "final girl" and her doomed friends, but rather two seemingly ordinary office workers, and then a third, who drop vague hints about the kind of work they are engaged in without specifying anything. Only then do we meet the traditional group of young, good-looking souls who will, probably by transgressing some boundary they didn't even know existed, doom themselves to a grisly fate.

What ties these various elements together is not a mystery left unsolved until the final reel, however. We quickly come to realize that the office workers are essentially technicians who will be responsible for creating and controlling the environment in which the young people are to die. They are, in their own way, filmmakers--albeit working with very advanced technology and access to very real monsters, who will leave behind very real corpses.

Some viewers will certainly wonder, for a while at least, to what end these technicians do their macabre work. But if the images in the credits weren't enough, the early and repeated mentions of "the Ancient Ones" and the powers "downstairs" quickly plant in the viewer's mind the notion that these deaths are being orchestrated as an appeasement to great dark powers--powers that are strong and terrifying enough to cause one group of people to organize the brutal murders of another of group of people. We even see the blood offerings made made via a complex system of valves as soon as the first victim, the traditional blonde sex maniac of slasher movie fame, is killed. All the pieces are now essentially in place, and there's still a lot of movie to go.

The only question that should be left in an attentive viewer's mind at this point is whether or not the necessary sacrifices will be made or whether the attempt will end in failure. The frequent references to a similar attempt being made in Japan (a clever parody of J-horror style) and the fact that it's down to just the US attempt and the Japanese one strongly suggest that at least one, if not both, will end in failure. When we see, well before the US scenario plays itself out, that the Japanese attempt has indeed been a failure, we can know for certain that the US one will be, too.

We can even be pretty certain what element of the American scenario has caused the problem. By the time it's down to the final girl, we've seen on-screen either the death, or definitive evidence thereof, of three of her four friends. One of them, however, who just so happened to be the smartest of the group and the one least affected by the various chemical tricks being played by the technicians, was only shown being attacked--not killed. Only the word of one of the characters is relied upon, by both the viewer and, one must add, the apparently overly complacent technicians, as evidence of his actual death. So, we can now feel fairly certain, with 30 minutes or so left in the movie, that he's not in fact dead and that he and the final girl will ruin the sacrifice.

By the time they enter the secret underground complex of the technicians and release all the nightmare creatures from their pens, we have a truly impressive array of horror monsters attacking and mangling pretty much every character left alive. We can feel pretty certain at this point that there will be no more sacrifices. (Here's a nifty screen shot of the whiteboard with all the monsters on it--this idea of multiple stories we could have seen but didn't is one of the movie's most intriguing ideas.) Sure, there's some last minute tension about whether the final girl will kill her friend, who fills the archetype of The Fool. This according to a giant info-dump from Sigourney Weaver that explains the film for people who haven't been paying attention. But the sheer chaos the two youths has unleashed strongly suggests that the end is, indeed, nigh. And sure enough, it is.

The movie could have gone for a fake-out ending, leaving the viewer in doubt as to whether or not the partial sacrificed was accepted or whether the sacrifice was necessary at all, but it doesn't. Instead, we see a giant hand emerge from the ground, heralding the rise of the Ancient Ones. The end. Hardly a single damn surprise or twist in the whole thing.

THAT SAID, it's still a very solid horror movie, and if that had been the general tenor of reaction, I probably wouldn't be writing this post. But as Dana Stevens writes in her excellent review of the film at Slate.com:

"Though Cabin in the Woods struck me as a minor success, a pleasant trifle that ended just in time to avoid exhausting its central conceit, people around me in the theater were whooping it up like undergrads on spring break, and the conversations on the way out of the theater sounded buzzed and heady. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie’s gory silliness, but I have the feeling it may be overpraised for infusing a modicum of wit into a genre that usually demonstrates so little. If Goddard and Whedon’s smart-aleck goof is all it takes to change the slasher-movie game, that may just prove it’s a game that really needed changing"

I might argue with Dana over some of the finer points here, one of which I'll address below, but I think her reasoning is dead on. It's only because the hoary cliches of this genre have became *so* hoary that audiences over-react to anything that alters, plays with, acknowledges, or subverts them. This film does all of those things, and does them well, so people went beserk over what is, at its core, just a fun, yet intelligent, horror comedy.

It's worth nothing here that it's aimed, I think, at a very precise set of folks: people who are not die-hard horror fans, but who are, at the same time, not ignorant of the genre's rules and tendencies. Too little knowledge, and most of the cleverness and wit will be lost on the viewer. Too much, such as in my case, and it doesn't feel quite as fresh as it might.

That's because, *gasp*, other movies have done similar things with the tropes and rules of horror before Cabin. Sure, Cabin may be the best of them--possibly. And it might be the most ambitious--maybe. But it's not the first, and it won't be, I am sure, the last to try to take the rules of horror and both subvert them and make them work anew--or to explore what it is that we're doing when we the viewer watch a horror movie.

As evidence, here's a list of horror movies which, to my mind, could be considered spiritual ancestors of Cabin in the Woods:

Scream: This one's a no-brainer. The first horror film to be aware of and exploit the genre's conventions, it also manages to be genuinely chilling at times, something Cabin never really achieves. The sequels offer diminishing returns, but are still all highly watchable and very aware of the rules of the game, as it were.

Hellbent: This is a much more obscure and significantly weaker film, but it has one major twist to the standard slasher film that sets it apart: the cast is almost entirely male and it revolves around a group of gay male friends. Replacing the final girl with a final boy really challenges the conventions in an interesting way and forces the viewer to rethink his idea of what it means to be a victim in need of rescue. It's also set in an urban environment, which is a nice change, and brings the always present sexual undertones of the genre to the forefront.

Funny Games: Either version will do, but the US version is a shot-for-shot remake of the original, so there's really no reason not to watch the one in English. Instead of merely playing with self-awareness, it's the only horror movie I know of that breaks the fourth wall completely and utterly, making the viewer expressly complicit in the torture and death taking place on screen. That said, it is a terribly painful film to watch and is probably best avoided unless you're really hard-core.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare: Talk about playing with tropes and being self-aware. This film finds Freddy Kreuger trying, essentially, to emerge from the realm of fiction into our reality--with Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy, the final girl in the original film, as his victim. Craven, Robert Englund and others all play themselves as people who were complicit in giving birth to a great evil essentially by unwitting invocation. Scary, unsettling, and thought-provoking, I think this is a very special film.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: A truly under-seen film, this tremendously witty and engaging movie is in some ways the flip side of New Nightmare. Instead of the horror movie villain trying to break into our world, it deals with the notion of what it might be like to live in a world where all of the famous horror movie villains--Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers--are real. It follows a documentary film crew as they record the preparations of Leslie Vernon, a would-be mass murderer who hopes to join the ranks of those famous killers.

So, go watch these movies and others like them, and then ask yourself, was The Cabin in the Woods really as ground-breaking as I thought it was? Or was it just a hell of a good time at the movies?

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