Among the inevitable hyperbole scattered across The Cabin in the Woods’ DVD case is Total Film‘s assertion that this movie is ‘Groundbreaking & insanely enjoyable, a game changer’; and, indeed, similar claims have been made even by those whose reviews have not been used to sell the movie. Rolling Stone claimed it is ‘turning splatter formula on its empty head’. Roger Ebert, perhaps more cautiously, says: ‘[it] has been constructed almost as a puzzle for horror fans to solve. Which conventions are being toyed with? Which authors and films are being referred to? Is the film itself an act of criticism?’ And for Nigel Floyd, among others, it is meta-cinema – knowing, referential, self-reflexive.
The movie’s primary problem, however, is that it isn’t a ‘game changer’, it is not changing the way in which the horror movie is constructed or perceived, or re-imagining horror’s (or specifically the slasher movie’s) tropes, rather – and as some of these critics seem to imply – it is observing the game, playing out like a commentary on the game, and as a result feels far less involved and inventive than much of its critical acclaim would suggest. There is no doubt that the producers of Cabin in the Woods thoroughly understand the conventions of the slasher movie, whose tropes inform only one part of the movie’s convergent two-part narrative (which may easily be separated into the ‘horror-narrative’ and the ‘meta-narrative’, or perhaps, less obnoxiously, the ‘sci-fi-narrative’); painstakingly the producers de-construct and manipulate all the clichés And so, inevitably, the clichés are still present, if only to be wryly invoked.
It is going to far, I think, to claim they are being inverted, they are merely invoked, indeed invoked even to reaffirm how intrinsic they are to the genre: the characters of the meta-narrative are there to ensure all the clichés are employed correctly, manipulating the horror-narrative at those moments it begins to display its independence – when one character in the horror-narrative boldly suggests they all stick together, it is the job of the technicians of the meta-narrative to guide him back into his role as the slasher-jock who suggests the group splits up. Obviously, this is all intentional on the film-makers’ part, and so is perhaps less a criticism of the movie than of those – like Rolling Stone – who claim the genre is turned ‘on its empty head’; the meta-narrative serves, in fact, to keep the splatter formula right-side up and intact. A deconstruction of a trope is not an inversion of the trope, and so for the moment it is safe to say that Cabin in the Woods plays into the conventions of the slasher – albeit while knowingly proclaiming ‘I am playing into the conventions of the slasher and let me show you what they are’. Interestingly, by crediting the teens in the slasher narrative with a modicum of intelligence, Joss Whedon’s criticism is clearly aimed at film makers rather than the genre itself, however tired and conventional that genre has now become (perhaps, always was; perhaps, is supposed to be).
In this sense, Cabin in the Woods has taken one step further back from the slasher genre than Scream did in 1996. Where in Scream the audience knew Wes Craven was behind the camera, toying with the genre, ticking all the right boxes, while still producing an interesting slasher movie, in Cabin in the Woods the audience, in effect, sees the directors at work behind the cameras – which, incidentally, Craven himself had already done in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, whose title alone provokes all sorts of interesting observations. Even earlier, Mario Bava performed a similar trick in 1963, when at the end of the anthology movie Black Sabbath, the camera pans back from Boris Karloff (who had been the narrator linking the movie’s short stories together) to reveal the movie set itself and the mechanics of the ‘horse’ upon which he is riding away. In fact, Cabin in the Woods feels more like Black Sabbath than it does New Nightmare. It is happy to show us the mechanisms behind the horror movie but does not comment on them as New Nightmare does, nor does it suggest the effects of the horror movie are somehow felt by both the fictional characters in the movie itself and those responsible for making the movie (despite the fact that eventually they literally do feel its effects). Consequently, and though it edges towards the territory, Cabin in the Woods does not work as a commentary on the consumption of horror, of the way in which the audience watches horror, or indeed why the audience watches horror, as, say, Battle Royale does for the action movie.
Perhaps part of the problem in understanding the way in which Cabin in the Woods takes an interesting approach to one genre (the slasher) is because it also falls into the conventions of another genre (the science fiction/disaster movie). While the technicians are busy ensuring the holidaying teens are doing their best reenactment of The Evil Dead, their actions suggests they’d have done better to watch fewer horror and more mad-scientist movies. In short, the meta-narrative/sci-fi-narrative runs: technicians need to placate earth’s previous inhabitants, Lovecraftian ‘Ancient Ones’, to ensure they do not rise up from under the earth and annihilate humanity; the technicians set up a series of bafflingly complex rituals for the sacrifice of the necessary victims (enter the slasher movie clichés); the technicians make use of various conventional horror movie monsters to kill off the teens; things do not go according to plan; the monsters break loose (somebody really ought to tell scientists that it’s never a good idea to have one button to release all of your monsters at once); the scientists all die the inevitable gruesome deaths; and, because this is the 21st century, things do not quite end there, and there is the down-beat apocalyptic ending as the Ancient Ones rise again – a favourite technique of much modern horror, though not an exclusively modern trope (see, for example, Night of the Living Dead). In effect, it transpires that the producers of the slasher movie are themselves embroiled in their own horror narrative; while playing with the genre, they are themselves subject to its tropes; the camera pans back from one horror movie to show us another, and one wonders whether this would go on ad infinitum, and if so, why?
Incidentally, to be momentarily rather too petulant, if the Ancient Ones require a predetermined set of sacrifices (the whore, the fool, etc), what do the technicians hope to gain from the Japanese primary-schoolers evidently involved in a parallel ritual process?; and why such an elaborate and risky ritual process anyway?; but Cabin is hardly alone in making over-elaborate its death sequences, though it would pretend to more intelligence than others.
Obligingly, however, all of this horror is rendered in the most blood-soaked bonkers way possible. But it has all been seen before, particularly the monsters, which presumably inform the ‘hate/love letter’ Whedon claimed to be writing while making this movie. Yet by these monsters, it also falls prey to the Tarantino-problem, when the sheer number of references to other horror movies becomes overwhelming, distracting, and, ultimately, meaningless (having established that Cabin in the Woods is not really a satire or commentary on the horror genre). As Ebert’s questioning review suggests, it may be more puzzle than horror movie. Moreover, the sheer silliness of the movie’s final half-hour reaffirms the conventions within which Cabin in the Woods is working, with apparently none of the knowingness of its earlier horror-narrative. Indeed, that it cannot escape its heritage, seems to be neatly evident in the final shot of the movie: the giant hand of the Ancient One rising out of the ground, through the eponymous cabin, echoes the poster art of the original Evil Dead movie and, even more closely, Olly Moss’ recent reworking of this poster (though Moss’ work, I believe, post-dates production on Cabin); compare The Evil Dead and The Cabin in the Woods.
While some of the blame must lie with the hyperbolic praise the movie has received, The Cabin in the Woods never seems to be quite as intelligent as it wants us to believe, and eventually even the meta-narrative ends up inescapably smeared in all clichés it has worked so consciously into the horror-narrative. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working well with, and within, any given trope; it only becomes problematic when the movie wants us to credit it with somehow reworking those tropes. Instead, the movie simply shows us that those tropes all come from the people behind the cabin, behind the cameras, which, as intelligent viewers, we knew already. Thinking on the reinvention of the haunted house theme – a theme that has been dulled to death with the recent spate of Paranormal Activities and its found-footage cohorts, and the gore-soaked Saws, Hostels, and Martyrs – it is perhaps wiser to turn to the recently-resurrected Hammer Horror, and their Woman in Black, a movie that came out just one month earlier than Cabin. Woman in Black demonstrates – and in a way, so does Cabin – that the best way to refresh a genre is to look back, returning as it does to the mist-drenched moors, gothic mansions, and period drama of early horror cinema (particularly Universal and, inevitably, Hammer). Again, as Cabin does with the slasher, Woman in Black hits all the clichés of the haunted house with all the style of the best Victorian ghost story, yet never breaks character to tell us this and so retains throughout its gloriously gothic atmosphere. But perhaps the comparison is unfair, perhaps Cabin is simply being mis-sold – as Berberian Sound Studio, another recent deconstruction of the horror movie that itself is not a horror movie, has been mis-sold. The Cabin in the Woods is not really a horror movie, it is a science fiction movie that creates its own horror movies. And, finally, to answer Ebert’s question, ‘Is the film itself an act of criticism?’, no, Cabin in the Woods is not an act of criticism, it is not probing enough to be so; Cabin in the Woods works best viewed as a conventional mad-scientist monster movie, with the expected narrative trajectory, and, importantly, the proper pay-off, the monster-rampage.