The Cabin in the Studio

April 6, 2013

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.

ahab, his pipe, the pm

November 18, 2012

For reasons inscrutable, Moby-Dick is making substantial waves at the moment – it is 161 years since publication, but this seems a rather spurious date to celebrate – the Watershed has recently hosted an event for ‘The Moby-Dick Big Read’, a project of various talker-types, actors, authors, critics and politicians, each of them reading a chapter from this textual leviathan. And bandwagon-kid that he is, that we force him to be, David Cameron has donned his specs and waded in to give us a reading of ‘The Pipe’, one of the shortest chapters in the novel. A chapter in which almost nothing happens – not exactly unusual, the book is one giant happening composed of over a hundred instances of nothing happening – in ‘The Pipe’, Ahab sits on an ivory stool on the deck and gives up smoking. It is just four short paragraphs – and we recall Mapple, ‘one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of scriptures’ – but it will have been selected to within an inch of its life, this chapter – Cameron was never going to read something violent, something sinister, something ominous or something tragic from the novel – this, and we know because Big Read’s editor has told us so, was carefully crafted for Cameron. But what does ‘The Pipe’ tell us, and how does that reflect on Cameron? Beyond the apparently wholesome message, ‘I’ll smoke no more’, ‘thy charm be gone!’, what shimmers from these seas and reflects on Cameron – nothing, obviously – but, more subtly, something, certainly. And remember what Auden told us, the ship is a symbol of society.

Ahab has only recently appeared aboard the Pequod. The tyrannical – biblically magnificent – captain of the ship has been in his cabin for the journey thus far, the ship only going abroad upon the ocean eight chapters previous, and Ahab making his first towering appearance just two chapters ago. Prior to ‘The Pipe’, Ahab has stood fiercely on the quarter-deck (‘with a crucifixion in his face’), he has been watched like a still-life by Ishmael, and heard Stubb’s merman dream, and may or may not have subsequently kicked Stubb back down the scuttle. But we cannot judge Cameron by the actions of a man he has not yet represented; no, Cameron represents the serene aspect of Ahab, alone on the quarter-deck and smoking. Who, then, is this Ahab?

Outright, this is a chapter for Ahab alone – Ishmael, the omniscient narrator, is absent – and we are forced to hear Cameron as Ahab – the only speech is Ahab’s. And his soliloquy is a lament, ‘this smoking no longer soothes’, as the wind blows it back in his face, and he realises he is in for a troublesome time, ‘hard must it go with me if thy charm be gone!’. Yet he is a hard-working man, ‘Here have I been unconsciously toiling, not pleasuring … and with such nervous whiffs’ – but this bodes poorly, for he is smoking ‘as if, like the dying whale, my final jets were the strongest and fullest of trouble.’ Thus we have a man – ignoring for the moment his murderous, self-destructive, monomaniacal quest, because in this chapter, we do not see that side of Ahab – we have a man who has lost the ability to derive pleasure from a pleasurable activity – he cannot be soothed – to such an extent that it reminds him of death, or the final vigorous moments before death. And he knows that the calm – which he seems also unconsciously to have avoided by staring directly ‘to windward’, standing to face the blast – the calm is for people other than he, for what appears to be the serenely retired or elderly, the ‘mild white vapors among mild white hairs’, not for those with the ‘torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more –’. Pleasureless, there is nothing to Ahab but his calling; a fierce – torn and iron-grey – toiling sailor. Is this Ahab Cameron? He is, of course, a nervous man, and his fires are going out. ‘The fire hissed in the waves … With slouched hat, Ahab lurchingly paced the planks.’ Despite his resolve, this man is not at ease. He makes decisions, but they are impulsive, ‘How now … Oh, my pipe!’ he seems to say in surprise – he will make an impulsive decision later, too, when he destroys the quadrant and the ship’s navigational equipment, hurling him finally towards the wake of Moby Dick and to death – an ill-wind in the universe opposes Ahab here.

Yet, for now, Ahab is in control of his ship. Ahab, in fact, never loses control of his ship – he is all too aware of where he is steering it. And so, there is this responsible Ahab, too – the man who will sit upon the quarter-deck at night and watch his ship across the ocean. But he is superior to the sailors, he sits above them king-like, and he will not talk with them – they are there to do his work, to follows his orders, as Ahab calls over one ‘sailor of the watch’ to go below and collect his chair for him. And he sits on ‘his ivory stool’ – he is a man trading in murderous luxuries – and like ‘the sea-loving Danish kings’ – Vikings, pirates to the sea-shy ancient Brit – sat on thrones made of ‘the tusks of the narwhale’, Ahab seems ‘royalty’: ‘For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea, and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.’ On his – diminutive – ivory tower, Ahab reclines, and he is all sorts of aristocracy – a ruler, is Ahab, a khan, a king, a lord. But these are not Ahab’s words, this is Ishmael, and this is how – for the moment – Ishmael wants us to see Ahab – obeyed and imperial, high-born and blue-blooded. Yet, again, these are not really Ishmael’s words – when we hear the book, Ishmael and Ahab speak in the same voice – and that voice, for now, is Cameron. Ahab is therefore praising kingly Ahab – and we have to decide how we feel about kings, and whether or not this man has ideas above his station, and whether or not we want this man who leads and represents us to present himself so much superior, so much above us – and whether or not, this disappointed pleasure-seeker should fetch up his own throne from the cabin.

There is a lot that ‘The Pipe’ does not show us of Ahab – in isolation, we do not know of his diabolical and fanatical hatred or the death-wish he holds for himself and his crew – we do not know his history, his back apparently turned on the shorelife with his wife and children – of his quest to destroy the white whale that maimed him – but this is Ahab, and even without any of this information to hand, there is nothing well-balanced about him. At a whim, he destroys his pipe – and this is not the renunciation of a bad habit – this is the rejection – even, abjection – of pleasure – if the pipe alone made Ahab serene, then its loss is the loss of serenity – and this seems the fancy of a madman – Ahab does not lose his serenity, he throws it with anger into the ocean. He is discomposed – ‘With slouched hat’ – and unsteadied – ‘lurchingly’ he walks the deck. This, then, is the image of the man of this chapter.