Posts Tagged ‘horror’

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.

ancient horror

October 29, 2012

It is Halloween soon, and what better way to celebrate it than with some old horror story. And these, the myths of the Ancient Greek, are some of the oldest and most horrible. I trick ‘n’ treat you, then, to a take on the story of Oedipus, whose mother, Jocasta, has surely the most terrible time of it. I call this one…

Weeping Jocasta

Jocasta is weeping! A child has been taken from her. Some old crone from some old cave once said to her, ‘My dear, come closer, I have something terrible to tell.’ And she wept out her warning, as the gods poured their prophecies, like wretched water, down her gullet, that filled her with blackness and filled her with darkness. And the crone spat and spewed and desperately she tried to empty herself of this darkness. She would throw out her curses at strangers and anyone who wandered into her cave, her rotten residence, thick with the misery of millions. The woman retched to empty herself of her knowledge, and she was hated. The sounds in her throat made Jocasta feel sick and she ran to her husband, and wept, ‘Oh, husband, believe us, the crone from the cavern has cursed the halls of Cadmus’. And the prophecy poured out from her mouth and in streams from her eyes, and it drained the life out of her.

And her husband was furious – he reached for his gun! – he wanted to put that old crone in the ground – and Jocasta seemed so pathetic to him – she, who had wandered away to the crone, and believed all the pathetic old woman had wailed – and he hit her! – he floored her and forced his violent life into her – and she was perfectly still – but he got what he wanted when she writhed as a terrible life, hardly hers anymore, snaked its way into her body – he flushed the curse out of her, and drew the blood back into her cheeks, into her eyes, and over her lips – he would defy the old crone – and he knew that no child of his could destroy him.

Time passed, and the blackness alive inside Jocasta grew. She counted the moons, there were nine. At each moon, the living death within her grew stronger. And when it awoke, it screamed at the dreadful red tomb into which it believe she had forced it. It bit and it clawed on the inside. And at night it sank down into the depths of sleep with Jocasta, floating before her, a nightmare remembrance of the daylight. Its pain was the pain that her husband had left her – he watched, and was pleased, as she carried her bloated new figure, so filled was it then with his darkness discharged, that fulfilled all the knowledge spat out by the crone. Then, one day, it came crawling out.

Jocasta was weeping, her husband was laughing – he pushed his fist towards the darkness and drew it dripping out – and the wound that he left in Jocasta never healed – and she screamed at the sight of it – he never screamed, he kept on smiling – everything was coming together nicely – he brought out an old burlap sack and tossed the terrible new life into it – he wrapped a noose around the neck and firmly drew the sack closed – inside, where the darkness was once more shut in, once more entombed, unborn again – it thrashed violently around and swore violent oaths against the violent fist – and Jocasta saw from the outside how savage it had seemed on her inside – and the violence it had done to her inside never healed.

Her husband carried the sack from the house, in a storm, past his dirty dog, rex, who snapped at the heels everyone that sought entrance to his master’s home – out of the gate, to the top of a hill – he carried it like carrion for the crows, who had heard of the crone and flew off – he flung it to the fishes in the stream, but they had seen the crows fly and swam far out to sea – the snakes would not take it, for the felt themselves reflected somehow in the crime – and the wolves howled in pain when they sniffed at the stuff that dripped from the bag’s sodden fibres – but he would not despair – he nailed the wretched wriggling thing to an oak tree – the lightning would blast at the tree, destroying the darkness, and bringing those furies down upon the lying crone – he left it – but the storm would not take it – the rainwater fell onto the tree, dripped onto the sack, seeped into the darkness, and fed the terrible life that it held – and the thunder, who told secrets to the crone, whose voice boomed above all voices on the earth, held his lightning-sceptre away from the oak tree, and whispered to the darkness, ‘Jocasta will know you again’.

Many more moons, and nobody from the household ever went back up that hill, where the sack and the guilty seed would rot. But a darkness returned to Jocasta each night. And in the daylight, her husband would roam the land around with his heavy fists – and return only late, with his gun discharged, and nothing but blood on his hands – and in the daylight, the dog would be howling from the gate, keeping the unknown away and the known locked up inside. Jocasta wept, when the rain rapped at the door, the rain rapped at the window, the rain wrapped itself in wet coils round her house, and she felt the damp pressure of existence pressing in on her, the liquid curse of the crone that would never be broken. The crone still sat sunken in her cave, cursing time, until she should be borne out of it into an even deeper darkness. And it never stopped raining.

Her husband – one day – took his truck into the distant woodland – clutching – as always – violence in his right hand. Jocasta would not watch him go, but listened as the rumbling of his engine bled into the eternal rumblings of the thunder. She listened as the presence of her husband seemed smaller and smaller in that sonic landscape, yet eventually it grew mixed and indistinguishable from the oppressive thunder whose woodland whisperings were inescapable – that to her husband seemed divine. And she heard the voice of thunder like the gun. And she heard the voice of the gun like thunder. And the week passed, and he did not return, though he resonated always through the air, as the chorus of the storm echoed the symbol of his self. Eventually, Jocasta heard a voice, but not his. Distorted by the storm, a voice that sounded wretched and old reported through her radio that her husband and been found, a bullet in his brain, enveloped in darkness at midnight of the last night. Jocasta wept. She wept for his death, but she was not upset. He – who had defied the crone – had been foolish enough to be defeated by the darkness of night – when his gun, as it seemed, had spoken too quickly, and buried itself back in him.

Jocasta slept, untroubled for the first time for years. Her sleep was disturbed some time later, some long time she judged by the daylight and the sunlight, when the dog at the door was heard howling. But there was no reason now to keep people away, for that vicious sentinel to rip at the flesh of his visitors. The howling kept on, and Jocasta would have opened her doors to their guest and tied that dog up to his tree, but something answered the howling. At the report of the shot, Jocasta fell to her knees. The dog stopped its howling, and something stepped into the shadows of the house, and a stranger opened her doors and let himself into her hall. Obscured by the sun, that lay lazily upon the horizon, and leered at Jocasta and the stranger through the open doorway, the stranger appeared in silhouette only. He came to her, she still upon her knees, he limped across the threshold and peered down into her eyes. He had a face that was not her husband’s. And she saw the gun he held, that had delivered her from her husband and from his dog. She fell into his hands, and they fell into her bed. And she thanked him.

 Jocasta slept, and the stranger slept beside her. In the morning he got up to leave her, she asked him to stay, and he said that he would, he would always be with her he said. He went out to the road, to bring in the belongings he had left on his bike over-night. Jocasta watched as he carried them in, everything stuffed into one wretched and rain-soaked burlap sack. A storm cloud sullied the sky, obscuring the sun. Jocasta watched, and saw on the side of the sack the name of her husband printed in broken black letters. The darkness returned to the sky, returned to the house. Jocasta watched as the face of the stranger transformed into the face of her husband. Thunder roared at Jocasta from the sky, the voice in the radio warned her to watch out for the man who had murdered her husband. Jocasta watched as the man undid the noose on the sack, opened it up, and nothing but darkness poured out. She screamed as she felt once again that terrible life claw in the darkness inside her. She screamed as she knew that the crone’s terrible words and her husband’s terrible defiance would haunt her forever. She screamed and took hold of the noose, ran from the house and into the darkness that had never really left, it had simply been hidden by the light. She screamed as she crawled to the top of a hill, to the top of a tree. And silently, when she finally heard the words of the crone as the voice of the unending thunder, as the boundless voice of the storm, as the cry of the rain as she lifted her face and it poured down her throat, silently she spoke the curse of the crone, and flung herself down from the branches, and swung in the storm by the noose from the sack that had sheltered the darkness that never could leave her. And she swings in the storm, and the people who pass her and look at her face, with the rain dripping down it, say, it looks like Jocasta is weeping.