Posts Tagged ‘movie’

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.

Taken 2: The Cleaners

October 7, 2012

Those of us too penniless to pay for the adverts to go away on a particular music database software, will undoubtedly have been recently bludgeoned by the testostermoaning — the machine-gunning — Megaton cash-grabbing — and Hollywooden grit that is the trailer for the new disasterpiece, Taken 2. And, like me, you’ll have heard the frankly incredibly generous reviews it is getting — if you haven’t, then let me enlighten you: critics are, apparently, calling it “the thrill ride of the year”, with the Daily Star going so far as to say “eat your heart out 007”, “10/10”.

And if, like me, you know this movie is going to be an appalling piece of heartless, though glitzy, sewage, then you’ll have wondered who — who, that evidently thinks highly enough of cinema to write about it — would give this thing not simply a good review, but a flawless review — 10 out of 10. And you’ll have done some armchair investigations. But for anyone that hasn’t — you will perhaps be unsurprised to hear — that none of this coverage actually exists — or, at least, does not exist in relation to Taken 2.

So let’s start with the Daily Star — which movie reviewer was dense enough to believe that this was worth full marks — well, as it turns out, there is no such movie reviewer. Instead, the reviewer on the Daily Star’s website gives the movie a far more reasonable 2/5. But it’s still entirely possible that they enjoyed the action set-pieces enough to suggest it gives Bond a run for his money. Actually, they don’t do that either. In no place in the article do the words “eat your heart out 007” appear. But that’s not to say the Daily Star has never heaped such praise on such a movie — no, instead, a brief search of their archives tells us that, in fact, it was The Dark Knight Rises that had a perfect 10, that had sequences to cause Bond to commit autophagy.

Let us ignore for the moment the odd way in which the Star seems to have two entirely distinct scales on which movies are rated, it would seem that the words from one review have simply been supplanted into the promotional matter for an entirely unrelated movie. Incidentally, as if it makes any difference, the reviews for TDKR and Taken 2 are not even written by the same person. Still, if I’d made a movie as terrible as Taken 2 seems to be, I’d certainly prefer to promote it via the discourse on a critically acclaimed movie.

And, actually, are they entirely unrelated? Let’s consider — because we still have that other quote dangling limply before us, and, as I’m sure everyone can second guess, neither is Taken 2 considered by the Daily Star’s reviewer the “thrill ride of the year”. The connecting link between the Batman franchise and the Taken franchise — Liam Neeson. Although only a cameo, Neeson does have a part to play in TDKR. Oh, well, it isn’t so entirely dishonest then, because Neeson was in Batman, and Neeson is in Taken 2, so basically it’s like they’re the same movie, which means it cannot possibly matter whether executives use material from Batman to promote this other movie.

In fact, it is this connection, the Liam Neeson connection, that provides the only potential link with this second quote — “thrill ride of the year” — and This Other Movie. Looking for movies that have been deemed a “thrill ride” of a “year” obviously brings with it a fair amount of pre-2012 baggage. So let us stick with movies that have come out this year – otherwise, we may risk stepping in some Transformers, and nobody wants that.

Liam Neeson has been in five movies this year, and if we subtract This Other Movie from the mix — because no amount of searching connects the quote with the movie — and therefore there are no grounds on which to say that the quote is without a doubt from a critic reviewing This Other Movie — we are still left with four action movies, action movies that are likely to have, at some developmental stage, been considered “thrilling”, even if they failed in reality. And, as it turns out, a reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes, reviewing Neeson’s The Grey — a movie that came out in January — calls it a movie  that “may very well be the best thrill ride of the year even after August”. Which — as the reviewer has pointed out — is not the same thing at all as saying a movie is unreservedly the thrill ride of the year; and if, indeed, this review is the source of the quote (an hypothesis currently simply based on the Neeson connection, and the fact that in no other review can I find remarks even remotely similar to this pertaining to This Other Movie), if, indeed, this is the source of the quote, the advert is using a review that, in the first place, did not offer unconditional praise to a different movie, but offers an opinion full of necessary qualifiers. If we restore the original quote, if we replace the ‘may’, then it seems the advert, through all its desperate and dishonest tactics, is undermining itself.

The only other reasonable option is that the quote has been made-up — it’s a bland enough compliment to give a movie, bland enough to prevent anybody with better things to do of a Sunday from really finding out whether or not This Other Movie is actually a “thrill ride”, and if so, if it really would be a thrill ride to render all other thrill rides this year redundant. And, of course, it wouldn’t be the first time movie promoters have just vomited their own pleasing bile all over their own movie posters (Hello to David Manning!) — but at least they had the decency to go to the effort of creating an entirely fictional reviewer, and didn’t just steal choice phrases from other, more deserving movies.

So, while it is still technically possible that some other reviewer in some other, paper-based medium has, in fact, called This Other Movie “the thrill ride of the year” — considering that the promoters have patently — patently! — and dishonestly taken material from another, far-better movie and shamelessly slapped their own turgid celluloid silly with it — considering this, then Taken 2, you are guilty until proven innocent on this count. And even if you are innocent on this count, you’re still so obviously guilty. I hope you are ashamed of yourself.


And because it is important to be better than the people involved with This Other Movie have been, I cite my sources:

The Daily Star, Taken 2 review:

The Daily Star, TDKR review:

JK Lyles, The Grey review: