Monday, August 5, 2013

What Would They Say If They Could See Us? (Cabin in the Woods)

It’s the last horror movie.

Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really get the credit and recognition it deserves, which makes me pretty sad. Released two years after it was filmed, the movie suffered from a haze of production problems, delays, and a studio that wasn’t sure exactly how much they wanted to commit to the movie. 

What happened was actually kind of funny, since Chris Hemsworth went from being an unknown to a superstar in between the filming of this movie and its actual release. As a matter of fact, his performance in Cabin in the Woods was what made Joss Whedon recommend him to play Thor. So it’s all quite ironic, really.

But none of that tells you anything about the movie itself. So we’ll do that now. Brace yourselves for some SPOILERS here, since I assume that anyone reading this is either uncaring of being spoiled or has already seen the movie.

Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie about horror movies. Not in the way Scream was, mind, nor definitely in the way that Scary Movie and all its many increasingly terrible sequels was either. Cabin in the Woods is a movie about why we need scary stories, and what possible goal they could serve.

In the case of this movie, that goal seems to be saving the world.

Okay, for those of you who haven’t seen it and don’t care about the aforementioned spoilers, here’s the deal. The movie starts off pretty normally, with a group of college kids heading out to an uncle’s cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying. They are, of course, an eclectic group, and all seem like pretty well-rounded interesting characters. We assume they’ll be murder fodder.

They drive up into the mountains to find the cabin, and are warned about it by a really creepy guy at a gas station. All totally normal scary stuff so far.

And then the story shifts, abruptly, and we realize that there’s a lot more going on here than we think.

For starters, there’s a giant underground command center watching our heroes as they settle into the house. The workers in the bunker keep talking about a ritual, and several computer monitors show horror movie plots taking place all over the world. We have absolutely no idea what any of this means, but we do know one thing: the kids upstairs are totally screwed.

It’s this sense of dramatic irony that drives the film. There are no big twists, not really. A few reveals that make you gasp and jump, but ultimately, the real twist here is that the story is so incredibly clever.

The characters upstairs, Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchinson), and Holden (Jesse Williams), are the perfect horror movie clichés, which tips us off right off the bat that something is wrong. 

At the beginning of the movie, we see Dana talking about her affair with a professor, and how she just wants to date someone normal for once, and then later at the house she starts acting all prudish and uncomfortable. Not her original character. Or Curt, who begins by talking about hardcore economic theory, then devolves into a brainless lug.

It’s not bad writing, it’s a clue. And that’s a huge part of what makes this movie so much fun. It’s also a big part of what makes the movie so scary.

Now, the kids upstairs do all the stuff you’re not supposed to do if you want to survive the horror movie, like picking up random evil objects, acting slutty, and splitting up. In fact, they do so many horror movie clichés, that you start to wonder if that’s the point. And it turns out that it is.

Once they get theirs heads in the game, our heroes quickly discover that nothing is as simple as it seems. First of all, they can’t leave. Not just in an “oh the car broke down” way, but in a literal “there is a force field all around this mountain and if we try to get through it we’ll be squashed like bugs” way. As an audience we’ve known about that force field for a while, but seeing them discover it? Really satisfying.

Similarly, we start to get the impression throughout the movie that the workers down below aren’t just sadistic weirdos getting off on the death of some nice kids. First of all, they seem way too invested in it for that, and second, the ritual they’re performing suggests that this is all really important for some reason.

But the real moment of shock and excitement comes when our heroes, all two of them who are left by that point, discover the workers down below. And discover that their sliding behavior, all the things that have been happening to them, the unimaginable horror involved, have been for a greater purpose. To save the world.

It’s really meta. Painfully meta, even. Because these two victims of a stereotypical horror plot finally get the chance to come face to face with the people responsible for their doom.

Just imagine what would happen if the victims in the Nightmare on Elm’s Street or Friday the 13th series got to do that. What would they do to us, the audience that watches idly while they die? And what would they do to the writer and director who caused their torment?

Well, if Cabin in the Woods is any indication, they’d set loose a warren of monsters and watch the world burn.

No, seriously, that’s how the movie ends. Dana and Marty, the only two heroes left alive, share a joint as they sit in an ancient temple and contemplate that if the price for humanity’s continued survival is so bloody, then maybe we shouldn’t survive.

It’s ultimately a really interesting thought, and one that goes a lot deeper than, “Hey, what if every horror movie was really the same story?” That’s a cool concept on its own, but this is deeper.

What does our cultural obsession with torture porn and horror movies say about us? We iconize movies that depict the brutal slaughter of our fellow humans, and see nothing wrong with eating a big tub of popcorn while they die. What would they say to us if they knew we were watching?

Cabin in the Woods is my favorite horror movie. Both because it’s clever and funny and well written, and because it asks a question that I find really important. Is our bloodlust, for lack of a better word, right?


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