Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Zeppelin in the Woods

Last night, my friend Becca and I - the Abigail doesn't like horror movies, otherwise she'd have come along - went to see "The Cabin in the Woods", Joss Whedon's tour-de-gore. This review will take the place of today's story, but rest easy - I have already written tomorrow's tale.

"The Cabin in the Woods" begins innocuously enough: a young woman - a college student - dances about in her underwear while getting ready for a long-awaited vacation to begin. We meet her whacky friends, learn about her sad plights, and - this being a horror movie, after all - start to predict who will die, how, and in what order.

At the same time, "The Cabin in the Woods" has an innocuous beginning. Suited men and women in windowless facility talk about the banalities of work and life. One man's wife is nesting, and it frustrates him, another man complains about getting older, a woman grapples with inter-departmental politics. Here, there is an undertone of the sinister. We don't like these people nearly as much as we soon come to like the college students. There's a certain underlying pettiness. The conversation never seems to cover exactly what these people are working on, anyway.

Anyway, it soon becomes apparent that the suit-wearing engineers are manipulating the teens, using drugs and subliminal suggestion to force them into horror movie tropes. The teens inevitably screw up, meddling with things they shouldn't and inviting their own doom. Even as the net closes around them, they struggle against the roles foisted upon them, but one by one they succumb, and as they do, they... succumb.

Until everything goes wrong. Wonderfully, hilariously, and tragically wrong.

Neither part of this movie really stands alone. The suit-wearing puppetmasters are unsympathetic villains - human enough, and callous enough, that I gradually came to hate them. The college-kids-in-a-creepy-cabin half of the movie is bog-standard horror fare, albeit one partly written by Joss Whedon (say what you want about the man, he can write dialogue like a motherfucker). Together, however, they create a scathing commentary on the nature of art, and the relationship between art and audience.

You see, we are the men and women in suits (actually, there's a better comparison, but I don't want to spoil everything). We are the ones who demand obedience - conventionality - in our mass market entertainment. And we are the ones who punish anyone who tries to catch us by surprise with something new and fresh. And if we don't get what we want...

Well, I did just say I didn't want to spoil everything.

I have to admit, though, that the movie left an odd taste in my mouth. Coming from anyone else, the lesson would have been easier to swallow. Coming from Joss Whedon - an author of considerable creative narcissism, a man who actually believes the Firefly was perfect and its cancellation none of his fault - it seemed a little sly and a little bitter.

In my opinion, this is a creative commandment: THOU SHALT RESPECT THINE AUDIENCE, FOR IT IS WITH THEIR MONEY THAT THOU ART SUPPORTED. It's one thing to criticize your audience, it's something else to make fun of them, to have a joke at their expense.

That said, my overall impression was that this movie is the sendup that mass media horror movies have needed for a long time. I don't know how many people are going to get it, or if the right people are going to get it, or if it's going to have any kind of impact. I do know, however, that "The Cabin in the Woods" was a wonderful, clever, smart, and bloody sojourn through the land of horror, and I recommend it without reservation.

I give "The Cabin in the Woods" three zeppelins out of four, and a handful of zombies to boot.


Becca said...

So I've been doing some thinking (SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT):

The zombies and the monsters in Cabin in the Woods aren't particularly frightening. Sure, I hate gore, but they're purposefully put there as a trope.

What is frightening (at least to me) is the idea of some mysterious force paring you down until you're nothing more than an archetype. And that no matter what you do or how cleverly you try to save yourself and your friends, the outcome has essentially already been decided. And when you do the "good" thing (Dana and Marty not killing each other), that is what results in the end of the world.

That to me is horror.

Mark said...

I absolutely agree. The way that sense and morality were twisted-up in this movie was the most existentially horrible thing about it. This was a Lovecraft story, hiding inside a laugh-and-scream horror movie.