Monday, April 23, 2012
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Drew Goddard)
"After the prize-giving the valedictions;
after the phone call a brief sense
of what happiness would be like; after
the forgiveness a struggle to forgive.
Some discourse is expansive, but some
composed of opposing blocks ...
She gives herself
to the right man. Their painless composure.
But, to my purpose, the other, the choice
that is arbitrary, of the free will,
moving the unkeyed sections until they lock.
Not to deflect the wildest things; acceptance
a distinct willing; a reach for truth
like sentences from Tacitus at worst.
Delirium of order. Nor is this easy ..."
- Geoffrey Hill, without title, pg. 21
“Sunk in their pneumatic stalls, Lenina and the Savage sniffed and listened. It was now the turn also for the eyes and skin. The house lights went down; fiery letters stood out solid and as though self-supported in the darkness ...
‘Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of your chair,’ whispered Lenina. ‘Otherwise you won’t get any of the feely effects.’
The Savage did as he was told ...”
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
WARNING: If you have not seen this film yet, then when I tell you to stop reading this review, stop. I will echo the other more conscientious film reviewers and advise you to avoid watching trailers or previews for The Cabin in the Woods. Avoid reading about it (except for the first portion of this review, of course). Get the movie ticket and just go see it.
I can only say that the filmmakers, director Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse), do something more interesting and more intelligent with a horror film than has been done for decades. It starts with the familiar clichés. A group of young friends decide to spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods reminiscent of Evil Dead. Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek, Thor) plays the athletic, masculine jock character, Curt. Anna Hutchinson plays the wild partying girl, Jules. Kristen Connolly plays the more modest nice girl, Dana. Jesse Williams plays the nice guy, Holden. And Fran Kranz (Dollhouse) plays the eccentric philosophical stoner friend, Marty. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Burn After Reading, The Visitor), Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse), and Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest) all play more mysterious characters who are one of the reasons the film is such a nice surprise.
This is a film that turns the genre upside down. It is quite possible for you to watch this and enjoy it for the same reasons that people watch and enjoy all the other mindless shallow bilge that passes for a modern horror movie these days. Or, you could see it because it's different.
It is possible that I'm just not reading the right people, but I have yet to see a satisfactory comprehensive critique of the majority of modern day horror movies that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis. Chernobyl Diaries and 7500, two of the trailers you’ll likely see in front of this film, come out in the next couple months and are prime examples. In early 2012 alone, we’ve had The Devil Inside, The Darkest Hour, The Divide, Don’t Go in the Woods, The Wicker Tree, Kill List, The Innkeepers, Intruders, Playback, Silent House, The Moth Diaries, and ATM. All of which are, as far as I can tell, mindless, cliched, unimaginative, copycat garbage. But it is in a society where these films are popular that we live, and it is in acknowledging the current popularity of these films that makes The Cabin in the Woods worthwhile.
Hollywood can't stop making these things. A film like Final Destination (2000) turns into Final Destination 2 (2003) which turns into Final Destination 3 (2006) and then to The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011). The betting odds are good that Final Destination 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and more are all on the way. The utter stupidity that we, as consumers, keep paying money for seems to be infinite.
There is much to despise in the horror movie genre. This isn't to say that the genre itself is bad. I don't blame "horror" as a type of story or film. Instead, I blame the lazy money-grubbing filmmakers who cater to and sell graphic repulsive gratuitous titillation aimed at the lowest common denominator and at the corruptness imbedded within human nature itself. And I blame anyone who pays money to see this trash (and this includes me).
In case I haven't yet made myself clear, I am proposing that there are moral implications here to personal taste. Not all entertainment is innocent. There are cheap thrills that we indulge ourselves in that are morally reprehensible. There are some things that we ought not to enjoy. There are ways of amusing ourselves that are damaging to the soul. Just because we like feeling something doesn't mean that it is what we ought to feel.
"Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it - believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime ... was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more 'just' or 'ordinate' or 'appropriate' to it than others ...
St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one 'who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart."
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Again, I am NOT saying that the horror film itself is immoral. One of the best new films I've seen over the last couple years was the horror film, Let Me In (also with Richard Jenkins). Talented director, Scott Derrickson, recently directed one of the best horror films in years, the thought-provoking and captivating The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Last year, I even participated in putting together a list of the Top 25 Horror Films from a spiritual perspective. The horror film genre can have incredible value. It can explore and contemplate the difference between good and evil. It can inspire and teach. It can engage in philosophical discussion. It can provide worthwhile cultural commentary. And it can even innocently entertain. And thus, as a moviegoer who hates most horror films, I was pleasantly surprised upon watching The Cabin in the Woods.
As the film progresses, you will find that these characters, while they are playing the cliches of the horror genre, are still different from what you’d expect. None of them are stupid. They all legitimately care about each other. The girls, even Jules, are not going to just dimwittedly wander off so that they can get killed by the monsters/serial killers/whatever. The guys are not emasculate cowards who scream and run just like their effeminate equivalents in the genre. The “jock” character is an intelligent sociology major, with an academic scholarship, who is willing to put himself at risk in order to save the lives of his friends. He angrily punches the monsters in the face like it’s second nature and he runs when running is simply the best tactical decision, not because he’s a coward.
“No ... you think I’m a puppet, huh? You want me to do a fucking puppet dance! I’m not a puppet! I’m the boss of my own brain!”
But, even more importantly, he also actually voices the conscience that ought to be in our own heads whenever we watch a film like Saw or Hostel. When his friends start exploring through a cellar full of the abnormal and the twisted, he is the one to tell them to stop. When his friends start reading through the gruesome, salacious and sensational details of a perverted horror story, Marty is the one to swear (ironically in Christ’s name) and insist that there is no worthwhile reason to be interested in such a story. When his friends are about to read something evil sounding in Latin, Marty declares he’s drawing a line the sand. Why even be interested in it? What is the point? Aren’t there better things to do?
How many of us go the theater to experience a deluge of emotional highs - what is essentially cheap titillation and thrills? What does the experience of watching an average Hollywood horror film do to us? Does the experience do nothing to us? Perhaps it's just a way to pass the time. Perhaps all the jump scenes, all the stripped, sliced and diced human beings, all the increasingly realistically portrayed violent and bloody deaths in these films are all things we can simply put aside once we're finished having fun watching them and walk out of the movie theater.
Or, perhaps not.
Neil Postman argued that modern day society failed to heed the warning of Aldous Huxley in his novel, Brave New World. In Brave New World, the populace is essentially enslaved by increasingly advanced forms of entertainment and the chemically charged feelings and emotional highs given to them by such entertainment. Huxley's novel shows us a society where everyone is shaped by blindly accepting trite platitudes, chemically induced states of mindless lethargy by a drug called soma, addiction to and an obsession with constant sex (encouraged in early childhood), abhorrence to being alone with your thoughts or ever meditating or reflecting upon anything, and constantly indulging in a technologically advanced form of entertainment called "feelies."
“Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’”
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
So, on a final note, when you begin watching this film, here are a few questions to take with you into the movie theater.
1 - Which characters are playing the voice you hear in your own head when you watch a horror film?
2 - Which characters in the film essentially walk out of the film and sit next to you in the movie theater?
3 - What have you been trained and conditioned to expect from a film like The Cabin in the Woods?
4 - At what points in the film do your fellow audience members start tittering?
This is a film to watch very carefully and to listen to very closely. If you do, the results will be highly rewarding. Now, the question is, have you seen it yet?
If your answer is "no" then ...
STOP READING THIS REVIEW NOW AND GO SEE THE FILM.
YOU DO NOT WANT TO SPOIL YOUR ENJOYMENT OF THIS FILM.
I honestly have no clue how anyone could write an at least somewhat satisfactory review of this film without doing that.
So ... you've seen it now. It is going to take a little while for you to start comprehending what Goddard and Whedon just did. They obviously have a fondness for the genre, and that's just fine. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell probably made the greatest horror films of all time, and there's a least one or two moments here where Marty and his bong are endearingly reminiscent of Ash and his twelve-gauge double-barreled Remington.
Intelligence in Hollywood seems so rare these days. Thus the reason I feel so lucky when I finally come across a film like this one. It's allegorical. And while allegory is a concept often applied by critics to too many horror movies (No, I do not believe that by having the girls who have sex in the story be slaughtered that the horror movie is teaching sexual morality), it is delightfully true in this case.
Good cultural commentary is also hard to find, but here we have a story where (1) the very cliches that the American consumer has made so popular over the last three decades are turned into human beings who discover that they have rigged, predetermined roles, (2) where a mockery of free will is made of by outside powers who still gleefully insist they are not really interfering with free will - they get to choose in the cellar after all, (3) the bloody slaughter, the sex, and all the luridness of violent death, pain and suffering are all here to sate and to gratify the white lab-coated workers, the giant evil gods, and ... us, (4) every horror trope is ready and waiting, in a little box, to serve graphic bloody slaughter at our whim and pleasure, (5) what other national pop culture is the one to compete with America for the worst horror movie garbage? ... obviously Japan, and (5) the conviction of the characters and the conviction of the audience at the end cannot help but be that there is something terribly and horribly wrong with a world or universe of this sort.
"Sure enough, Cabin in the Woods is so packed with ideas, so constant in its surprises, that it makes almost all other blood-and-guts genre tales seem boring and lazy by comparison. And as usual, Whedon has a lot more on his mind than leading a bunch of bone-headed sophomores to judgment ... Dare I suggest that The Cabin in the Woods is better at exploring questions about our voyeuristic culture, and about the desensitizing forms of escapism we pursue, than the much-celebrated blockbuster of the year, The Hunger Games? Yes. Yes, I think so."
- Jeffrey Overstreet
Watching the film, we are faced with the same question. Let's think about this for a moment. When we entertain ourselves, what are we really doing? Answer: we are purposefully using crafted stimuli to induce certain emotional reactions in ourselves. In the context of a typical horror movie, we are giving ourselves the emotions of fear, disgust and repulsion.
Ironically, I've already been hearing criticism of The Cabin in the Woods for not being logical enough. The world of the film, they say, doesn't make any sense. But you have to realize that the parts of the film that don't make any sense don't make sense because Goddard is criticizing this precise problem. Dana, Marty, Curt, Jules and Holden are trapped in a bad horror movie (which is the product of our own demand for this very particular type of entertainment). Every time they act unconventionally and outside of their own cliches, it makes the outside forces angry. Then these outside forces directly intervene to shape the actual choices the characters of the film make.
"Anyone stumbling into The Cabin In The Woods because of its generic horror-movie title won’t have to wait long before they figure out they’ve come to the wrong place ... [It] touches on everything from The Evil Dead and Friday The 13th to the mechanized mutilations of the Saw series while digging deeper into the Lovecraftian roots of horror in an attempt to reveal what makes the genre work. The answers prove unsettling, both within the world of the film and in their implications for the world outside it."
- Keith Phipps
The tunnel collapsing precisely at the moment the kids decide to drive the hell out of there is an example of the sort of dumb coincidences that occur regularly in horror films all the time. In this film, the "coincidence" occurs only because the "puppeteers" make it happen so that the evil gods can keep getting what they want; i.e., further spectacle and suffering and mutilation and death. These coincidences happen in most other horror films only because the filmmakers sacrifice logical sense in their story to make them happen so that we, the horror film consumers, can keep getting what we want.
And this is where conscience and common sense come in.
When Curt's intelligent insistence of "We have to stay to together" is manipulated by the outside watchers into the stupid "We should split up so we can cover more ground", Marty is the one asking how that makes any logical sense. When the lab-coats trigger the trap cellar door open, it's Marty again who asks what kind of logical sense it makes for the wind to have apparently, just for no reason, blown the door open. When everyone is entranced by all the "weird shit" in the basement, Marty is the one to tell them, "Guys, I’m not sure it’s awesome to be down here ... Maybe we should go back upstairs ... I dare you all to go upstairs." When Curt and Holden say they want to hear the rest of the family's murder story, Marty is the one to ask "why?"
Marty: "Can we please not talk about people in pieces anymore tonight?"
There is an argument to be made against the objectification of human beings. Horror films objectify their victims in order to induce whatever sort of pleasure the audience takes in watching these people slaughtered on the screen. Pornography objectifies its actresses in order to induce the pleasure the consumer takes in watching it. I suppose you could argue that you can enjoy the films in the Saw franchise, not because you take pleasure in seeing actors pretending to murder and get murdered but because you take pleasure in the feelings of fear that you get from watching that sort of thing. If so, you've just argued your way into making such a film exactly a real life equivalent for the "feelies" that Huxley made so much fun of.
"In a 1923 essay on popular culture called "Pleasures," [Aldous Huxley] writes:
‘Of all the various poisons which modern civilization, by a process of auto-intoxication, brews quietly up within its own bowels, few, it seems to me, are more deadly (while none appears more harmless) than that curious and appalling thing that is technically known as 'pleasure.' 'Pleasure' (I place the word between inverted commas to show that I mean, not real pleasure, but the organized activities officially known by the same name) 'pleasure' - what nightmare visions the word evokes! ... The horrors of modern 'pleasure' arise from the fact that every kind of organized distraction tends to become progressively more and more imbecile .... In place of the old pleasures demanding intelligence and personal initiative, we have vast organizations that provide us with ready-made distractions – distractions which demand from pleasure-seekers no personal participation and no intellectual effort of any sort. To the interminable democracies of the world a million cinemas bring the same balderdash ... Countless audiences soak passively in the tepid bath of nonsense. No mental effort is demanded of them, no participation; they need only sit and keep their eyes open.’ (Essays 1: 355-56)
... Mond explains to John that in the Brave New World there is ‘no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think’ ... Visiting Eton, John asks ‘Do they read Shakespeare?’ He is told that the library ‘contains only books of reference. If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies. We don't encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements’ (163). In Brave New World Shakespeare's work has been severed from its theatricality, as Huxley figures it not in its enacted form but in the more threatening private experience of reading."
- Laura Frost, Huxley’s feelies: the cinema of sensation in Brave New World
This film actually scares me just a little. What sort of person do you have to be, or what type of brain do you have to have, not to see that the film is comparing the guys in the lab-coats to yourself and contrasting them and you with Holden? I doubt that there has ever been another film that makes as a direct attack upon the cliches of the horror genre than this one. How can you watch this film, precisely in order to enjoy the cliches, without even noticing that the cliches are only in this film in order to show you how dumb they really are?
It is no coincidence that Marty calls the divinities that have been predetermining the fates of his friends evil. But, if you pause to think about it, neither is it a coincidence that his reflection on the existence of giant evil deities ends with Dana commenting, "I wish I could have SEEN them." And Marty responds to her with, "I know! That would have been fun!"
I honestly don't know if Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon exactly share my own personal antipathy to most horror films. But they do understand the sheer meaningless of the cliches that have dominated the art form, and their insertion of intelligent questions and a smattering of satire and philosophy into this film has turned it into the sort of thing you rarely ever see from Hollywood. You've got to appreciate it. When all is said and done, it's difficult not to conclude that the sort of universe these five kids find themselves in is repugnant. And the sort of pop culture that produces a high demand for the average horror film is repugnant as well.
There are certain ways that we ought to "feel" about things. And, what we ought to feel ought to preclude the encouragement of precisely the sort of films The Cabin in the Woods shows to be the equivalent of a mentally shallow "feelie."
It may be tempting to feel that the ending of The Cabin in the Woods is nihilistic. But here we have a story, almost similar to The Adjustment Bureau in a few ways, in which some characters insist on making their own choices in spite of the outside powers trying to deny them their own free will. There is a sense in which modern day pop culture will shape and form your own personal tastes for you if you let it, but, like Marty and Dana, you could always choose not to allow that.
“...‘Othello’s good ... Othello’s better than those feelies.’
‘Of course it is,’ the Controller agreed. ‘But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.’
‘But they don’t mean anything.’
‘They mean themselves; they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.’
‘But they’re ... they’re told by an idiot.’ ...”
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World