So I saw Cabin in the Woods. I was duly horrified. Not as horrified as the woman who kept screaming in the row behind me, but I left the cinema with mouth agape, slightly deaf from the screaming, but also thinking THAT is how you do it. Appalled.
You know how Revenge feels like a fairy tale, what with the girl becoming an adult and duelling with the wicked witch/step-mother with a faithful wolf/dog that recognises her? It also seems to enable every memory of soap opera melodramas to come to the fore, without overpowering this rich (in every sense of the word) and textured place. It’s a narrative that deals with fairy tales in exactly the way Once Upon a Time should’ve – informing moments and the plot, but no more. Revenge is just as ‘fantastical’ as Once Upon a Time but it’s not a distraction from feeling for the characters. In a similar way Cabin in the Woods is exactly what a horror film using nightmare and myth ought to be. It’s a summation of the entire genre while presenting its foundation and source and its conclusion. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have ‘drawn a line in the sand’ (to quote the film) and said: horror, it’s kinda, like, done now.
And yes. It is gory. Way. I mean a lot. So much. The set dressers and the clean up crew should get medals. And I’m not into complete gore-fests either so I did have to hide my eyes behind my scarf, a bit. But this was on another level, so over the top it was comical at times, but then so terrifying they cut away, thanks the Gods.
When Steven Moffat spoke about bringing fairy tales into Dr Who he didn’t imagine this (especially the wolf scene…and can’t really, given it’s TV and they keep going on about how it’s for kids). But I imagine he wanted important and encompassing and in this Cabin got it mostly right. Humans have stories and rituals to comfort themselves about the nightmares they have, which are real, but also a psychological and physical block on what is so much worse – the source of the nightmares. The film plays with the idea of storytelling: about how people invent people and Make Them Suffer for the enjoyment of others. Yet it comments too, on film making and how we watch films. Characters become aware of the Puppeteers manipulating their actions and the Puppeteers themselves first create and then watch these Five Archetypes fulfil their destiny, just as humans become aware of the forces that lie beyond us.
About 2,500 years ago communities listened to poets/priests/priestesses/shamans relate the story of the Minotaur, which is also based on real stuff. We are the audience, but we are also watching the Puppeteer Shaman reshape the world and perform. We watch their consummate performance as story teller-wizard-scientist while also on some level, expecting their hubris, their fall, since every myth sequence features a story of the fall. Shamans control and direct immense spiritual knowledge, like writers directing a narrative, but are also subject to it and can be overwhelmed by it. Since Shamans and writers are human too.
Getting back to the filmy filmic parts of this, ahem, film. So much detail. Story boards of plot opportunities featuring the multiple choices the writers have in the genre. There is the Shaman as audience to a horror film, celebrating amid the carnage, mirroring us, laughing at the story of the carnage they enabled. There is the new outsider to the Shaman-Scientists as a foil to introduce the audience to this place where everything is at stake. Amy Acker’s character brings the reflexivity to the film in exactly the same way Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury brought it to The Avengers, only this time she defends the coping mechanisms for what they are doing, which says to the audience: it’s ok to laugh at this film, even if people are dying.
This film makes evil messy and scary. Forget the tropes of supernatural as psychological code that has vampirism = addiction and/or sexual predation, and werewolves = rage, which is fine on one level, but sometimes not Other enough. It’s like what you see in civilised programs like Angel or Being Human (UK) which are interesting, full of beautiful and tortured people, but they are people and monsters and all about angst and mostly not visceral. That’s because where the wild things are is more dangerous and bloody and all engulfing and NOT HUMAN.
In a way all horror films are about humanity’s fear of the BIG NATURAL WORLD we are all subject too, even though we fool ourselves we know it all and can control it. In this film The Other is certainly not a mask on humanity. The humans have their own masks enough. Bradley Whitford’s Hadley is a study in turning on ‘the humanity’ on a dime. Brilliant.
The film and ones like it, also toy slightly with the idea of the supernatural as mental illness, given that Schizophrenia can have an onset in late teens and the early 20s, especially combined with risky behaviours such as drug use. Buffy and Cabin use the notion of how the onset of adolescence and then growing up is dangerous only this time, explain the why of this.
Cabin answers the why behind Spike’s ‘it’s always got to be blood’. The horrors we know through pop culture, which bleed through our nightmares by way of myth, ultimately come from somewhere. This film posits that this somewhere is Other and also Real. And that Other needs things from humans. And has done forever. That we fancy we can abate it by our clumsy or sophisticated methods is false comfort. It demeans us; it makes the audience complicit in evil. Laughing at another’s suffering, which this film invites us to do, feels uncomfortable, but the film also allows the audience to make it ok by disguising this as justice. Some of the humans, as everyday as they are presented, and as they explain, as necessary as they are, are also despicable. The audience first witnesses the heroes suffer, which is followed by their manipulators, and it is at this point where there are cheers and also some laughter. But we laugh at our own destruction. The justice meted out when the heroes say enough to manipulation, enough of fate and to the abatement of the gods for fear of what they will do, means the end. The heroes ask; if murder is how we survive the darkness, why survive?
The heroes too are shaped into Genre Stereotypes by the film writers, just as the characters are manipulated into becoming what are needed as Archetypes by the Puppeteer-Shaman-Scientists. We are forced to feel for them and side for them and then…well I won’t give it all away, but decide how you feel about the heroes at the end. Is it the right end?
The story says if you are going to play with big mythic or genre themes, go all out. Go big, use them all up because viewers are sophisticated and geddit. So the film gives us Japanese horror as another ‘screen’ we are familiar with, and then gives it a purpose and a new meaning. In fact all those horror themes and tropes now have a purpose. And it aint Greek Catharsis or pop psychology. No. It’s plain Bad.