Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror. Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone. The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform, grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them… The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…
The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…
And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.
Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head. In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer(as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.
For seven years Buffywas a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses. In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**
Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation. It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.
We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.
The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end. Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns… ergh… clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them. This is the first level of narrative. The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out. It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.
Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.
However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them. To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors. The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us. We viewers. Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.
Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down. Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent? A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational? The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all? And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other? …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?
Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline… And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait? Why go for the dust-speckled diary? Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy? Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck? But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…
On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.
Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them. Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below. We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.
And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.
In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation. As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore. The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.
Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…) How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’
And then –
Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.
That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership. Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.
But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.
And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.
So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.
* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).
** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Deadand Hot Fuzz, however…
This article was first posted on January 11, 2013