The other day I watched The Cabin in the Woods for the first time. I have to say, for a film with such a high reputation, I was really not impressed.
The set up is that it’s your standard ’80s horror film; a bunch of college students go out to a, yes, cabin in the woods, where they wake up an ancient evil and get slaughtered one by one. Only this time, it turns out the whole scenario is set up and controlled by a techno-corporate organization for reasons of their own. So we both follow the kids in the cabin and the workers who are arranging for all the cliches to come off. For instance, when the kids decide the best thing to do is arm themselves and stick together, the workers turn on a gas to impair their judgment and make them think that the thing to do is split up.
And that’s kind of the problem; the whole story is in service to this joke, but the joke isn’t either very clever or very funny. People have been making fun of ’80s horror cliches for ages, and Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have anything original to add, except for a few (genuinely funny) gags involving the workers and their blase attitude toward the whole thing. It kind of reminds me of the ‘Godfather’ joke in Zootopia (to draw a somewhat distant example): it’s the sort of thing where, if you’re going to make that joke, you really have to do something original with it. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, for instance, did this very well by making the hillbillies the heroes, while the joke was they kept accidentally acting like the villains. Cabin’s horror-related gags are almost all completely standard and pretty shallow in comparison.
Another problem is that the techno-corporate framing device is all wrong. The aesthetic doesn’t fit the premise. It ought to be either more artistic (akin to a TV studio or theater) or more militaristic. The business-type organization is jarringly at odds with the atmosphere and even the premise of what’s really going on. And like mocking horror films, mocking the business world is nothing new. The satire on both fronts is much too obvious and shallow (the original Robocop was doing these same jokes better thirty years earlier).
On that note (and here we get into spoilers), there’s another issue: it’s revealed near the end that this organization has an entire stable of horror monsters kept locked up in individual vaults and, depending on what the kids did they would have unleashed one or other on them.
There are two major issues with this. One is that, like the corporate America aesthetic, blending all these creatures together, and especially in little technological aquariums, completely ruins any kind of atmosphere. These horrors are completely defanged by being established as essentially ‘props’ kept in a backroom. It’s as effective as seeing costumed characters running around Universal theme park: kind of fun, but completely ruins it as a horror film and destroys any substance it might have had.
The other is that this gets the horror genre all wrong. Good horror is essentially a morality play; there always has to be some ‘transgression’ that brings the horror as consequence. But, according to this film, the corporation essentially seeded the cabin with fake chances to ‘transgress’ while keeping the appropriate monsters in readiness. The game is rigged to produce the intended effect, and that is fatal to the genre.
The way this ought to work would be that the organization would be monitoring people who enter certain areas and providing the retribution if they transgress. That might have allowed them to have their joke without spoiling the horror. As it is, I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s account of his reluctance to accept that the nature he so loved had a creator: it would, he said, be like discovering that the mouse that ran across your path from under a hedge was a wind-up toy that someone had put their on purpose. It all just feels so fake.
The problem isn’t that this isn’t a ‘standard’ horror film, or even that it’s not really a horror film at all. The problem is that what it is instead isn’t very interesting.
This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s really no mystery or twist going on; we follow both sides the whole time and see all the tricks being used throughout the film. What ought to be a startling twist that causes us to question everything we saw is instead just…there.
All that said, it’s not a bad film; there are some funny jokes (my favorite being the running gag about how one of the workers wants to see a merman), and there is some enjoyment to be had with the crazy monster rampage at the end, where genre fans can have some fun identifying the different franchises and films being referenced. I am glad I saw it, if only because I think it is a film worth observing and forming an opinion about.
(Although frankly, if they really wanted to be clever, the Director should have been played by Amy Steel, Heather Langenkamp, or Jamie Lee Curtis, not Sigourney Weaver. Again, the joke is too obvious and doesn’t require any real knowledge or understanding to pull off).
The protagonist of the film, as it turns out, isn’t the redheaded final girl, but her stoner friend, who turns out to be immune from the chemical manipulation of the watchers due to the massive amounts of pot he’s consumed. That, it strikes me, is pretty much what this film is like and probably who it’s made for; it’s like listening to an intelligent, somewhat stoned college student with absolutely no aesthetic or moral sense trying to deconstruct something. He’s able to identify the superficial absurdities and inconsistencies and make witty jokes about them, all while completely missing the point. There’s no real insight into the subject; just a handful of fairly obvious observations.
Galaxy Quest deconstructed and made fun of the tropes of ‘Star Trek’ and similar shows while being itself an excellent example of the genre. So too did Hot Fuzz, Megamind, and The Princess Bride, among others. These films didn’t just play with their tropes, but they also understood why they were tropes and how to use them. In other words, they understood their genres. Cabin in the Woods doesn’t understand horror, it only knows the cliches.