I finally got around to checking out Cabin in the Woods, a horror film about which I’d heard some great things, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out those things were mostly right.
It’s hard to talk about what makes Cabin work without spoiling it, so turn away if you don’t want it ruined for you. Primarily, it’s a strong working knowledge of horror tropes that keeps the script moving. What I think I loved most about the entire idea is that, in the fiction of Cabin in the Woods, every horror movie you’ve ever seen was a real event that happened to real people.
The underlying premise we’re about to discuss is that groups of teenagers who head off to remote cabins or other clear horror-movie venues, and then are viciously murdered by various agents, one by one, are entering engineered situations unbeknownst to them. There’s a clandestine, apparently government-funded agency, with mirrors around the world, who hold the job of luring groups of kids into horror movie situations, allowing them to trigger some awful creatures like zombies or chainsaw-wielding maniacs, and then watching them die.
It’s all a part of an intricate human sacrifice to appease giant demigods that are contained underground. Without the regular sacrifices, the demigods rise and end the world. There’s something great about the way the script seeks out the nonsensical ideas about horror and finds compelling reasons for them to exist: Teen slashers and monster movies invariably include characters that fulfill certain archetypes and often meet their ends in certain orders. There’s usually a strange compulsion in the characters not to flee in the ways that speak to common sense. Hell, Cabin even explains the idea that primary characters tend to end like idiotic, douchey bad-decision-making machines. It’s all covered, methodically, and put together in a sort of Rube Goldberg Machine, operating on the scientific method, built on a foundation of fantasy.
The reason it all works, however, is because of the characters in the know. The technicians running the sacrificial arenas from behind the scenes watch it all unfold with a mixture of droll desensitization and a kind grim fortitude. In one scene, the techs take bets on what implement of their destruction the kids will accidentally choose to mete out their deaths, like the Ghostbusters summoning the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to be the destroyer of New York. In more sullen moments, the techs say important prayers — or they just watch, taking in the spectacle. These guys are shut down to what they’re seeing, they’ve grown complacent in it, made it part of their everyday lives.
And yet, you can tell that a lot about the way they inject humor into the situation by making light of some pretty brutal killings is a means of coping. They know how important their jobs are, and they know what they’re asking, and forcing, the victims to give up. What they haven’t considered is whether the price is too high, or whether they deserve for it to be paid by others against their will.
I think there’s a worthwhile question in just how well Cabin in the Woods works as a horror story, however, and I struggle to say if it actually does. It has a few moments, but its comedic bent swings it heavily toward being more of a dark comedy than a horror film. What’s more, the moments that do approach horror do so in such a way as to, often, push jokes. When they’re not pushing jokes, the horror moments are painfully cliched — in fact, they’re supposed to be, and knowing that bit of information again removes a lot of the essential pressure of horror. Comic relief is important, but in Cabin, it seems like there are no stakes. It’s kind of difficult to really relate to any of the characters, so when they die, it becomes even more difficult to actually care. S
till, I love Cabin‘s metafictional take on the genre. It finds beautiful ways of making sense of our strange Hollywood rules, so much so that finding out just how Cabin‘s horror-science experiment is supposed to work is more compelling than most, or all, of the plights of its characters.