“Cabin in the Woods” is short on screams, not on smarts

One certainly cannot find fault in lack of ambition in “Cabin in the Woods,” directed and written by Drew Goddard with producer, co-writer, and cult favorite Joss Whedon. It attempts not to be a horror movie, but to be all horror movies. The film, ripe with meta-reflexivity and genre-savviness, pits two tried and true generic conceits against each other in order to disentangle the filmic codes of the horror genre. Though it fails to truly deliver on the scares, “Cabin in the Woods” is a near exhaustive commentary on horror movies, and for a film explicitly constructed of clichés and stereotypes, will most likely prove to be one of the most original films of the year.

“Cabin in the Woods” opens with two seemingly disparate story-lines that quickly converge in surprising and not-so-surprising ways. The film opens with banter between two government types (Richard Jenkins and Henry Whitford) in a high-tech, and presumably secret, facility. They are planning for some global event. Simultaneously five college students embark on a weekend trip to, well, a cabin in the woods. Of course, these characters all fit very neatly into stereotypes. We have Curt the jock (Chris Hemsworth), Jules “the slut” (Anna Hutchison), Holden the brain (Jesse Williams), Marty the stoner (Fran Kranz) and finally Dana the requisite virgin (Kristen Connolly). Thus, the quintessential science-fiction horror opening meets the quintessential slasher opening. Very quickly these two story-lines converge into what can be called a slasher movie conspiracy.

“Cabin in the Woods” assumes a certain knowledge by the audience of the codes of the horror genre. Not only are any and all horror movie clichés, stereotypes and conventions obviously deployed, they are also quickly and repeatedly subverted. This is a horror movie about horror movies. To accomplish this, the film is incredibly invested in watching and voyeurism. When the kids first make it to the cabin, Holden notices that his room has a two-way mirror looking into Dana’s room. As she begins to undress, Holden (reluctantly) bangs on the wall to stop her. Later on, when Jules undresses revealing her breasts, the government men, who (spoiler alert) are surveilling the kids in the cabin, say “nice” to each other after seeing some skin.

The film presents two modes of horror movie audience-ship. On the one hand, we have the compassionate viewer, who watches with sympathy for the victims’ plight. On the other, we have the coolly detached viewer, who is honest about the voyeuristic pleasure of the camera’s gaze. While “Cabin in the Woods” is by no means the first horror film to tackle the voyeuristic nature of the genre, it is perhaps the most complex exploration of this idea. Just think of the layers in the first example above. Holden watches Dana, and himself is watched by the g-men, who are in turn watched by us the audience members. Every mode of voyeurism collapses into one moment quite brilliantly. “Cabin in the Woods” definitely adds its own flavor to the well-established horror-fan-as-sadistic-voyeur idea.

Yet, not all of “Cabin in the Woods’’” subversions of the horror genre work as successfully. Perhaps the problem is not that the film attempts to subvert horror clichés or codes. Rather, the film attempts to subvert the entire (and nebulous) horror genre in one fell swoop. Ambitious as this attempt may be, it was doomed to fail from the beginning. “Cabin in the Woods” meticulously, almost obsessively, deconstructs every horror trope as it happens in the film. What this amounts to is an exhaustive commentary on how horror movies work, which is admittedly impressive in its own right.

However, this leaves no room to tackle why horror works. What are the underlying societal fears that inform horror films? What are the consequences of the voyeurism of horror films? While the film is quick to point out the stark differences between “zombies” and a “zombie hillbilly torture family,” it fails to address the critique of consumerism that underpins zombies or the urban fear of a uncivilized rural other, which the second monster seems to imply. This seems like a huge missed opportunity, especially considering how erudite the writers are when it comes to horror. In other words, “Cabin in the Woods” describes well the filmic elements of horror, but fails entirely to address the important human elements of horror.

Which leads to the question of horror itself. Is “Cabin in the Woods” scary? Decidedly no, and how could it be? Fear comes from the unknown. So when a film meta-reflexively points to and deconstructs every scene, audience fear never has a chance to build. This is not to say that the film lacks gore. There is enough blood and death for several slasher movies. Instead, the viewer is trapped in the detached viewing mode of the g-men, and the film does not allow the compassionate viewing mode. No sympathy? No horror.

The “Scream” series proved that a film can both comment on horror as a genre and be truly terrifying. The lesson to be learned from them is that sometimes a horror movie just needs to be a horror movie. Yes, it is fun to point out the generic codes that lead us to fear, but it is equally fun to invest in those codes unreflexively and get a genuine fright.

All of this is not to say that “Cabin in the Woods” is a bad movie. Despite some missteps, it holds up as a thoughtful and well-made film. Its problem is over-ambition. It tries to do too much, and in doing so somewhat fails to be what it set out to be, a horror movie. At the same time, I love to see the kind of ambitious and risk-taking filmmaking that “Cabin in the Woods” shows. It might not be particularly scary, but “Cabin in the Woods” is well worth the time of any horror fan, and movie fans in general.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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