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Going deeper into ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2012 7:36 am

We’ve hit the two-week pre-summer doldrums I’ve been lamenting about lately, and frankly I think we both have better things to do with our time and efforts than read and write about “Think Like a Man” or “The Lucky One” or “The Three Stooges” or whatever other nonsense that opened last week. (However, in the interest of keeping reviews current and filling my quota of family titles, I will bow to pressure and take a look at “Pirates! Band of Misfits” next time. “The Avengers,” of course, will follow.)

Far better, I think, to take the opportunity to delve more deeply into “The Cabin in the Woods” and touch on some points that I didn’t get to fully explore last time.

In my original review I enthusiastically recommended the movie to anyone with a pulse and halfway decent taste in film, and my comments stand. The film has something to please everyone except the most curmudgeonly and self-serious of viewers, and its trans-generational appeal is quite striking in an age when the vast majority of horror films specifically cater to a younger (and irredeemably stupid) teenage audience.

Yet I heard from some readers who were nonplussed by the film and rather bewildered at my giddy excitement, wondering if I’ve gone off the deep end by interpreting an innocent genre flick in some kind of bizarro neo-meta framework. I assure you this is not the case, but in order to fully explain why “The Cabin in the Woods” is so wonderful and unusual, we’re gonna have to go deep down the rabbit hole. Consequently, the following is meant only for those who have either already seen the film or have absolutely no interest in doing so. And if that’s the case, then why are you still reading this? And what’s wrong you, anyway?

If you took my advice and saw “The Cabin in the Woods,” then you have no doubt discovered that it is not your typical horror show, and in fact it may be a mistake to label it as a “horror movie” at all. The film is far more funny than scary, with a major laugh coming roughly every 10 minutes. (Honestly, the only scene that left me unsettled was the Foundation’s celebration sequence, played out in front of the monitors showing Dana being smacked around by the boogeyman — not scary, per se, but definitely a tad disturbing.) The filmmakers prefer to make their points about the state of the modern horror film by employing laughs instead of hardcore scares, and this approach pays dividends. A serious-minded genre deconstruction could have come off as pretentious and labored, but by playing the whole thing for laughs, the filmmakers are able, to use an awful cliché, to have their cake and eat it too.

Yet the film is not exclusively concerned with providing entertainment value, as it’s packed to the brim with subtext that reveals its true agenda. Most important is the ending, which finds our surviving heroes, the innocent and virginal Dana (Kristen Connelly) and anti-establishment pothead Marty (Fran Kranz), faced with a choice: Kill Marty and complete the ritualistic sacrifice to appease the ancient gods, or say “screw it” and allow every human being on Earth to suffer a painful and prolonged death at the hands of otherworldly creatures whose destructive power we cannot even begin to comprehend. After killing the head of the Foundation (and executing the “system purge,” which right now is at the top of my list of the coolest things I’ve ever seen), Dana and Mary do the only logical thing — spark up a joint, sit back and watch the world literally go to hell.

In this scenario the ritual sacrifice is a metaphor for the entire horror genre, which for the past 40 years has been comprised primarily of stories about young people being killed in some grotesque manner. And the ancient gods — who are roused from their slumber after the ritual is left incomplete, thus depriving them of their rigidly structured “entertainment” — are stand-ins for the audience itself. From the filmmakers’ perspective, modern horror film viewers are indistinguishable from these dark gods, and routinely set out to destroy anything bold or imaginative or even slightly different from their preconceived notions of what a horror movie should be. If the laundry list of genre clichés is ignored and expectations are not fulfilled, “fans” ensure that a movie fails. Filmmakers are left in the same situation as the Foundation members: “Keep the audience happy,” or risk complete devastation.

So in the end, is “The Cabin in the Woods” a celebration or indictment of the horror genre? At the risk of sounding fickle, I daresay it’s both — a celebration, because the filmmakers are clearly passionate about the horror genre, and besides making great use of the same genre standards they lampoon, their work is overflowing with knowing references to and riffs on a good number of modern horror movies; and an indictment, as horror filmmakers and audiences alike are portrayed as being so set in their routine that they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Above all, “The Cabin in the Woods” is like a gauntlet thrown down at the feet of the entire mass-marketed horror film industry (at this point perhaps more accurately described as a racket). More than a celebration or indictment (or, as some have theorized, a eulogy), the film is an out-and-out challenge to other genre writers and directors to make their work better — more fun, more wise, more relevant and just little more creative, damn it. The modern horror film is functionally dead, and it has been for a long time. Isn’t it time to give “something new” a turn?

Well, maybe not, if the box office receipts for this film are any indication. The movie is well on its way to pulling in a grand total of about $40-45 million for its domestic run, which is incredibly cruel and disheartening when you consider that “The Hunger Games” — which in its whole two and a half hours offers not even a fraction of the entertainment value and intellectual stimulation provided by any random five-minute chunk of “The Cabin in the Woods” — will close at about 10 times that much. So yes, the battle is lost. But the war against mediocrity continues, and you can do your part: See ‘The Cabin in the Woods” before it leaves theaters.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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