Cabin In the Woods: Random Spoilery Thoughts

Seen the film? Read my spoiler-free review yet? I hope the answer to both is yes because I'm not going to re-hash what I said in the review, and there's a couple of very specific things I want to say about Cabin that require revealing things that should not be revealed in advance.

Seriously, you've been warned.

Last chance, Turn back now. The next paragraph will lead with a HUGE SPOILER. OMG THIS WILL RUIN THE MOVIE IF YOU READ IT FIRST.

Actually that was a total lie. But there will be spoilers coming very soon.

- Having now seen it twice (and likely going back for a third shot in a few days) I think I understand why the film isn't going to be a huge box office hit. The fact of the matter is, Cabin In the Woods is a lousy horror movie.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's a great movie, one that's amazingly clever and that works on multiple levels, filled with outstanding performances and ideas. But on its most basic level, as a horror movie, it falls flat. It's neither particularly scary nor very gory.

Consider the scene where Jules gets her head sawed off. It's classic soft sell editing: quick shots between her face in close up looking terrified and that of Curt being forced to watch, with the saw blade then coming into camera in front of her face, then a reverse shot and a spray of blood. You don't even see the saw cut into her flesh, much less the actual decapitation. And while that might be an artistic choice, it undercuts one of the major themes of the movie - namely that the slaughter is being done for the titillation of an audience (whether the Ancient Ones themselves, or the typical horror film demographic). We get the obligatory 'boobies' shot, but the nuts and bolts money shots of a horror film, the kills themselves, are mostly lacking. Of course there's the unleashed mayhem of the final act to help make up for that, but even then other than things like the awesome death-by-unicorn scene very few of those kills are shown in much detail.

That's the main reason, I think, that the audience reaction is lagging behind the critical one (81% vs 93% on Rotten Tomatoes as of last night). Horror fans going in expecting nothing more than a horror film with a twist ending, which is what the ad campaign is promising, could very well be hugely disappointed by the actual movie they get, which is a comedy-thriller about horror films and not a horror film itself.

- In addition to being a film about horror films, Cabin is rapidly on its way to being one of my favourite films about filmmaking. Don't pretend you're shocked by that interpretation. They call Sigourney Weaver's character the Director, for pity's sake. Jenkins, Whitford, Acker et al are clearly the crew and special effects team, while Dana and crew are the cast. And as I noted above, all the dialogue referencing the fact that 'someone's watching' play just as well as applying to the asses in the seats watching Cabin as they do to the gods Downstairs.

- It's been ages since I've seen a proper Snake Plissken ending. So much of the movie hinges on free will and choice, and the fact that Dana and Marty choose to let the world end was the only possible ending that would have been satisfying. Had the film been French, I could have seen it ending with Dana plugging Marty after all, then a flash-forward to the next ritual where she's now filling one of the control chairs, but that would have been an even more cynical conclusion than the one we actually got.

It also ties in neatly with one of the sneakiest undercurrents to Cabin, which is that's it's not just a "love letter" to horror movies but an actual defense of their place in the cultural sphere. Think about it: from a purely plot perspective, in Cabin horror films (or at least horror film-like scenarios) are saving the world, and the world will come crashing down if they cease to perform their prescribed function.

Which of course begs the question: what is that function? Cautionary tale? Catharsis? Sublimation? If there's a specific equation to the paying audience for the film with the Ancient Ones, are we the ones being kept asleep/dormant by horror movies? The film ties those horror film scenarios to older forms of ritual sacrifice, explicitly to the killing of young people, and from that angle one could easily also bring in things like fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel to pick an obvious example) which also tend to feature young folk being imperiled, if not eaten. The big difference, of course, is that in fairy tales the kids usually survive, whereas in horror films they mostly don't. The morality of fairy tales also tends to be a lot more complex than the basic "good girl lives, sexed-up teens gets offed" horror template that Cabin riffs on.

- visual quotes I've caught so far, above and beyond all the in-jokes on the white board and among the monsters:

1) the opening crane shot up to Dana's room at the beginning is clearly a Scream lift
2) the cabin itself is obviously the one from Evil Dead
3) Papa Buckner rising back out of the lake by the dock is very Jason/Friday the 13th-esque, but I don't have the series memorized so I can't tell you which one specifically it's from (assuming it's not all of them)
4) as I saw someone on Twitter point out, Curt's green #88 dirt bike is from Pumpkinhead
5) I'm almost positive Mordecai's run-down gas station is also modeled on something specific the way the cabin is, but my brain is refusing to provide an answer

- speaking of Mordecai, character actor Tim de Zarn owns the movie in his all-too-brief screen time. In prior decades a role like that might have gone to a Brion James or a Tobin Bell, and I'm hoping de Zarn finds his career moving up to that kind of level after this.

- one relatively minor question that I find inordinately interesting. Do horror movies actually exist in the universe of Cabin In the Woods?

There's two schools of thought here. One is that they don't, since none of the characters make remarks like "Hey, this looks just like the cabin from Evil Dead!" or "Hey, stop reading that Latin incantation! Haven't you ever seen a horror movie before?" The other is that they do, but the chemical and subliminal control being exerted on the characters prevents them from recognizing that they are in a typical horror movie scenario. I'm inclined to believe the latter, simply because in a movie about horror movies it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense if horror movies didn't exist in that universe, but I can see it both ways.

I can totally understand why Whedon and Goddard would have kept those kinds of references out of the film though, both to avoid explicit Scream comparisons and to try not to jar the audience (any further) out of the moment.

- speaking obliquely of Scream, there's a line right at the beginning of the film that mentions that the last time the US team failed in their ritual (which was the fault of Acker's Chem department) came in 1998. I initially thought that was a Scream nod, but then realized later that Scream came out in '96, not '98. So then... what "failure" are they referring to? I can't figure it out. Here's what Wiki lists as American horror releases in '98:

Bride of Chucky
Deep Rising
The Faculty
Halloween H20
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Van Sant's abortion of a Psycho remake
Species II
Urban Legend

OK, so it was a really shitty year for American horror movies, but it looks like that was just a throwaway line and not a reference to anything specific.

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