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So. I saw Cabin In the Woods last night.


I am really disappointed. I don't usually watch horror movies (though I enjoy many other stories that have horrific elements), but I was sure I'd enjoy this Joss Whedon production. Because he subverts the horror tropes, right? And there would be clever dialogue, and JW humor.

Well, all those things were true, but I was left with a very bad feeling in my stomach.

Let me say up front that this was a well-made film. I found no fault with the writing, the acting, the effects -- the way this story was told was quite skillful. It's the story itself I had trouble with.

The basic premise (I did say big honkin' spoilers) is that the reason horror films are so similar, the reason they follow a predictable pattern, is that they represent an underlying reality. Horror stories are a yearly sacrifice to the Old Gods, who live under the earth, and who would emerge to eat all of humanity if they were not placated. There are covert organizations on each continent which enact these dark rituals every year. In North America, the ritual involves 5 victims: the Whore, the Scholar, the Athlete, the Fool and the Virgin. (In Japan, the sacrifice involves schoolgirls.) As each victim dies, his or her blood pours into a carved plinth which represents his/her role. As long as at least one continent's sacrifice is successfully completed, Earth will be safe for another year.

Our five victims are being manipulated by a crew of operatives who resemble a Wolfram & Hart version of Apollo 13's ground support team. Bradley Whitford leads this production crew from an underground bunker, where teams sit at control panels and watch the action on huge banks of monitor screens. The victims' deaths are pre-ordained (except for the Virgin, whose death is "optional as long as she's last"), but their reactions to their creepy environment allow them to unwittingly choose the method of their death. When the five college students venture into the cabin's basement and read aloud a Latin passage from an old diary they find there, that activates the Zombies option in the mission's menu. Downstairs, Brad Whitford's character is crushed because his wager in the betting pool was on Death by Mer-man.

We see the Whore and the Scholar killed by the zombified corpses of a backwoods family. The deaths are just as bloody, and just as scripted, as in any standard horror movie. The point, in CitW, is that those zombies are real: even though they are released by control panels and crews wearing headsets, they are still undead, still nearly impossible to stop.

This enactment of the sacrifice takes a turn when Fran Kranz's character, cast in the victim-role of Fool, finds his way behind the scenes. He and Kristen Connolly's Virgin accidentally set loose the army of caged monsters on the production crew, and a blood-bath ensues which reminded me of the destruction of the N.I.C.E. in C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. Because the Virgin and the Fool both survive until sunrise, the North American sacrifice is unsuccessful. Unfortunately for humanity, this year all the other sacrifices also fail (the Japanese schoolgirls band together to successfully tame their demon). The final shot of the movie shows the massive hand of one of the Old Gods, larger than the cabin itself, erupting from the ground.

So yes, tropes were subverted. The things that go bump in the night are real, no they're props in a big pre-planned show, no they're real after all, and they eat the producers.

What bothered me about this story?

There is no heroism here. No self-sacrifice, no redemption. Most of the characters have no opportunity to save themselves or anyone else, and it seemed like most of them would not have taken the chance to save someone else if they had. This story is peopled with monsters, victims and quislings. Who were we supposed to be rooting for?

Near the end, Sigourney Weaver (in a very appropriate grand dame of horror cameo) tells Fran Kranz' character that if he at least dies before sunrise, the sacrifice will be successful and humanity will be safe for another year. "You can die with them, or for them," she says. The Fool refuses that option, stating that maybe it's time for someone else (other than humanity) to have a chance.

But who else is there? The werewolves, zombies, and other eldritch horrors he's just seen gnawing on the entrails of the production crew? The Old Gods themselves? (And BTW, why were those Old Gods content to remain below the earth for a paltry five lives a year?)

I think it's reasonable for the Fool to refuse to accept that since he's going to die anyway, he should allow himself to be murdered. I just wish there had been some chance for somebody to redeem something, and there wasn't.

CitW seems to suffer from the same problem as the filmed version of the Hunger Games. It's valid, and a good thing, for a story to point out that our culture goes way too far in turning death and bloodshed into a spectator sport. We damage our humanity when we entertain ourselves with the deaths of others, whether we're the citizens of PanEm's capital celebrating the gladitorial games, or technicians at a control bank flipping the switch that releases the hellhounds.

But when you put that condemnation on screen and sell it for $10 a ticket (I'm guilty here, too -- I paid my $10) how different is that? Because all the blood was movie makeup, does that make us not!carnage-voyeurs?

I'm not sure it does.

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readerjane

May 2014

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