Return to Cabin in the Woods

My first viewing of this film was one of those great cinematic experiences, where the energy of the audience created a positive feedback loop that ramped up the enjoyment on all levels. It was an argument in favour of a theatrical experience, compared to watching a film alone on your iPad. That’s a fine test, so far as it goes, but being fun to watch at the cinema is perhaps a lower benchmark than most films actually need to meet over the course of their total lifespans. I also enjoyed The Amazing Spiderman… in the theatre. I suspect it’s numerous shortcomings will only become more obvious when watched at home, on a tiny screen with tinny sound.

So. I enjoyed Cabin in the Woods, but always knew that I would need to return to it on DVD to really see what it does. And this I have now done.

The big question for me is whether it is works as horror. What, you ask, is horror? A good question, and one toward whose answer I must stumble via a series of interconnected emotional responses, any of which might be regarded as the key concept, depending on tastes and sophistication. Horror is unsettling, it is terrifying, it is sad, even tragic.  Whether the supernatural is necessary is not a straightforward question either: quite a few lists include Psycho as a great horror, but there’s nothing supernatural about Bates.

Horror works in a number of different registers, so the kind of moment-by-moment unease you get from Saw is wholly different from the existential angst that motivates the suicides in “The King In Yellow”. We just need The Cabin In The Woods to work on one register, and in some ways, the structure of the film unfolds in stages, giving itself chances to work in different ways at different times.

The early film draws on a quite modern notions of the surveillance state. The close observation and clear manipulation of events by government agents speak to modern anxieties. It is not horror, but it’s got the right ideas. When they begin discussing “the grid” in the RV, it draws attention to these anxieties, but it simultaneously undermines the anxieties through irony.

The film then moves to the cabin itself. We are informed that this is dangerous ground explicitly by characters inside the fiction. The mise en scene is constructed to make us uncomfortable – the film darkens, the camera angles change, the shots are framed closer, the musical cues change. Then we get the undead emerging. We feel nervous, because we have some empathy with the characters. It is not unsettling, however, nor does it raise existential questions – because we know of the synthetic origin of the threat. The Redneck flesh-eaters are functionally robotic, and so scary in the same way as the robots in Runaway [1984]. Exposition is the great enemy of horror, at least IME.

We then get the unleashing of horrors into the complex. It’s horrific only in the most literal sense – carnage in massive helpings.

In the final act, we get to the heart of the matter. Old Ones derived from Lovecraft. I won’t pretend to Lovecraftian scholarship at this point, but I will point out a few key features. The Old Ones represent the ultimate unknown quantity, but perhaps I’m alone in not finding that inherently scary or unsettling – at least, hardly moreso than most so-called legitimate religions. What’s scary about the Old Ones is the blind commitment of their cult – people prepared to sacrifice any part of their humanity in service of gods they don’t understand to serve ends they don’t understand. Your mileage may vary, but that’s not the vibe I get from the White Collar Cultists. They are primarily pragmatists, not believers. It rips the heart out of the horror, for me at least.

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