Welcome to Camp Whedon—
The Teratology of Cabin in the Woods
|Don't worry. The film isn't nearly as complex as this poster makes it seem.|
Josh Whedon has the amazing ability to make me dislike concepts I love (werewolves, demons, cults, ancient evils). It’s not his plots—they’re full of arc and intrigue—but the workaday elements of how he makes his characters speak. Buffy, Angel and Serenity are decent, but every character sounds the same: witty, cutesy, smart-alecky. Whedon writes the way a grownup thinks teenagers speak: His dialogue makes my eye twitch.
|If I close my eyes while I'm watching this show, I can't tell who is speaking.|
So it came as a surprise that Cabin in the Woods is the best film about horror in years. Note the phrasing “best film about horror” and not “horror film,” since Cabin in the Woods is closer to a high concept parody. It begins with five fresh-faced college kids enjoying trademark Whedon banter; if they were any more stereotypical, they’d have their archetypes tattooed on their foreheads. The jock of our group has a cousin who owns a “cabin in the woods” that is the perfect spot for collegiate indiscretion/murderous rampage. We quickly discover that the cabin lives up to its foreboding atmosphere and that we aren’t the only audience watching these poor souls.
If Cabin gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because you’ve seen this all before. That’s the point—Drew Goddard and Josh Whedon, the writers, draw directly from every large horror franchise from the last thirty years. For film buffs, it’s like sightseeing in a hot air balloon: We’re in Romero country. On your left is Clive Barker Island. Now passing John Carpenter Bay (and it used to be such a nice getaway spot).
|Like this, but in movie form.|
If handled poorly, this meta-awareness can sink a film, but here it’s thankfully understated. Cabin allows for a number of monsters to coexist in the same narrative space, similar to House of Frankenstein (1944) or Monster Squad (1987), without becoming bogged down in how the monsters were assembled. Cabin allows for characters inside the film to comment on horror film “rules” (no sex, drugs or splitting up) without winking too much at the audience. Cabin treats itself as entertainment first and commentary second: It points out the absurdity and tiredness of horror clichés while at the same time exploiting them. It’s a sharp critique that doesn’t take itself seriously.
It’s not the first film to decry the state of horror: Scream (1996) and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) are both films that peel back the curtain on the narrative structure of slashers. Waxwork (1988) is eerily similar to Cabin in its combination of horror genres, and it is a forgotten gem of practical effects.
|Cabin's older brother.|
Including Cabin, that’s a self-referential horror film for every decade for the last four decades. The genre is cyclical, and movies come in waves—zombies were hot, then werewolves, then zombies again, then ghosts. Why should the critiques be immune? While some critics are calling Cabin a game changer, I’m calling it a great film from a veteran in the monster business that is tired of shitty movies. Unfortunately, his comments won’t make a peep in the ear of major studios; come summer, there will be another crop of films about a group of fresh-faced youngsters who boldly go where so many have gone before. As long as these films make money, they’ll be back each year, no matter how rotten.