The Cabin in the Woods (2012): A deconstruction of a deconstruction. SPOILER WARNING!!!
There has been much discussion and debate around the details of The Cabin in the Woods, and the film has been getting one of those distasteful tongue baths by thronging hoards of self-aggrandizing nerds everywhere. Unfortunately, it is next to impossible to talk about the film in any remotely interesting way without crossing the line into SPOILER territory. So, if you haven’t seen TCITW yet, and you care one jot about having the films secrets remain, well, secret, then I strongly advise you to stop reading here.
Five friends are spending a weekend “off the grid”, at one of those creepy, remote cabin’s you always see in dead teenager movies. The dead teenagers in question are the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the skank (Anna Hutchison), the brain (Jesse Williams), the stoner (Fran Kranz) and the good girl (Kristen Connolly). Reading aloud a Latin quotation written in a diary they discover in the cabins basement, a family of zombies awaken from their shallow graved slumber. A progression of the usual, standard horror movie clichés plays out.
Or does it?
Well, it does and it doesn’t. There’s more to this scenario than meets the eye. What the dead teenagers essentially are, are pawns in a game. The gamemasters are Richard and Steve (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford respectively), who oversee the whole operation via numerous monitors in a mission control style operating room. They manipulate proceedings by pumping mind and mood altering chemicals into the cabin, locking doors and generally making it impossible for the dead teenagers to escape. All the while the zombies proceed to bump off the dead teenagers one at a time. Don’t you know, this is all part of the grand plan. It seems eons ago humanity came to an arrangement with “The Ancient One’s”, where once a year we would placate them with a ritual sacrifice. This happy agreement in place (happy for all but the victims), they stay “downstairs” and we get to roam about up top.
More than anything else, the TCITW wants to be a comedy, and this is a mistake in focus. While Scream, Shaun of the Dead and Behind the Mask were all very funny films, they were also very effective horror movies. Funny and scary are not mutually exclusive, and in this TCITW fails. Simply put, it’s not a good horror movie. This should be its main goal. It’s cheap and easy to make a by the numbers, run of the mill dead teenagers film. But if your intention is to deconstruct what you perceive as bad, clichéd horror, then you damn well better make your movie a better example of the genre. If you deliver an effective horror film while simultaneously deconstructing the genre, the result can be exceptional.
The performances in TCITW are hit and miss. Both Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are having fun, and are definitely the highlight of the film in terms of performances. It’s a shame that Whitford’s much foreshadowed demise is botched, because it feels like listening to someone tell a lengthy joke then stuffing up the punchline. You’re all set to laugh, but the joke just fizzles. Hemsworth, Connelly and Williams all give decent performances, and Hutchison was dispatched before she became too much of an irritant. However, Fran Kranz, who is basically a really, really annoying variation on Randy from the Scream films, is nerve-shreddingly annoying. Everything from his voice, mannerisms and general attitude gets on your nerves. He’s really fucking annoying, and by the end of the film you’re willing survivor girl to shoot him.
THE COMMAND CENTRE
The whole behind the scenes operation is elaborately constructed, and video monitored. Who’s watching? Are the ancient one’s downstairs on their lazy-boy with a bowl of popcorn and a couple of beers watching on a big flat screen TV? If it was only for monitoring purposes, why does Jenkins say “We’re not the only one’s watching?” I can’t believe he’s talking about The Director here, because if that’s the case, the ominous weight of that line and delivery doesn’t live up to the revelation of The Director. If the fate of the world rests on this ritual sacrifice not cocking up, I find it hard to believe there would be such a jovial atmosphere, and I find it hard to believe if The Director is supposed to be as threatening as she’s made out to be that she would allow such nonsense as betting and drinking. I’m also confused as to why the elaborate operation is required in the first place. Why not select five random teenagers who meet the criteria, take them to the sacrificial chamber and murder them? Job done. Humanity is safe for another 365. It’s these questions, these loose ends, that separate this half baked commentary on horror films from the likes of Behind the Mask.
The film makes reference to, and shows us footage from, similar operations in other countries. By doing so TCITW opens a can of worms. The Japanese schoolgirls being attacked by a ghost and whatever that country with the giant ape was, is never adequately explained. The central ritual sacrifice is clearly defined. The “ancient ones” want a sacrifice of a whore, a jock, a brain, a loser and (in the crappest, most wishy washy plot point) a virgin. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a virgin, because in this day and age they’re hard to find (!?!?!?!?!). And it’s not entirely necessary for the virgin to die. It’s fine either way. What. The. Fuck? That’s not bending logic, that’s snapping logic in two in an attempt to fit it into your genre deconstruction motif. Other countries all have their own operation, but it’s still a sacrifice to the same “ancient ones”. Why do these “ancient ones” demand a certain sacrifice from Americans, but a completely different sacrifice from the Japanese? And whatever the other country was. What the hell has a giant ape got to do with anything? Ghosts and Japan I can at least see the attempt at “deconstruction”, but a giant ape? The other countries subplot should not have been in the film. It complicates it too much and raises too many questions. Just have the one, single sacrifice. This is indulgent filmmaking.
The fundamental basis for the film, what I will call “the twist” (because it should have been a twist delivered halfway through the film instead of blurted out like tourettes at the very start of the film), is actually a good one. But TCITW blows its load from the get go, and ruins what could have been a great revelation. As a twist half way through that makes you re-evaluate all that has come before, it would have been incredibly effective. A huge moment that would surprise the audience. But opening the film with it, and making no bones about what the situation is devalues it. They should have trusted the audience to sit through half of yet another shonky “dead teenagers at a secluded cabin” movie before revealing the larger scope of the film. The impact of Hemsworth halfway through a flying leap for freedom and slamming into an invisible force field barrier would have been astounding. As it stands, that scene would have worked in the current film if that useless fucking shot of the hawk slamming into it at the beginning had been removed.
What would have been fun is if the twist wasn’t even hinted at, and the film pretty much played out the same way. The audience would be kind of lulled into a false sense of security, watching a standard, clichéd horror movie and then have the rug pulled from under them. Hemsworth slams into the barrier, and the film crash cuts to “mission control” and Jenkins and Whitford are going about business. Basically I think, as I mentioned before, that it’s a failure of the filmmakers. They didn’t trust the audience. The film really should almost have been like From Dusk Till Dawn, where out of nowhere it springs a surprise on the audience and demands that they go with it.
I hated it. It has nothing to do with the doomsday ending, and all to do with the characters decisions that lead to it. The two remaining dead teenagers are basically the two most selfish characters ever committed to film. When The Director appears and helpfully takes the time to explain, explain, explain the entire scenario (this is the filmmakers treating the audience like imbeciles), we think we’re about to get the ending that the film deserves, and hey presto! A werewolf magically appears. Then there’s the obligatory struggle and The Director’s about to give us the ending the film deserves, and hey presto! One armed killer kid magically appears!
And then, after all that, the survivor girl decides that instead of saving humanity by killing the stoner (a job I was quite eager to nominate myself for), she delivers the most inexplicably idiotic, moronic, senseless line I can think of in a film. “It’s time for someone else to have a go.” Who else? The giant monsters? That must be who you mean by “someone else”, because there will be no one else left. I also think that The Director wouldn’t appear to try to convince survivor girl to kill the stoner. The Director would simply show up with a gun and shoot the stoner in the head. It’s the worst kind of Bondesque “talking killer” syndrome and considering the situation it was inconceivable that she wouldn’t just walk out and murder him.
Despite all of my criticism, there is good to be found in TCITW. The idea is a good one, and with a few changes, the film could have worked. Writer and director Drew Goddard nails the scene when the two surviving dead teenagers begin their descent in the elevator, and the world beneath is revealed in greater detail. The true horror of their situation is well handled, and once the royal rumble begins the slaughter is fun to watch. It just makes me wish the first half of the film had been better handled.
THE LAST WORD
The Cabin in the Woods is a film that’s less than the sum of its parts. It’s made up of a lot of good things, but they’re nearly all undercut by bad decisions and fundamental errors in execution. The film is not an effective horror film, and it raises questions that it doesn’t have the time or the interest to answer. By being too clever by half, it overextends itself and basically ends up being an interesting, but mishandled series of references and in-jokes.