Genre-Breakdown: The Problems With ‘Cabin in the Woods’

By  · Published on April 17th, 2012

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Cabin in the Woods

Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws was one of the rare academic books to become a hit amongst a larger, dedicated movie-going public. The book introduced the term “final girl” (the virginal “good” female who often becomes the final victim or lone survivor at during the final act of a horror film) into the zeitgeist, and it’s an idea that seems so obvious, and is so pervasive throughout the genre, that the fact that a similar term had never been popularized before was simply confounding.

It’s also the central organizing conceit to Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, the most overt act of genre deconstruction to enter multiplexes in quite some time. The final girl does not emerge in Cabin as it does in its normal generic form (as a narrative inevitability, a cliché), but rather Clover’s coined conceptualization of “the final girl” encompassingly structures the film – it is the critique of generic conceit, rather than the routine employment of a generic norm, that acts as Cabin’s narrative impetus.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Cabin’s third act cameo features an actress whose most famous character was perhaps the first “final girl” featured in a sci-fi/horror hybrid.

As the long-awaited, much-buzzed Cabin entered theaters, it was met with review after review (mostly positive) whose introductions featured nearly the exact same qualification: that the critic couldn’t say much without spoiling, and that a publicist at the press screening made sure this was understood under no uncertain terms. But the carefully regulated, spoiler-dodging buzz around the film typically denotes a type of film that Cabin isn’t.

Alfred Hitchcock once required that audiences come enter Psycho at the film’s beginning (not a regular practice in 1960) so that the shower-set surprise partway through the film could achieve its greatest effect. And since then, audiences and critics have been careful to not let the surprises of The Empire Strikes Back, The Vanishing, The Crying Game, Seven, The Usual Suspects, or The Sixth Sense get unnecessarily spilled too early on.

But Cabin in the Woods is not the type of film where a third-act reveal would make one examine the film differently. In fact, it’s rather difficult to tell which details the filmmakers, producers, studio heads, and publicists are and are not keen with you knowing going in. After all, Cabin is a film in which the groundwork for the “surprise” is introduced in the opening scene, even before the facade of “normalcy” that surprise typically sweeps under is established.

I’m not giving Cabin shit for not being SevenCabin should obviously be evaluated only on what it attempts to accomplish on its own. Nor am I saying that critics should have embraced a license to spoil Cabin – I saw the film knowing decidedly little going in and that’s clearly the best way to see it. However, it is a strange event when a film whose central structuring force is exercising, exploring and critiquing generic clichés manufactures a hushed buzz around it, fearing the risk of its content getting spoiled. Lionsgate and co. were very careful to not let audiences know precisely which clichés were going to get sent up.

Of course, the rules of genre and the lack of originality therein can be a place where the most fascinating and original acts of cinema can be made (think of last year’s Drive as a film noir, for example). And indeed, the third-act monster party chaos-athon was definitely a climax worth building up to, replete with a hilarious and uncanny act of penetration (yes, I’m talking about the unicorn (and, for that matter, body genres)). But to stretch the metaphor further, Cabin in the Woods is far less of a titillating sex game that gets surprisingly kinky with genre, and more an act of masturbation.

There’s something potentially very intelligent happening under wraps here, but the genre critique rarely extends beyond half-mast, which is quite unfortunate considering what we’re then left with because (as A.O. Scott states far more eloquently than I do) the film’s meta-cleverness becomes a liability when it prevents us from actually enjoying viscerally the appealing aspects of horror cinema (i.e., real scares and less forced laughs).

There are moments where Goddard and Whedon’s humor almost reaches a Michael Haneke-level critique absent the Austrian’s self-righteousness and with a lighter touch in the vein of audience condemnation: the functionaries taking bets of who will survive and following up a scene of female full-frontal nudity with a reverse-shot of middle-aged men ogling are two moments that successfully implicate horror movie audiences in the only way that one could get away with in the multiplex. But as my colleague (and Whedon expert) Josh Coonrod at Into the Dark states, it doesn’t ultimately add up to much:

“At times, the Buckners crossed with the movie’s closing scenes make it read like some kind of anti-horror movie, something meant to criticize the very idea of trying to scare audiences. There’s a few moments you can feel Whedon’s intentions getting away from him, playing like one of those Buffy episodes that seems to desperately lose track of its own theme. He can’t decide if he wants to celebrate the genre, take it down a peg, or pull it apart and examine it like clockwork. You could say he’s doing all of the above, but most of the ideas here don’t seem to be much more than a reflection of broad horror movie clichés coupled with the kinds of reflections on the genre you might have over a few beers with friends.”

Where Coonrod sees certain definitive connections between Cabin and what is mostly engaging and occasionally maddening about Buffy, I see the same with Goddard’s Lost credentials. Lost was a series that had a hypnotic and uncanny ability to motivate its audience to invest in mystery. But some devotees like myself found the experience exhausting as each enigmatic question would be answered only with another enigma. A hatch leads to some sort of island crank thing which leads to some invisible dude which leads to a shiny fountain (forgive me, it’s been awhile since the Lost video blog days).

A similar sort of logic operates throughout Cabin in the Woods in tandem with Whedon’s signature genre-play. The answer to these carefully built details surrounding a NASA-like institution regulating horror clichés turns out to be not reality television as briefly hinted at (which also wouldn’t have been a profoundly revealing choice, but would have made Cabin a nice pairing with The Hunger Games).

Instead, the narrative justification for the film’s wink-and-nudge storytelling consists of a handful of surly, malevolent gods living underground. The gods get mad when the clichés of the carefully orchestrated horror situations are not followed through – which, yes, is pretty funny when you think about it. Do they represent mainstream audiences, or studio heads, or perhaps both since each group has a reputation for low tolerance regarding change or alteration from regimented expectations?

Whatever the answer may be, they aren’t all that interesting narratively. Questions are answered only with another enigma (which, it comes to mind, also pretty much summarizes Sigourney Weaver’s appearance). The biggest surprise about Cabin is how empty it feels when it ends (surely that wasn’t what the publicists meant?). While superficially entertaining and notably different in what is hopefully not the only remaining way that the genre could be, Cabin ultimately adds up to much ado about not much.

The film is something of a hit job on the genre, showing cynically little trust in the horror genre’s ability to actually induce horror (even Shaun of the Dead had a cheap jump scare or two, and it was…y’know…funny). Left with no other option, Cabin is left satisfied to do little else than laugh about the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

Call it post-modern malaise, but wouldn’t it be nice if an act of genre deconstruction actually ended up reconstructing something new, interesting, and different in its place?

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