Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is horror comedy still horror? The Cabin in the Woods.



A lot of the reviews for The Cabin in the Woods say that the movie plays better if you know almost nothing about it, but I think the exact opposite is true. This is a movie that delivers more with every viewing. And those reviews give the impression that this is a twist movie. The "twist" is obvious and clear right from the start. The movie doesn't even treat it like a twist, it treats it as the premise.

From the very opening shot, we know this isn't an old school American horror movie with teens in the woods. The first characters we're introduced to are a group of technicians behind the scenes. Their dialogue lets us know what's up. These teens are to be an offering. A sacrifice. Right from the opening scene we know this is the premise. Nothing relies on twists and turns. The execution of this premise alone is what provides the pleasure.

I'm tempted to say that The Cabin in the Woods is not a horror movie. It is for horror movie fans, and certainly it is packed full of horror movie references, but it doesn't play like a horror movie. We spend at least half the time with the technicians as they work out every humdrum detail of the horror (with a truly charming gallows humour, like you might find as a tech company approaches a project launch.) It is not a spoof of horror movies, either.

Maybe it is a love letter to horror movies, but that doesn't do the film justice either. This was clearly made by people who have an understanding and love of horror movies, and they fill every inch of the movie with references and inside jokes. But these references and inside jokes are the setting. They're the background. The story is something else entirely.

This is a science fiction/fantasy movie about an office environment on a very stressful day. They just happen to be in the business of creating horror. If this were a haunted house, it would be The Haunted Mansion at Disney, but on a day when the ride was closed for maintenance. The wallpaper is all horror, but this is a movie about the interior decorators putting the wallpaper up. We see gruesome murders and horrific monsters, but there's no genuine scares. Because we saw the man pull the lever to open the monster's cage. We hear his muttered joke to cut the tension.




In fact, on my first viewing, the only moments in this movie that felt like missteps were the early deaths. They were played so seriously. The characters being murdered seemed to be so genuinely scared and hurt that it was jarring against the rest of the film. But, having watched the movie a second time, maybe these weren't missteps at all. Certainly they were genuinely upsetting, and they did provide an even stronger contrast to the behaviour of the technicians. The genuine-seeming suffering provided context for when the technicians occasionally broke from gallows humour into quiet serious moments, and the odd faraway look of regret.

I've seen this movie twice now, and enjoyed it even more the second time. It isn't a horror movie the way the trailers implied. This isn't The Evil Dead meets the Truman Show. I guess it is more like Evil Dead 2 meets the Truman Show?

I have difficulty defining the lines of horror sometimes, especially with horror comedy. The Evil Dead is horror. No question. It is funny, sure, but often unintentionally, and it has some genuinely chilling moments. Sam Raimi was making a horror movie, with The Evil Dead. That was his intention. But was he making one with Evil Dead 2? That's a more difficult question. There are fewer genuine scares in Evil Dead 2, and I'm not sure they were going for scares. It's a comedy. A ghoulish and gore-soaked comedy, to be sure, but is that a horror movie?

At the end of the day, I have to say yes. Evil Dead 2 is a horror movie. I would never put it on any shelf except the horror shelf. How much of that is because it identifies itself that way, because it dresses itself up like a horror movie?




I said earlier that maybe The Cabin in the Woods isn't a horror movie, but I think I was wrong. It is dressed like a horror movie, and when people ask what it does for a living, it tells them, "I'm a horror movie." And I think that self-identification in these cases is probably the strongest argument. Because genres are so vague. Are they meant to describe what a movie is like? Do horror movies have scares? If that's the definition, then Cabin falls short. But so does The Devil's Backbone. So do the later instalments of the Nightmare on Elm Street films.

But if horror movies are movies that people who like horror movies will like, then Cabin in the Woods goes on the shelf right beside Evil Dead 2.

16 comments:

  1. Joss Whedon described it as "a very loving hate letter".

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  2. I'm not exactly a horror aficionado, not horror films, anyway. Still, I find myself drawn to this movie, perhaps because of the way it plays with expectations.

    I was curious as to what you would think about it, and having read this, have added it to the must-see list.

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  3. Great! I was hoping you would write something about this

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  4. I am going to have to agree with you the first time when you said that Cabin in the Woods is possibly maybe not a horror movie. This movie made me laugh, even when people were dying! (Elevator scene)Normally I feel scared and bad for the people who are being killed. The overall purpose of a horror movie, one could say, is to elicit negative emotions in the audience and do so continuously throughout the movie.

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    1. I'm not sure that is the purpose of horror! I think it is the purpose of some horror movies to be sure. But what about The Others? I love the Others, but it is a sad, beautiful mystery of a horror film. Or what about something like Jason VS Freddy? A movie like that is having so much fun, just delighting in the gore and tropes! But still a horror movie, I think. I think the genre is strange and lopsided and misshapen. Which is part of its charm!

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    2. I have never seen The Others. But I guess it depends on your definition of horror. I was just thinking what kind of movie would The Devil's Rejects be. Wouldn't it be more a slasher and not so much a horror movie. I think Jason vs Freddy would be more of a slasher than a horror flick also. Slashers are scary because they are messy and disturbing, but they are not scary scary like Scream or Let the Right One In.

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    3. Scream was a parody of slasher movies, so I think that, in a way, you're proving Joey's point.

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  5. This is exactly the kind of discussion that I've been hoping Cabin in the Woods would generate. (Which is to say, some frank discussion about whether or not "being scary" is necessarily part of the definition of the horror genre.)

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  6. While it isn't really a twist movie, I still think that it's best to go into your first viewing not really knowing much about it. That said, I completely agree that it reveals more each time you watch it.

    I'm waiting for the DVD so I can slow-mo through the cellar scene and pick out all of the items and then try to figure out which monsters they would summon when I slow-mo through the glass cube/elevator scenes.

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  7. Yeah! Like who/what were those rolls of film Marty was messing with for?? I wanna know these things!

    I caught "angry molesting tree" on the 1st viewing and it cracked my shit up! Then on the 2nd viewing I caught a glimpse of it snatching a guy out of an elevator. A day later the Evil Dead reference clicked into place. Just that one reference got me so many times!

    Anyway, yeah, dvd must-have!

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  8. I just saw Cabin in the Woods for the first time last night, and I have to agree with Adam that there's something to be said for going in blind as I did. The movie doesn't leave you in the dark for long - the phone call with Mordecai leaves little room for confusion - but it was fun to realize on my own that the product of all their very serious work was to create a cliched horror scenario. It's not totally clear from the start unless you're savvy enough to catch the film industry parallel in the opening scene dialogue about competing with Japan.

    But I'm sure I'll get plenty out of subsequent viewings, regardless. I know I missed a bunch of stuff.

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  9. Adam and Meghann - Yes! I hope the DVD has some great behind the scene looks at the other monsters. I noticed a Boomer from Left 4 Dead and the rape tree from Evil Dead in the cubes

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    1. I loved the scene where they take bets on which monster gets pulled up. Some of the names on the whiteboard were great. Also, the guy with circular saws through his head? Totally a Cenobite.

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  10. Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.

    Horror Movies

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  11. It scared me a little bit (but maybe my easily spooked type is in the minority), so I am going to say that "Cabin in the Woods" is a horror film. Most horror films are so ridiculous that even if they're not trying to be funny, they're still funny, so if "Cabin in the Woods" isn't horror, then what is?

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  12. I love this movie. I love it so much that it shot to the number 2 slot on my all time favorite movie list (it's nestled comfortably between JAWS and John Carpenter's Halloween). I also think it makes a perfect companion piece for John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness.

    Marlene Detierro (Hummer Accessories)

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