Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
My appreciation for The Cabin in the Woods (Dir. Drew Goddard) might best be found in a question that also describes a key scene early in the film: If you suddenly came upon a one-way mirror, and you had the opportunity to take in an exploitative view of another person, would you indulge the temptation? Now consider the question in view of the prevalence of the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films. Why the voyeuristic love affair with brutal violence, sex, and death? What if the protective one-way mirror that supports the slasher sub-genre’s one-dimensional characters and our demand that they be relentlessly sexualized and punished was, in a sense, broken — or, at least, turned inside out?
Cabin encapsulates most of the slasher films we’ve seen over the last couple of decades. Five college-age friends take a camping trip to an old cabin tucked away in the woods where civilization can’t possibly help them. Included in the young adult clan are a bone-headed athlete and his blonde girlfriend, the studious good guy, the innocent virgin girl, and the pothead muse. On their way to the cabin, the friends stop at — wait for it — an eerie, closed-down gas station manned by a creepy, ghostly old man who spits his chew in between insinuations about the one-way nature of his visitors’ trip into this neck of the woods. Add in some zoom-out shots of the winding road and wooded scenery as the group makes its way to the den of shenanigans, and the set-up should sound quite familiar.
And, yet, Cabin is also unlike most horror films we’ve seen (though, there’s certainly precedent for self-aware inventiveness). In the film’s opening minutes, we are introduced to a plot which is a tonally odd contrast to the conventional archetypes. Two white-coated technicians — Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford — those familiar with Whitford will appreciate his ability to deliver deadpan dialogue here) — enter a top-secret facility to prepare for a mysterious operation that seems to be a global phenomenon. What quickly becomes apparent is that these technicians and their lab crew maintain some level of control over the group of friends and their surroundings — particularly the cabin itself.
Suffice it to say that Cabin walks the line between comedic self-awareness and dreadful seriousness — which is to say that it is a consistently effective parodic homage to what Roger Ebert years ago dubbed “Dead Teenager Movies.” There are still plenty of wince-worthy moments, even if they weren’t particularly scary, though the film’s primary function is to operate on the level of smirk. Toward that end, it’s effective because the more pointed laughs are at the expense of the voyeur-technicians, who, it should be noted, have become discomfortingly callous toward the whole affair. In this way, the film is sympathetic toward those who would still feel a sinking feeling at the destruction of the teenagers, while it is calculated in its mockery of those who would be entertained by, or indifferent to, the massacre. (Jeffrey Overstreet “dares” to suggest that Cabin is more effective at this than The Hunger Games — I had the same thought.)
While the essential elements of the slasher — the exercise of our fears released through sexuality, stalking, and murderous blood-spill — are all here, the film’s sense of homage comes to the fore especially in Cabin’s relentless, roller coaster-paced third act. Without ruining any of the specific details of the tribute, I’ll simply say that this slasher’s more exciting thrills happen once the voyeuristic glass is shattered.
The meta elements in Cabin implicate both audience and director, with analogous moves that are not always clear cut (and perhaps too muddled, which is my most significant gripe with the film). If Cabin raises interesting questions about its sub-genre expectations, it’s in that we’re given pause to consider why we indulge wicked desires in this way. What’s clear in this mash up of (as several critics have pointed out) 80’s slashers, Scream, The Truman Show, Shaun of the Dead, and Scooby-Doo (among other influences) is that to stay fixated on these destructive desires will be the end of us — perhaps gradually, if not instantly.