The Moviegoer: Slashing the Voyeur’s View of “The Cabin in the Woods”
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.
Kudos, Nick, for focusing on the mirror scene. I found that to be the definitive moment in terms of how Cabin is trying to upend genre and gender expectations. For all its fun – and that climactic sequence is a whopper – this movie is an endlessly fascinating (and challenging) puzzle about how we behave as movie audiences.
I haven’t thought of the scene yet in terms of gender expectations–but it’s definitely another implication wrapped up in that early scene. Good call.
Good article, Nick. Glad I waited until I saw the movie to read it.
Question: Have you ever seen either version of Michael Heneke’s Funny Games? I don’t know that I’d recommend them to anyone (I’ve only seen the American one), but they do seem to have the similar theme of criticizing the audience for enjoying the characters’ suffering, though I think it was more blatant in that respect than Cabin was.
Interesting you bring up Funny Games, Reed. I’ve had a couple of people mention it to me when discussing The Cabin in the Woods. To me, both versions of Funny Games are examples of trafficking too much in the very things they mean to critique. You can find my original reviews here: http://www.larsenonfilm.com/index.php?Search=Funny+Games+violence+Haneke&AllWords=on
Thanks Reed. I appreciate the feedback.
I’ve not seen FUNNY GAMES, so I’ll have to defer to Josh as far as that goes.
This is a great review, Nick. Insightful and sharp. I loved the film and agree with all you’ve said here.
My lingering questions, one major and one minor, at the end are these: What role did the teenagers’ choice have in the outcomes? This point gets raised a few times but didn’t seem to be resolved in a way that I was able to recognize. Was it moral choices that determined their outcomes? Random choices? The film seemed to play with the notions of free will and determinism but didn’t fully develop them. The minor question is if at the end when The Director says, “You can either die with the world or for the world,” do you think that was a knowing jab at messianic figures in films? Or was that a sincere line? I thought the former, but a person a saw the movie with disagreed with me. It was an interesting line nevertheless.
@Josh, Thanks for the links. I agree with your assessment of Funny Games, though the version I saw was lighter on the on-screen violence than the movies it seemed to be criticizing. But it is still one of those things that gives you something, then says, “You are a bad person for taking this from me.”
Thanks for the substantial comment. Regarding your first comment about free will/determinism, I agree that it wasn’t really fleshed out all that well. My thought was that it was mocking the “director’s” employment of one-dimensional characters. They’re presented as genuine, fleshed out characters, but they’re really just being manipulated for the voyeur’s purposes. Whether or not there’s any subtle comment in relation to the “gods,” I’m not sure.
Regarding the jab, I thought it was just that. Particularly since (if I’m remembering correctly), the pothead muse responds by saying something to the effect that those two choices suck…
…it felt to me like a jab, though I’m not sure whether it was a “knowing” one at “messianic figures.” May have been. Not sure.
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