Monday, 29 October 2012

A Disconcerting Creaking

There is no clearer demonstration of the fact that I don't go to the cinema enough these days than me missing The Cabin in the Woods when it first came out.  Mercifully, thanks to visiting Kudos and Breyah (as well as Kuyah Junyah) this weekend, this fault has been corrected.

Of course, just because I didn't see it doesn't mean I didn't have any idea of the general internet opinion about it.  And since it was co-written by Joss Whedon along with Buffy/Angel alumni Drew Goddard (who also directed), it should come as no surprise that the internet gave the film as many thumbs up as time and physiology would allow.

(I don't mean to sound dismissive with that, by the way, I've loved the vast majority of Whedon products I've seen, and even those that don't quite gel (e.g. Dollhouse) are far from without merit or interesting ideas.  That said, Whedon is one of those few people who I consider simultaneously exceptionally talented and entertaining and significantly overrated.)

That's my way of saying I went into this film with hopes, but little in the way of expectations, other than assuming that Bradley Whitford would be awesome which, of course, he was.  As was much of the rest of the film, actually; the set-up is funny to anyone who's ever watched pretty much any horror film ever, and the pay-off is absolutely brilliant, at least for the most part.  If I were intending this as a review, I'd give the film eight or nine tentacles and call it a day.

I want to go in a slightly different direction, though, and unpack the two problems that mar the film; one of which has definitely been commonly noted, and one of which might have been commonly noted, but involves the very end of the film and so would have been safely hidden behind spoiler notices before now.

The two articles I link to above are interesting because they both identify the right problem - Cabin in the Woods is a horror film which is rarely scary - and totally misdiagnose the root cause.  Their common argument is that Cabin... undercuts itself by being too clever by half; that's it's impossible to giggle at obvious genre cliches and still be scared as those cliches turn ugly.

This, obviously, is complete nonsense.  To believe this one would have to argue with a straight face that films which stick to horror cliches invoke fear more readily than those that deconstruct them, which is a position I find utterly baffling.  I suppose I could understand the logic behind an argument that says genre cliches are no longer scary, and you can't make them scary by putting a twist on them, but whilst that's less stupid, it's no more correct.  The best possible argument to be made here is that avoiding tropes works better than playing with them, and whilst that's a position with more than a little weight, it still strikes me as overly restrictive.

Take Scream, for example.  That took great pleasure in deconstructing the genre, and still managed in places to be generally unsettling.  The horrific final moments of Drew Barrymore's character in the opening segment still make me shiver whenever I think about them.  OK, that precedes almost all the deconstruction that takes place later in the film, but it's far from the only scare to be had.

But if it isn't the knowing nods and winks to the audience that keeps the scares to a minimum in Cabin..., what else is going on?  Actually, the answer is very simple: Goddard's direction just isn't quite good enough.

It's nothing major, nothing that wrecks the movie.  It's just a little too uninspired; a little too overlit; a little too... TV. Almost every scare and shock from the first two thirds of the movie looks like it could have come from the first season of Supernatural.  I'm not pointing to the first season because it's the oldest, by the way, but because it was back then that the aim of the show was to scare people rather than make them want to cry alongside Jensen Ackles, but the fact remains that Supernatural is a TV show, and when a movie reminds you of a TV show, something has, generally speaking, gone wrong.

Indeed, if there's a problem here regarding genre knowledge, it's in exactly the opposite direction to the one supposed.  It's not that the references to the genre cause trouble, it's that when the film tries to be straight up scary, it falls back on the most cliched shots and jolts imaginable.  The most original "pure horror" - for want of a better word - shot in the entire film is remarkably similar to a sequence from 2008's The Strangers, and quite possibly other films before that. The only surprising death (in terms of when it happens, not that it will happen) is presumably a homage to the original Friday The 13th, but hews so closely to the source material that it's impossible to view it as anything other than tired.  In other words, this is a film that needed more thinking outside the box, not less.

All that said, this is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise excellent film.  It's hardly a major problem; though of course one would have hoped someone would point out that a film with comedy designed to appeal to horror aficionados might want to ensure the horror would appeal to people other than total or near neophytes.  The part that really pisses me off is the ending.

Since the majority of this post exists above this sentence, I'm not going to put what remains after the jump.  Be aware, however, PLEASE BE AWARE, that the next few paragraphs discuss the very end of the film, which for a film as reliant on the third act reveal as this one is will likely do even more damage than you'd expect from such comments.

So, seriously, this is your last chance.  Pass not the Harbinger.

"I'm still on speakerphone, aren't I?"
OK, they've gone.  Probably.  Or if not, fuck 'em.  They were warned.  They had a choice.

Everyone who's left knows probably knows what I disliked about the ending of the film - i.e. the entirety of humanity is condemned to an agonising death at the hands of the Ancient Ones - but it's important to explain why.  I tend to get bummed out whenever "and then the world is destroyed" endings at the best of times (and they don't get any better than, say, Dr Strangelove), because it's tough to come up with any narrative reason powerful enough to justify it.

The justification in Cabin... is particularly weak.  Two college students - one a dope addict, the other naive enough to have let herself get into a romance with one of her professors - decide that the painful deaths of four people and the terrifying (and likely painful death) of a fifth is too high a price to pay to save seven billion people from being massacred in the most torturous manner imaginable.  That because stopping the wholesale  bloody and horrific slaughter of the entirety of humanity requires the wholesale bloody and horrific slaughter of four or five people who were quite nice and often looked good topless, it's better to go for option A.

Maybe it's because I've read to many screeds from Glenn Greenwald about how voting for Obama is unacceptable because supporting a unaccountable killer is less preferable than allowing a much worse unaccountable killer to get their hands on the drones, but this shit won't wash.  The idea that the future of humanity can be fairly decided by two people who's only knowledge of the gravity of the situation is that it's claimed the life of their three friends is ridiculous.  Even that I could live with, if the film didn't seem to be tacitly agreeing with their position.  Much is made of the fact that the people running the show are bloodthirsty voyeurs, as they bet on the specific horrors that will claim the lives of their innocent victims, or drink tequila as their screens depict a young woman being beaten to death by a vicious zombie.  A film that spends the first two-thirds of its run-time suggesting it's monstrous to see these five youngsters as a vehicle for entertainment through monster attack spends the final third gleefully chewing through dozens of unnamed mooks.

And that's where the film falls apart.  We're supposed to care so much about the three people who died and the two that are badly injured that we forget the guys in helmets and facemasks have feelings too.  Those poor schmucks got out of bed, kissed their wives and children goodbye, threw some quickly assembled sandwiches into a lunch-box, and drove into work.  A few hours later they were ripped in two, or had their face melted, or were sucked dry.  The film gives every impression of finding this very amusing.

But we can go further than the mooks populating Sigourney Weaver's Menagerie of Myriad Murderousness.  What about those Japanese schoolgirls?  The nine-year-old children who achieved the impossible.  The youngsters who, when faced with the horrific sight of the dead rising within their classroom, fought back, rallying themselves with almost unimaginable courage and banishing the creature intended to kill them all.

That's a triumph of human will.  That's proof that we cannot be reduced to bit part characters in a horror movie - the exact same point this film seems to be making until it decides it'd be more fun to just hack its way through a couple of infantry platoons.  And they're going to die.  Our "heroes" just decided they weren't worth saving, because the only way to save them now was to kill the guy who drives so stoned it's a miracle he didn't end up killing more kids than the malevolent Nipponese spirit did.

In short, this is a film that spends the vast majority of its run-time arguing there is something fundamentally wrong with treating the pain of others like entertainment, but ends up in a place where not only is it suggesting pain as entertainment is actually fine so long as you don't know the people involved, but can assume "deserve it", but that if you've been badly done too by someone, there is no amount of the pain of others that's too great to ensure if you make sure the people you don't like don't get what they wanted.

It's Mitt Romney's campaign message, basically.  I sure hope that Joss Whedon doesn't run into this guy!


Jamie said...

Good analysis. I enjoyed it on the whole, but like you was rather enraged by the implication that, somehow, the intentional inaction of two individuals who had the means to save the world, apparently in order to save one of them pain in the (presumably very) short term, was the morally correct outcome.

I'd recommend Abigail Nussbaum's analysis, as well as the discussion that followed it:

SpaceSquid said...

Thanks for the link, Jamie, that's a really interesting piece. I'm ashamed to have never really noticed the anti-authoritarian streak in much of Whedon's work, even though Weaver's organisation in Cabin... immediately recalled the Initiative both in set-up and how we were ultimately expected to view it.

Jamie said...

I think she did a good piece on Serenity at some point, as well, which is majorly focused on sticking it to The Man.

BigHead said...

A problem with deconstruction for "immersion" (a non-word, but let's go with it anyway) is that if I notice it's happening while I'm watching (or reading, or playing), I tend to care less about what's happening in the story because why should I care about something that seems to be a vehicle for the creators to say "nudge nudge, wink wink, aren't we clever?" This cleverness can be fun in itself, but it's usually going to make me care less about the story than if it wasn't there.

Playing standard tropes straight doesn't have this effect because it isn't so much a conversation with the creators.

Basically it comes down to competence of deconstruction for me. Are the creators saying "we are storytellers who have deconstruction some tropes" or "we are trope-deconstructors who have told a story". If I'm feeling the latter, I don't get involved so much in the story.

As for the conclusion, I haven't seen the film, but it sounds like some of the characters are faced with a choice of actively doing bad things or passively allowing worse things to happen. In that situation I would agree that saying the latter is the morally correct choice is wrong, but also I would disagree with saying the first choice is the morally correct one too.

SpaceSquid said...

I take your point on deconstruction, BigHead, but frankly I tend to be doing that when I watch something in any case, so whether the writers are helping me along doesn't really matter all that much. I agree though that there is an important difference between a story which deconstructs and a deconstruction that has a story to it.

As regards the moral choices, the key point is that the characters are choosing between the painless death of one person or the agonising death of every person on the planet including that one person. When he sees what's coming for him, there's every chance he'll shoot himself anyway in any case to avoid a hideous fate.

In other words, I think actively doing X (death) in order to avoid passively allowing X + Y + Z, where Y is pain and Z is the horrific execution of all human life, is a really difficult formulation to argue with, so long as we assume that X + Y + Z is genuinely inevitable.

If the formulation is actively doing X in order to avoid passively allowing Y - (X + Z), then it gets harder, but I'm not sure there can't be such a huge difference between Y and (X + Z) that the morally correct choice doesn't become unambiguous. What if the guy had to have his leg chopped off to save humanity? His finger broken? Get a really bad Chinese burn?

If it were me, though I'd have fiddled a little, and finished the film with the idea that Dana doesn't get to decide Marty is worth saving, but that Marty has a moral imperative to kill himself, even though it's not his fault his death is all that can save his family, friends, and everyone else. That's not an entirely unproblematic ending - and indeed it's somewhat cliche - but it does bypass some of the main problems.

BigHead said...

Yes, I agree that if you are going to analyze something as you are experiencing it, you're not going to care much one way or the other. When I watch films I tend to let it wash over me and then think about it afterwards, so I can get affected by this sort of thing.

If the person in question was certain to be killed anyway, and at the same time, I'd agree that the active/passive role doesn't make too much difference---effectively one option is pointwise dominated by the other, and I'm quite the supporter of dominance.

In a non-dominated situation, the active/passive role makes a difference for me. For instance, if killing someone today prevents them and 10 other people from dying in 10 years time, I might not want to do that because I might not think I have the right to stop someone's life now. Whereas if I have the choice between killing someone today and actively going and killing them and 10 other people in 10 years time, I'd probably just do the killing now because I'm going to be stopping someone's life at some stage anyway.

Indeed I can imagine that when faced with (actively A) or (passively B) you might be comfortable with choosing B, but when faced with (actively A) or (actively B*), where B* is a choice that everyone involved that you care about prefers to B, you might go with A.