Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Back To The Old House

When I first saw Cabin in the Woods I was not at all kind to its ending. But having found the film for three quid and given it another go, I'm rather less annoyed. I mean, it still sucks on a story level, but after further thought I can see two ways the allegorical force of the film's ending can help to at least lessen the damage done.

(Spoilers beneath the fold)

First off I'll briefly restate my original problem with the film's conclusion, though I doubt there is anyone who has seen the film who can't guess my problem: it fails totally to suggest it isn't on Dana and Marty's side when they conclude that because humanity's survival has cost them the lives of three of their friends, the entire species should be exterminated (along with who knows how many others; whatever the Great Old Ones are, we can surely assume they are not big on conservation). This is self-evidently a fucking appalling position; tantamount to suggesting humanity should surrender itself to total extermination rather than suffer the slightest amount of moral damage. And to be clear, I am indeed suggesting murdering four innocent people is a minor sin when it is done to prevent the death of the human race as a whole including them. It's like a trolley problem where seven billion people are on one track, but four of them are tied down so their bodies lie over two tracks simultaneously. Every time I think of the scene with the Japanese schoolgirls I'm reminded that each and every one of them have now been agonisingly murdered because an irresponsible idiot who somehow managed to avoid murdering a kid himself whilst driving when high wanted to get self-righteous before he died too.

(Note what's happening here, by the way. Two college-educated middle-class white people decide their lives should not be sacrificed to save the lives of, what, five billion people of colour, because another bunch of white people has pissed them off. This, needless to say, is colossal bullshit.)

That said, though, there are some thematic strands that help soften the blow.  I'm not talking about the most obvious point, which is that Dana is probably still under the effect of a cocktail of mind-altering drugs, and that Marty demonstrates early on that he's exactly the kind of self-absorbed shit-head who finds appeal in the widespread collapse of society (as oppose to those who consider it an ugly necessity). That contextualises the problem, but it doesn't mitigate it.  A stronger defence lies in remembering exactly what we are watching here: a horror film critiquing horror films. One of the central components in the pursuit of that goal is the unpicking the idea that the sacrifices have to "transgress" so they can be "punished". This of course is shown to be absolute bullshit; the worst Dana and Holden are guilty of is curiosity, and Jules and Curt of engaging in consensual sex (Marty as noted is a dangerous criminal who's lucky to have no blood on his hands; fuck Marty). Those working in the facility are far more unpleasant; the true transgressors. Their total disinterest in saving Dana once her friends are dead ruins any chance they have to argue they're  simply good people doing an evil job.

What we can take from the fact that no-one bar Marty actually does anything wrong (well, you can certainly argue Holden should have been faster about announcing the existence of the two-way mirror) is that the coding for transgression (sex and drugs and cockiness) has completely outlasted our changing impressions of what we think of as actual transgression. The horror fan's love of seeing teenagers punished for straying from the path has ossified. Indeed it never was a path, but a river, which moves over the years to carve out new channels.  If we want to continue seeing modern youth getting their just deserts, we need to change the nature of the supposed crimes being committed. Cabin in the Woods takes this to its furthest extreme, showing us two youths who condemn all of humanity to death during a fit of solipsistic self-righteousness, and whose punishment is to be obliterated by a gigantic arm exploding through the earth. Isn't this what we want? Isn't this what we insist upon, again and again? Yes, it disgusts us here, because alongside the deaths we feel comfortable considering just comes a staggering amount of collateral damage, but this too is simply standard procedure ramped up to its maximum level. Collateral damage is central to horror. Sure, the first people to die are the one's who "deserve it", so that a film can chalk up some tit-sightings early in its run-time, but from that point on anyone is fair game.  The gap between the whore and the virgin is never empty. Hell, how many horror films involve a policeman or other rescuer showing up just so they can be murdered to up the body count?  Why did the fisherman guy kill Johnny Galecki? How was the revenge spree in Woodsboro aided by slitting the throat of a cameraman? Horror fans might want to see the "guilty" punished, but they sure don't want to see the innocent survive. Not unless she's in her underwear.

Really though, this idea that the film's conclusion is about forcing the audience to confront the moral outrage central to what they want to see is just a stepping stone to the truly interesting thought, which is that Cabin in the Woods is not an attempt to show how a horror film can be done right, but an explicit argument that horror can't be done right at all as long as any of its historical DNA remains to contaminate it. The very fact we're interested in punishing transgression is proof our desires are not something to be uncritically catered to, that something is rotten in the heart of the genre. The fact the film is criticising what has gone before is beyond obvious - its central tenet is literally that all horror films are the same with only the monster needing to be plugged in - but its recommendations for the future are harder to discern. Is this intended as a blueprint? Obviously, the film is well-written, funny and moody and inventive - some people complain it isn't scary enough, as though a non-scary horror film is a failure; please watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and fuck off forever - but is that enough? Can we just make films that are less interested in recycling the greatest hits of the genre, put in some ironic comments about how they treated women, and call it a day?

One can plausibly argue Cabin... is answering that question in the negative. Ironically watching a woman take off her clothes looks an awful lot like unironically watching a woman take off her clothes, as the film makes clear (implicating the audience in the process). The casual disregard for human life still rears its head. Once again the attitude of the facility staff is crucial here - I'm thinking of Hadley's value statement of tequila > Dana in particular - since they quite clearly represent the makers of horror films themselves. That's all these people ever do; sit in a high-tech installation and manipulate events to tell a story so convincing it sates the blood-lust of the audience. This of course casts us in the role of the Great Old Ones, and I shall return to that idea.

The message would seem to be clear. Better technology does not mean better stories. An awareness of tropes does not mean better stories. An ever-growing menagerie of extra-worldly monstrosities does not mean better stories - you'll note that despite there being any number of potentially fascinating antagonists to terrorise the youngsters, the ultimate foe proves to be a mixture of tropes from 1981's Evil Dead and 1972's Deliverance combined with elements from the all-pervading zombie-like infestation of zombie infestations. Decades of advancement in form and technique is inadequate to solve these problems. There is simply something vicious buried too deep within what we understand as horror. The genre has walked too far down a long corridor that's ultimately a dead end. And so there is nothing to be done but destroy it and start again.

That's what the arrival of the Giant Death-Arm represents. Not the death of humanity, but the death of horror. Every western horror trope imaginable, from rabid dogs to Nosferatu, has been crammed together into the same facility so they can be utterly obliterated. And specifically, to be obliterated by us. Through watching the ritual we acquired the status of hungry, angry gods. It is now our job to destroy horror just as our representation has. We are, after all, the only ones who can do it. The only way to kill bad stories is to stop consuming them. The Great Old Ones of the film have ushered in a new world of new nightmares. Surely, after all this time, it is essential that at long last we do the same.


Gooder said...

With the film being a satire of horror conventions the ending most likely is explained by this.

A lot of films involving sacrifice to raise the great evil or whatever tend to end with the main characters averting it at the last minute against the odds. So here we basically just get the logical switch around in terms of the audience thinks the big disaster is going to be avoided only for that to be not that case at the last minute.

Made more interesting in that it's not a last second evil act beyond the heroes control (which also is a common finish to horror films) but a conscious choice by them.

As for the death of horror, doesn't seem to the case. There is definitely a lull in the slasher horror sub genre at the moment (which is this (Cabin) film's primary target) but a lot of horror films are still being made.

In terms of Hollywood it's currently centered around ghost/supernatural efforts like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, It Follows (arguably another satire on the genre but really well put together), The Gallows, Sinister. A lot of these are all still performing well (in terms of box office and critical response)

Or course the Italians and the Japanese still love their horror too.

At the end of the day Cabin in the Woods doesn't indicate the death of the horror genre anymore than Scream did (or indeed Scary Movie).

It's a genre as wide as any other - I love The Others and The Orphanage but have always found the likes of Friday 13th rather dull - that has numerous sub-genres (including these days the intentionally ropy Ayslum pictures style creature features arguably).

SpaceSquid said...

I see two problems with the inversion argument. The first is that there is almost no point in the film where it looks like the rising of the Old Ones is liable to be prevented. There's the brief party in the facility, but that's too early in the film for any remotely experienced cinema-goer to think "Well, that's that then". Really the only moments in which it looks like disaster will be avoided are when someone is pointing a gun at Marty in the final few minutes. The survival of humanity is never more than the longest of shots.

My second problem though is more fundamental, though; the apparent aversion of disaster that then suddenly falls apart at the last minute is not an inversion of a horror trope, it's an embracing of a horror trope. The genre as a whole has been utterly consumed by the shitty last-minute twist/collapse. You could read the ending of Cabin... as being one more example of taking horror convention to its logical endpoint, but it certainly isn't subverting expectation here.

As to your comments on horror in general, my point isn't that Cabin... was the actual death-knell of horror (as I argued, it is the audience who will kill horror, not the studios) but that it was arguing horror should die. The degree to which this message was heard (and in truth I don't think Whedon and Goddard consciously wrote this message anyway) isn't really relevant. I should though take this opportunity to be more clear that my criticisms regard only Western horror; the state of and problems inherent within the Japanese horror genre aren't something I'd feel comfortable criticising in general terms.

Gooder said...

Interestingly I would say interpret Cabin In The Woods as a loving satire of horror. Acknowledging the ludicrous nature of the genre's favorite mechanics but also reveling in deploying them using the meta angle of the labs etc to highlight things.

I really don't see it as a negative critique of the genre (much the same way as Scream was a loving homage).

Would be interesting to hear what you think is wrong with Western horror since it seems to be as healthy and diverse has it has been since it's late 70s/80s heyday.

SpaceSquid said...

I think your take on it is probably much closer to the intent of the film-makers, but obviously that's not quite how it comes across to me.

I agree that Western horror seems perfectly healthy and diverse, but only for specific definitions of the two terms. Again, my complaints are not that horror is in trouble box-office wise, but that there are fundamental issues within the genre that cannot easily be excised, namely its misogyny, its frequent presentation of fundamentally conservative tropes (there is very little difference between the early stages of many horror scenes and tweets screeching IF YOU WEAR THAT TO A BAR WHAT DO YOU EXPECT), and the degree to which it so often confuses white suburbia with the world.

darkman said...

To be fair the Japanese school children are just as guilty as Dana and Marty. You could even say that they are the real culprits in causing the apocalypse because defeating the Ringu-esques monster displeases the old ones and it becomes up to the USA branch to save the day.
I also recommend Resoution, its kinda the indie version CitW.

SpaceSquid said...

I suppose it depends how you define guilt. There's no reason to believe they were aware of what they were risking in surviving Kiko's assault, and their age is such that there's little chance their empathy development is sufficiently far along to process the idea of self-sacrifice.

Gooder said...

First off, if you haven't take a look at It Follows, it spins things around where basically the characters have to have sex to survive.

Whilst there is definitely a level of questionable values in the genre, I'd argue mostly within the slasher sub-genre it's not so much present elsewhere, to extent it has been played out to it's conclusion in the 'torture porn' movement which now thankfully seems to have died away.

And even then whilst you get the likes of Hostel you get something like Zombieland (which has essentially a adoptive family structure in play with it's theme of outcasts becoming the survivors). Also horror has a genre featured strong female leads a long time before that became as common as it is today. Ok, the likes of Laurie Strode spend a lot of time running away from things but in the end they typically outwit whatever is chasing them.

So it's a mixed bag that can be definitely really conservative but also as a genre it's really progressive at times (even if the likes of Romero claim to not even realise).

As for the suburbia thing (and again I'd suggest again it's the slasher sub-genre that is most guilty here) it's true you things like Attack the Block are the exception in terms of presenting different environments but I'd argue horror as a genre overall is probably more forward looking in terms of racial diversity in it's casts. Probably more so than mainstream action and certainly rom-coms have been.

To some degree it's about a lot of entertainment being aspirational hence the idolised view of suburban life often depicted (that and that's environment known but probably the largest number of the target audience) and as a genre horror is very much entertainment first (very much like action cinema) with things like social commentary very much secondary consideration.

Although having said that you do get some very smart horror films in that respect.

Dan said...

Just re-watched this to remind myself before jumping in. First off - I really quite like this film, and view it very much as both an interesting take on, and also subversion of the western horror genre. I think it is quite important that you are introduced to the "twist" basically from the beginning (the first scene is of corse downstairs and it is explained what is going on pretty clearly by scene 3) as that very much sets the scene for what this film is about - which is about both referencing and subverting "tropes" - Just a few of them are, the dumb blonde (not even a blonde, made dumb by chemicals in her hair dye), the virgin final girl (not even being a virgin and by keeping the fool alive not even technically the final girl), and the stoner guy (not being comic relief and the fact his smoking of the pot makes him immune to the stupid),

In terms of the ending - I find it hard to judge the overall quality of a film on the basis of disagreeing with decisions made by characters in the film. I also think that the ending only really had two choices - 1 kill the fool / fool kills himself in a nobel sacrifice or 2 what actually happened. No 1, is basically the ending that would occur in every single one of the films they are referencing / subverting so 2 was the choice to make given the nature of the film. It also fits massively with the general themes of the two characters - Up to that point they have the illusion of free will, when in reality all their actions are controlled by others, and this final choice is the first real time they get to exercise their actual free will.

Also - point of discussion: The VIrgin probably was going to kill the fool until the Werewolf attacked. After the carnage - she didn't really have any means of accomplishing that (no weapon available, no chance of physically overpowering the fool), so realistically the only way fool could have died seems to be for him to kill himself (by throwing himself through the gap into the old ones). So is she really to blame?

SpaceSquid said...

Gooder: I didn't respond to your post until I'd seen It Follows for myself (you may well now be in trouble, since I made Fliss watch it with me). It'll get a post of its own this week if I have time, but short version: that film is so utterly and fundamentally based on the idea of sex being a horrible risk/punishment that holding it up as a counter-example to what I was discussing here absolutely doesn't work.

Beyond that, you're not wrong of course that there's much more to horror than what I've argued Cabin... is critiquing, but a dangerous trend is a dangerous trend, no matter what else comes alongside it. And if films like Hostel and arguably the later Saw movies (I say "arguably" because it looked like things were heading somewhere unpleasant by the third movie, which is when and why I stopped watching them) haven't blossomed into a larger problem, that's not to say Cabin... didn't have a point. Elements of the film's production had already started by the end of 2008, a year after Hostel II had had its cinematic release, and the year that Saw V was released and Saw VI was announced.

I remain unconvinced by the idea that the fact the teenage girl ultimately outwits the monster earns horror any progressive points; it's just evidence that things could in fact be even worse. Your point about having more progressive casts though is well taken; I'd not considered that before. That said, a simple study of gender/racial make-up of casts isn't enough here; since most characters in a horror film are there simply to be entertainingly murdered the fact that plenty of non-white people and women get themselves stabbed to death for our amusement is perhaps not the greatest advert for the genre's progressivism.

As to suburbia being aspirational and social commentary taking a back seat, I agree entirely that that's what's going on. It's also a huge part of what I am attacking.

SpaceSquid said...

Dan: There's a difference between disliking a character's choice and objecting to the message a film carries via the choices the characters make. It is of course arguable (see above) whether or not the message I've taken is sufficiently supported by the text, but that's the point at issue.

I'm honestly not convinced that the "let the world end" ending is something most similar films would avoid. As I've said, the decision to have the world burn is exactly the sort of last-minute twist horror films revel in. I suppose one could argue it would be unusual for a horror film to so completely cut off the possibility of sequels the way this does, but even then horror prequels have a long and storied history, and it's by no means difficult to imagine a sequel here during the Old One's takeover of the world. Indeed, that's something that might be interesting to see, though it's hard to imagine it having any kind of thematic similarity to the original, making slapping Cabin in the Woods 2 onto it a rather cheap move.

I do like the free will argument, actually, but it rather falls short since Dana could have chosen to shoot Marty and that would still be an exercise of free will. As to Dana not being able to kill Marty, she makes it entirely clear she's not going to try. Whether or not she even COULD, then, seems like a side issue.