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.