We’ve All Been Here Before

I’m gonna talk about The Cabin In the Woods some more.  I’m not going to get too much into the awesome details, but if you have yet to treat your eyeballs to it, maybe save this one for a bit until you’ve had the chance to do so.  It’s rich and tasty sauce.

A great man named Ash once spent a couple days in this cabin.

As a species, we’ve been telling scary stories since we could talk, writing them down as soon as we figured out how to draw sounds, and filming them for more than a century.  This stuff has been going in and out of fashion, and evolving continuously, but it’s always been there.  Often disdained as a genre, other times studied for the rich truth we can learn by putting our nightmares under the knife, the horror movie is a cornerstone of modern civilization and if you think that’s hyperbole you can go read the blog of someone sane, like Roger Ebert or something.  I’ve loved horror movies with a passion since I was a pup, the good the bad and the ugly, and I will aggressively sing their praise until someone shuts me up or distracts me with a shiny object.  I’m a particular fan of what drive-in cinema patron saint Joe-Bob Briggs has dubbed the “spam in a cabin” subgenre, those economical id-driven flicks about teenagers who come to regret having premarital intercourse in the woods where the creepy hillbilly/Indian burial mound/weird meteorite/werewolf pack resides.  The best deliver thrills and chills, and even the worst usually deliver some fake blood, intimidating hand tools, and some breasts.

I’ve given a lot of thought to these things too, and I’m not the only one.  Indeed, the art of the new millennium may be definable by its introspective nature more than by any other quality.  These are self-aware years, ironic years, an age where we wink at the camera even when we aughtn’t do that.  At best, we get the kind of brilliant stories about stories that Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and such lay out on their best days, or the kind of glorious magic that is Black Dynamite.  At worst, we get shit like Rob Zombie’s Halloween, which exists because fuck you, Rob Zombie does what he wants and you’ll take it and like it.  But one thing we’ve gotten are a fair number of really clever movies that deconstruct, parody, and contemplate the tropes and stock characters and themes that are the building blocks of the things we love.  In the horror genre we’ve had the recent Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, which recasts the spam in a cabin story as a comedy of errors that entangles a couple of well-meaning bumpkins in a series of escalating misunderstandings.  We’ve had the Scream franchise, which put the conventions of the slasher movie under a microscope, reminded us there was a reason we respected Wes Craven, and unfortunately kicked off a new generation of mostly awful slasher cinema.  We had a personal favorite of mine, Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which takes the Christopher Guest approach to understanding who these masked killers are and why they do what they do.  And of course we’ve got the great granddaddy, Sam Raimi’s glorious sequel/remake/exercise in self-one-upmanship The Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, which combines demons, zombies, vaudeville antics, Bruce Campbell, and a complete lack of restraint in an exercise in seeing just how much awesome you can cram into one drive-in movie if you replace all the boring parts with uncut blood-spurting catchphrase-spouting gleeful wildness.

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, these are men who get this stuff.  These, clearly, are guys who know and love horror movies the way I do.  As exhibit A, The Cabin In The Woods is set in a strikingly accurate recreation of the Evil Dead cabin.  The motorbike from Pumpkinhead makes a cameo appearance.  There’s a gent who pops up at one point bearing a striking resemblance to Doug Bradley.  This is a movie about horror movies, made by men who love and respect horror movies.

It is not, however, an exercise in genre wankery designed to cram a bunch of references together in an impressive way designed to make the author look clever despite failing to provide an actual story (looking at you, Alan Moore).  The first two acts go back and forth between a very, very solid horror movie about a bunch of college students going to spend some time drinking and sexing in an isolated cabin that used to belong to a clan of undead murderbillies, and a madly meta movie about the men making that movie, orchestrating every move to ensure that the story goes just the way its supposed to.  The meta stuff wouldn’t be worth all that much if it weren’t twined into a genuine and genuinely good example of the genre, and the genre stuff, for all its deftness, wouldn’t be that remarkable if it weren’t wrapped up in another story about what’s behind the curtain.

And then, the third act happens, and holy shit you guys, there are no words.  I thought Sam Raimi could go for broke, but he never had a dude getting gored by a motherfucking unicorn.  There’s a button that, when pushed, turns this horror movie into all of the horror movies, with a laundry list of cameos that includes, at one point, the elevator full of blood from The Shining.  Guy wants to see a merman?  He gets a faceful of merman.  The movie gleefully indulges my love of seeing monsters wreck stuff to a degree that I did not imagine was possible outside of a Fangoria convention blowing up in the middle of a zombie kaiju fight.

And the crazy thing is, they manage to pull of the very, very neat trick of having their cake and eating it too, in a manner not unlike Inglorious Basterds.  The thing the whole movie hinges on is who the spam in the cabin is being served too, and it does not fail to remind us that there’s something kind of jacked about rooting for a bunch of sorta-innocent teenagers to get horribly murdered.  There’s reason for it, but can it be denied that you’ve got to be a little sick to enjoy this stuff?

That can get real old real quick if it’s delivered in a self-righteous way, or packed with condemnation.  But it’s in a context that makes it pretty clear that the filmmakers know they’re in the same boat as the audience, because you’ve got to be at least a little sick to make a movie where a motherfucking unicorn gores the shit out of a motherfucker while sparkly unicorn music plays on the soundtrack.  If loving that kind of madness is wrong (and guys, I’m pretty sure it is), then I don’t want to be right, because unicorn murder.  That is awesome.

It’s an uncomfortable dichotomy, and not for the faint of heart.  Horror’s all about cracking open your world, your society, and your own skull, and taking a good hard look at the darkness you find there abstracted in metaphor, and that’s what you get here.  But horror’s also about cheap thrills, crazy kills, and the gleeful transgression of reasonable peoples’ boundaries, and you sure as hell get that here too.

And maybe, just maybe, the old ritual of watching a man in a hockey mask enforce social mores with a machete is the one thing that keeps this world from collapsing into primal chaos.  If that’s the case, the night I spent watching that Halloween marathon may make me some kind of hero.

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2 Responses to “We’ve All Been Here Before”

  1. To quote Mr. Hicks: “I did not realize that every time I watch a Friday the 13th movie, I was watching a snuff film.”

    It really is an excellent example of the genre, folks – Mr. Ellison speaks true here, and I did, in truth, see it twice, almost back to back. There’s so much detail that it’ll satisfy the deep horror enthusiast…but if you don’t want to think that deeply, it’s a disturbing little romp that will leave none save Rex Reed dissatisfied.

  2. Stephanie and I saw it last night. This is one to own. It makes perfect sense if you know anything about the rest of Joss Whedon’s work. Act III is Wolfram and Hart going to pieces – including the Beast’s miniature zombie apocalypse – because all the monsters get out of their cages at the Initiative. And how cool are the little Japanese schoolgirls?

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