Paracinema Roundtable: Cabin in the Woods
LabSplice: Welcome to the first edition of the Paracinema Roundtable, which is a terrible name that I’m sure Joe or Christine will quickly improve upon. However, a movie like Cabin In The Woods
Published on April 26, 2012 | Filed under Roundtable Discussion

LabSplice: Welcome to the first edition of the Paracinema Roundtable, which is a terrible name that I’m sure Joe or Christine will quickly improve upon. However, a movie like Cabin In The Woods deserves more than just one critic to tackle it, so instead they get three! Since I’m making the format up as I go, we’ll get Christine’s thoughts first. Just how broken is the horror genre now? I think Whedon ruined it for everyone else.

Christine: How broken is the horror genre? Man, that’s a big question. I think it’s evolved to a place where talented filmmakers are either lampooning or deconstructing the genre itself. Gone are the days of the TCM style grindhouse horrors, and the ’90s floating heads, and the ’00s tech-based nightmares. The genre itself is the subject matter. Cabin did a lot of things right in that regard. It’s a smart dissection of the genre tropes. It’s respectful to fans, and that’s a biggie. The whole “for fans by fans” thing goes a long way if it’s from a genuine place. Now, this is without a doubt a Whedon film. His fingerprints are all over it. Which is fine with me. I’m a huge fan of both he and Goddard. But that brand of (ugh, I don’t wanna say it) “Buffy” humor falls flat for some (I’m looking squarely at Dylan). It didn’t for me. So, yes, I also believe Whedon raised the bar as far as a quality story filled with intelligence goes. The stoner character, Marty, didn’t work for me. Fran Kranz is awesome too. I just didn’t dig the character. I did like the subversion and exploitation of horror film stereotypes though. I’m curious if that worked for everyone else.

Joe: I think one of my issues with the movie was that I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a criticism of the horror genre or a love-letter to it. Since you asked how broken the genre is, I gotta assume that you took the message of the movie as cynical. I don’t know that the genre IS broken. It seems to me that it’s more interesting now than it has been since probably the late 70s. I feel like the internet has allowed for a whole new level of access for both consumers and filmmakers. It’s also allowed for a much audience wider net as far as foreign films, which has infused the American film industry with new and interesting influences that it wouldn’t have had fifteen or twenty years ago. Also when some of the biggest and most influential names in mainstream Hollywood are Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro, it’s hard for me to see horror as anything but incredibly exciting right now.

To speak to some of Christine’s points, it definitely was a Whedon film, and that worked against it for me. Like she said, his style is polarizing, and I’m not a fan. I find that a lot of his work (Cabin included) is a little too impressed with its own cleverness.

I think Shaun of the Dead opened the door for the idea of deconstructing horror and breaking it down to its component parts, and while that movie was brilliant, I also feel the subject has been pretty well driven into the ground. I feel like Shaun of the Dead pretty well closed the book on self aware horror comedy. Everything that’s come since has felt derivative to me.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Cabin in the Woods. Far from it. I actually quite enjoyed it and my problems with it were pretty small compared to the things I liked about it. Like I said, I didn’t see it as a criticism of horror (though I suspect that’s what it was) but a celebration of it. That I loved.

Before I wrap up on this response, I want to point out two things I loved the most about it. #1. Richard Jenkins is my homeboy. #2. I friggin LOVE grave zombies and I miss them. I have no problem with virus zombies, but I do so love watching a corpse crawl out of a grave EC Comics style. That made me giddy.

One question I would like to put out there for whoever. Everyone I suppose. When viewing the story as a metaphor, who do you see the “Old Ones” as? Who are these destructive Lovecraftian gods that will destroy movies if not appeased?

LabSplice: I had actually managed to steer clear of most Cabin In The Woods coverage, so I was caught off-guard by how much Jenkins and Bradley Whitford there was in the movie. It was a nice surprise.

I actually did not take the cynical viewpoint of Cabin – I thought it was a methodical dismemberment of the genre, true, but there was just too much fun being had by Whedon and Goddard for me to see malicious intent. I read in a review that Whedon calls this a “loving hate letter” to the genre, and that seems pretty accurate to me. Whedon isn’t mad at horror movies – he’s just disappointed, and gave them a spanking.

The thing that struck me is how Cabin In The Woods exists as a kind of anti-horror movie. When I think of horror, I think of low-budget movies made with no-name actors who don’t really matter, because the genre is the star. You can make these movies on the cheap and everyone goes and has a good time because, hey, dead teenagers. If you’re a particularly talented director, it’s a way to introduce the world to your particular visual style without needing a dump truck full of cash to get the project of the ground. Horror to me has always been the antithesis of high-concept. And Joe, as you mentioned, in the last few years we’ve gone from Shaun of the Dead to Tucker & Dale to now Cabin In The Woods, whose concept is so damn high as to make the whole thing delightfully unwieldy. Cabin is a movie with a lot of recognizable faces – even if they’re just of the “Hey, that guy, and also Sigourney Weaver!” variety – and an ambitious script. It definitely owes a lot to Shaun and Tucker & Dale for paving the way for more ambitious horror stories – or horrories, as nobody calls them.

I feel like I should also mention the Whedon thing – I love it. I love that he’s become Aaron Sorkin for the geek set, and that you can drop me into any two minutes of his movies with a blindfold and I’ll know Whedon had a hand in the dialogue. I’m sad that you didn’t like Marty, Christine. I liked him. To me, you needed a painfully self-aware character to make the whole thing work. Wasn’t Jaimie Kennedy the best part of Scream?

I wonder if the Old Gods exist in other movies. Like, if there’s a romantic comedy where the two leads don’t get together in the end, and the Old Gods destroy that world, too. I smell a franchise!

Christine: There is so much I want to say and my fingers won’t type fast enough. I guess I’ll start with the “Old Ones.” I didn’t really give them that much thought as I was watching the film. Afterwords I felt 2 things: 1) That was SO Angel season 5!, and 2) I’m glad it ended on a sour note. I like Joe’s notion of them being representative of something tangible in the filmmaking realm. Producers? Audiences? Who knows. It’s a cool thought though. Any issues I had with the film are so tiny they barely warrant mentioning. Sure I felt the Marty character was basically Shaggy. But I mean, it’s Whedon and Goddard doing Shaggy. I’m a fangirl. I might be playing it cool here, but I clapped when Amy Acker came on screen. I made an audible sound when Tom Lenk popped up. These are the reasons I wanted to avoid everything about this film. Whedon casts Whedon folks. I am unquestioningly supportive of Whedon alumni. I reveled in the callbacks and the payoffs and the Whedonesque gags. I know these elements don’t play to everyone, and at times I felt like I was inches away from scoffing at them myself. But that 14 year old girl still lives in me and she was raised on a strict diet of BtVS.

One final thought on whether Cabin was cynical or not. After mulling it over a bit, I’d say it was cynical. That’s not a bad thing at all. It may be one of the reasons I did respond so well to it. Had it simply been a wide-eyed “let’s do commentary on the genre” kind of thing, it wouldn’t have worked. In reality there was more of a balance. It commented on what’s “wrong” and celebrated what’s “right.” It felt almost like a critique with a solution. My squeeing fangirl side adored it. But the film fan portion was quite pleased as well.

Joe: This is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not really a fan of Joss Whedon. To me, he’s kind of like Kevin Smith. Not in terms of skill as a filmmaker (I’m not a fan of Whedon, he can clearly dance circles around Kevin Smith when it comes storytelling) but in so far as there’s this weird shorthand and inside cliqueness to it all. You can’t really have a conversation about something he’s involved with because there’s all of this information that’s only important to people who care about the “Whedonverse”, but when you try and have an outside conversation about the movie at face-value, it becomes impossible. There’s all this self contained enthusiasm about things that are only relevant to people participating in that fandom. I was in the Kevin Smith camp for a good portion of my younger years, so I get all of his little inside jokes and reverences to other things he’s done. But because I’m detached from that camp, I can also see how useless all of that is to anyone trying to watch a Kevin Smith movie from the outside.

Anyway, my point is that if Nathan Fillion had walked in front of the camera at any point, I would have just left the theater and asked for my money back.

For me, whether or not the movie was cynical has a pretty big sway on whether or not I actually liked it. Which is frustrating, honestly. The only way for me to enjoy this movie is as a big metaphor and commentary on film. As just a movie, there’s nothing really there. The movie makes no sense taken at face value. It’s clear from the beginning that we’re watching an essay rather than a movie. Which, the more I think about it, is kind of annoying and pretentious.

After doing some reading, I’ve come to learn that the movie is apparently a “response to torture porn” which Joss and Drew feel has ruined horror.

Well then fuck them and their movie. As I said, I think horror is great at the moment, and people who piss and moan about the state of horror (or really, anything) are counter productive. Things are AMAZING right now, both in horror and in pop-culture in general. We live in an amazing time and this movie didn’t make any move to improve things. It just complained about what they don’t like. That’s not helping or contributing. Christine said it was a critique with a solution, but I didn’t see any solution.

And honestly, I’m not even sure I understand what they’re complaining about. The quote I read said they were commentating about “torture porn” but the movie seemed to be complaining about slasher movies from the 80s. I didn’t really see anything about torture porn in there. That Friday the 13th slasher formula is basically gone (or, at least, relegated to direct-to-video horror for the most part) and the movies I’ve seen that people are calling torture porn don’t typically follow the slasher formula. If they’re complaining about torture porn, I missed whatever point they were trying to make. If they were complaining about slasher movies, then they might as well complain about Vanilla Ice and Cabbage Patch dolls as well.

Maybe I just didn’t get it.

Either way, this process has actually talked me out of liking Cabin in the Woods.

There were things I liked. I appreciated the fact that they told us right up front basically what was going on. We didn’t have to play that game of doling out a little trail of information to see if we can guess what the big twist was. They got that out of the way at the beginning of the movie. That was pretty cool. I liked the actors, and I liked the little tributes to classic horror movies. The scenes with the competing Japanese horror movie were great. I enjoyed that moment in the elevator when the virgin was staring at the surrogate Pinhead for what felt like five minutes. It made me want a really good new Hellraiser movie. It was funny enough at times, and I actually did like the stoner character for the most part. One thing that really bugged me though was how they showed the zombies attack him and blood spatter up in the air and they did their little lever pulling ritual with the blood and all, and then he’s still alive? They’ve got cameras showing five different angles on everything that’s happening but they just miss that he’s alive and hacking up zombies and rerouting electrical boxes?

There’s no point in nitpicking about that kind of stuff i guess though. Like I said, taken at face value, the movie doesn’t really make any sense anyway.

Well that’s a bummer. I shouldn’t have thought about this movie so much. It ruined it.

LabSplice: It sounds to me like we can all agree on the bits that worked. The references to other horror films – Pinhead, the Japanese organization – were pure gold, and we were all on board with the execution of the secret society aspect.

For my last thought, I’d like to focus on that last bit. I agree that horror is in a pretty swell place right now. One movie that I should have brought up was Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, another horror/comedy hybrid that’s playing at the Tribeca Film Festival right now. Like the other titles, it walks a fine line between horror and parody. There’s no shortage of ambitious and intelligent projects out there.

That being said, I think there is some merit in Whedon’s takedown of torture porn. Not necessarily as a way of saying that horror is bad, but that horror audiences have changed. To me, what defines torture porn as a subgenre is the fact that audiences are no longer rooting for anyone to survive. People go to root for people – even the innocents – to die in delightful and creative new ways, and I’ve never really adjusted to that. I’m used to wanting almost everyone in horror movies to live and accepting the fact that some will die. I still find myself disappointed if a character that I like dies in a horror movie. And yet, there’s Jenkins and company watching the monitor, making bets, and grudgingly admitting that maybe they didn’t want everyone to die this time. They served as a kind of stand-in for the real-life audience, and when we saw how much they were enjoying graphic deaths, we kind of pause in our own appreciation of blood lust. That seems like kind of a subtle way of making a change, holding up a mirror to the audience and saying, “Who do you really want to identify with going forward?”

And the Old Gods – I actually liked them, if only because they gave kind of a reason for people to die horribly. If the stereotype of horror movies is that they are all about violence for the sake of violence – no longer revenge plots, as several authors in the last Paracinema issue pointed out – then what Whedon and Goddard did is essentially retcon (retroactive continuity for the non-nerds) the entire last 30 years of horror films to add a purpose to the death of the characters. Now when I watch a horror movie where someone is brutality slaughtered just because the audience wants to watch them, I dunno, get sewed together ass-to-mouth, I can at least tell myself that it’ll be another year until the Old Gods will destroy the planet. And that’s kind of ballsy. To retcon the entirety of horror films? Only Whedon would be so presumptuous.

As I said before, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty meta, and more than a little unwieldy, but I loved it and having to defend why has only reinforced that position. I’m bummed that this conversation changed your mind, Joe, but I gotta admit, that makes me feel like we may be onto something here.

Paracinema's New York correspondent. Follow me on Twitter at @labsplice, or reach me by email at labsplice (at) paracinema.net.

  • God damn I loved this movie. Good conversation. I walked out of the theater thinking there’s no way anyone could not love that 1h40min… only to see reviews incredibly mixed. I guess I forget that not everyone loves the Whedon touch (and let’s give Goddard his due… I almost feel bad that nearly everything written about this movie is stamped with the big JW and hardly a DG to be found). Perhaps for the same reason not everyone loved Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I guess I like my art self-aware. But I get how that turns some people off.

  • James

    Aside from hearing stuff like ‘game changer’ (a lot), and seeing the trailer (which kinda reveals a lot of stuff) I deliberately avoided reading anything about Cabin. I wanted to go in cold. I’m glad I did. That it emerged as such a ‘loving hate letter’ to horror came as such a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t expect any of that stuff.

    I saw the film with a couple of friends who aren’t such big fans of horror, and they still enjoyed the tone and playfulness of it. The annoying teens sitting behind me in the theatre were fans of horror, but seemed to have been raised on shit like Saw. I think the self-reflexivity of Cabin was completely over their heads. I know this because when the film ended I heard them exclaim they ‘didn’t get it.’ They seemed disappointed. I think this was because the film didn’t play up to what they constitute as horror these days. Maybe give ‘em a few years. I loved how Whedon commented on the conventions of horror, while still, basically, exhibiting an old fashioned horror – and very Lovecraftian – narrative. The revelation that humanity is firmly under the thumb of something as vast and incomprehensible as the Old Ones really felt like something from a much older film, and the influence of Lovecraft was splashed all over it. For the film to emerge as such a blatant commentary on horror and then reveal its raison d’être to be more ‘Wicker Man’ than ‘Scream’ was brilliant I thought.

    While I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I only dipped in and out of Angel, and the whole Firefly/Serenity thing just passed me by. Yes, a lot of the humour in Cabin was pure Buffy (and I liked that), but I wasn’t aware of certain aspects of Cabin like the actors having cropping up frequently in Whedon’s work. That didn’t stop me from taking Cabin at face value. The only fandom I was participating in was horror fandom. And from that perspective, Whedon really delivered in my opinion.

    Despite how self aware the film was, I also found myself drawn to the characters. I didn’t want them to die. They felt much more sympathetic than other horror characters. I also felt disturbed because of the lengths the secret society were going to in order to get the characters into specific ‘slasher’ situations or act more like slasher archetypes – they mentioned ‘dumbing down’ the blonde girl with drugs in her hair dye to lower her IQ. THAT was so unsettling for me. And perfect, as it showcases how the makers of horror films, and the audiences, are slaves to genre conventions and expectations.

    I also gasped with glee when Ms Weaver appeared. I fucking love her.

    Loved this Roundtable format, too. It was fascinating to read the varying opinions in one review.

    • James

      PS I think it would be really interesting to hear what other viewers – I’m thinking viewers who aren’t as fanatic about horror and maybe didn’t get all the references to slasher archetypes and conventions and stuff – thought of this as a ‘straight’ horror flick. When I talk about Cabin I can’t help but get into all the reflexive aspects of it.

      • Christine

        Funny you should mention “outsider” reactions to Cabin. I spoke to a good friend of mine today and he enjoyed CitW quite a bit. Although, he was put off when “all the monsters showed up” at the end.
        For me, those “monsters” were some of the most interesting things! I just found it to be a fascinating perspective from a non-movie (non-horror) nerd.

  • Shinfo Ryan

    I’ve actually been enjoying directors and writers trying new things within the genre. Don’t get me wrong I’ll always enjoy a good ol’ fashioned low budget slasher with sinful teenagers getting their come up’ins but it’s also nice to be able to take a step to the side and enjoy something that looks at the same subject from a different perspective. I saw Cabin with two Whedon fanboys (myself included) and 4 people who’ve either never seen a minute of his work or have seen some and not enjoyed it and every one of us enjoyed the movie. There were obvious moments that made me and the other fanboy (or girl in this case) laugh and cheer such as Whedon-verse cameos and some of the banter but at it’s essence Cabin felt like a slasher with a thriller twist and was thankfully enjoyed by all. The roundtable discussion (which I very much enjoyed) made me think of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. There’s another slasher/horror movie but like Cabin explores it from a different perspective. So like Cabin I felt it opened up the genre to be enjoyed by your classical slasher fan like myself as well as someone like my girlfriend who typically doesn’t go for the slasher films but loved Tucker and Dale because of it’s unique spin on the genre. I think movies like Cabin, Shaun of the Dead which was mentioned and Tucker and Dale are only going to help open the genre up to a wider audience and push directors to try new and innovative ideas.

    • Christine

      I’m glad you enjoyed the format, Ryan. It was all LabSplice’s idea. I hope we can do it again at some point.
      As for Cabin… I need to see it again. Dylan and I started talking about it today and I’m not really sure were i fall in regards to the film’s humor. The premise I dug… but the humor may have fallen a bit flat for me.
      We shall see how it holds up in re-watch!