Punishment Park

Five attractive teenagers, a remote cabin in the woods … What could possibly go wrong?

By Philip Matthews

“Where the traditional horror film invited, however ambiguously, an identification with the return of the repressed, the contemporary horror film invites an identification (either sadistic or masochistic or both simultaneously) with punishment … The satisfaction that youth audiences get from these films is presumably twofold: they identify both with the promiscuity and with the grisly and excessive punishment.” – Robin Wood, “Horror in the 80s”, in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.

Is it safe to come out from behind a rock and talk about The Cabin in the Woods? For reasons that have little do with movies and a lot to do with what we expect and don’t expect from movie critics, The Cabin in the Woods is both the easiest and the hardest film to talk about.

First things first. The Cabin in the Woods is a meta-horror film directed by Drew Goddard from a screenplay by Goddard and Joss Whedon. Between the two of them, writing and directing credits include but are not limited to (on television) Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, Angel and Alias and (on the big screen) Cloverfield, Serenity, Alien Resurrection and The Avengers. The bulk of those are Whedon’s credits: in some fan-boy circles, the guy has almost godlike status. I’m by no means a Whedon cultist – I saw The Avengers and wondered what all the fuss was about, and I never followed Buffy, Firefly or Dollhouse – but on the basis of The Cabin in the Woods alone, I can tell that unlike some who rummage through pop culture’s recycling bin, he has an obvious sense of humour at least.

A cabin in the woods is a generic horror location familiar in everything from The Evil Dead to Antichrist. And the set-up this time is basic and familiar enough to seem almost primal. Five college-age teenagers take a van into the woods to spend a weekend at a remote cabin. Three guys, two girls: it’s so Scooby-Doo, there’s even a stoner (and he will be useful later – if you’ve seen the film or don’t mind spoilers, Erich Kuersten at Acidemic expands on that).

Most critics have curtailed their plot summary at about that point, adding something like “it’s not what you expect”, and then warning that spoilers keep them from going any further. And that’s wise. But what you can say is that Whedon and Goddard have found a way of reinventing teen-horror traditions that seems every bit as ingenious as the reinventions in director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson’s Scream nearly two decades ago.

Scream ran as though Williamson had taken Robin Wood’s analysis of the glut of post-Friday the 13th horror – “a single interminable chronicle of blood-letting called something like When a Stranger Calls after Night School on Halloween or Friday the 13th, Don’t Answer the Phone and Don’t Go Into the House because He Knows You’re Alone and is Dressed to Kill” – and had both taken it completely seriously and found imaginative ways to treat it as comedy. It’s hard to convey how innovative Scream seemed at the time: in the opening scene, Drew Barrymore was stalked, When a Stranger Calls-style, by a killer on the phone. So far, so familiar, except … we were now in the age of the mobile phone, and that killer could be anywhere …

After endless sequels and even parodies of the original parody (Scary Movie), the satire has become as familiar as the thing satirised – you know that the promiscuous girl dies first, the so-called “final girl” confronts the killer at the end, there will be masks and there will be knives, and so on and so on. Horror lore became horror law.

But for a film scholar like Robin Wood, serious questions flowed out of this stuff. Why did teenage audiences pay to see teen promiscuity both celebrated and punished? Wood noted that the chief characteristic of the teen protagonists/victims was “a mindless hedonism” made explicit by a character in the third Friday the 13th film who said “the only things worth living for are screwing and smoking dope”. Did these films both endorse this hedonism and condemn it? What would happen in the horror universe, and its real world equivalent, if the teen hedonism in the remote lakeside cabin went unpunished? Wood saw promiscuity as the behaviour that “consumer capitalism in its present phase simultaneously ‘permits’ and morally disapproves of”. Two decades on, post-Scream, promiscuity in horror movies is an in-joke and an audience signal: pretty soon, that girl – is it always the girl? – is a goner.

So, it’s really no kind of spoiler at all to say that New Zealander Anna Hutchison is The Cabin in the Woods’ promiscuous girl – overtly, even ridiculously so. But everyone is a type here, in ways that … well, spoilers would keep me from saying why. Yes, as noted, spoilers are the reason why this film has been hard for people to write about. The reason, once you’re through the experience of it, that it’s easy to write about is that there is no space for interpretations to develop beyond Whedon and Goddard’s intention.

Everyone knows about the “intentional fallacy” – a critical rule, if you like, that means that you shouldn’t have to take the creator/author/director at his or her word – but I think that Whedon and Goddard have anticipated or sealed off every possible response to their movie. This kind of meta-horror is very easy to figure out: it’s all laid on for you. Again, it’s no spoiler to say that you can tick off the horror movie references that are dropped in like fan-bait: Hellraiser, the Saw films, The Evil Dead (“angry molesting tree”), HP Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” mythology (also raided, much less successfully, by Ridley Scott’s Prometheus), The Shining, various Japanese horrors and … actually, there’s bound to be someone on the internet who has listed all of them.

If the game is genre re-invention, then the tack that The Cabin in the Woods takes on 70s/80s horror is surely preferable to the alternative: those po-faced, big-budget remakes of once unspeakable horror classics (Dawn of the Dead, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, etc). You would locate The Cabin in the Woods in another, more interesting lineage, which is the self-referential or post-modern, and often comic, treatment of genre that you found in Death Proof, Super 8, Shaun of the Dead or Cloverfield. And it’s better than all of those.

It’s not about finding new ways to hunt and kill a group of attractive teenagers one by one. It’s about finding new reasons to kill them in the same old ways. Which The Cabin in the Woods manages, while also implicating audiences, or presenting surrogates of both audience and director. Why, it asks – in a voice that is amused and maybe guilty but never hectoring – do you even want to see this kind of stuff? It’s the same question without an answer that Michael Haneke asked in the much more actively disturbing Funny Games.

“It’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies,” Whedon said, in an interview with Total Film. “I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful … The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.”

The Cabin in the Woods has become an instant cult movie and not only because of what’s on screen. Again, circumstances are important. As a loose rule, the more neglected a film has been, the more treasured it becomes once it is discovered or rediscovered. So it is with The Cabin in the Woods, which was filmed in Vancouver back in 2009, with an intended 2010 release, before it was caught up in MGM’s bankruptcy. Lions Gate bought it in 2011 and released it in 2012 (a remake of Red Dawn that was tangled up in the same MGM drama gets a US release in November). Lions Gate built its fortune on the Saw franchise and Michael Moore films – and, this year, The Hunger Games and The Cabin in the Woods. Given that the torture porn excesses of the Saw franchise are sent up or critiqued by Goddard and Whedon, the Lions Gate release makes a kind of circular sense.

Over the three years from production to release, Chris Hemsworth became a star in the Thor film – and was picked up again by Whedon for The Avengers. But “star” is a relative term here – all five of the teen stereotypes, including Hutchison’s, are so deeply within their particular types as to be completely, deliberately forgettable. Anonymity is the point. Ask anyone emerging from a screening of The Cabin in the Woods to name its characters.

After a March premiere at South by Southwest in Texas, The Cabin in the Woods was released across the US in April. Still, it was set for straight to DVD in New Zealand and Australia before the fans intervened. Locally, that meant a campaign by Incredibly Strange programmer Ant Timpson that led to the film being screened in the International Film Festival (if only someone could do the same for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which is also doomed to go straight to DVD in New Zealand). Against distributor timidity, Timpson pitched a heroic final battle for horror fans, like a new William Castle scaring up business outside a cinema with a megaphone: “This is the last stand for Kiwi horror fans to unite against the industry perception that horror doesn’t work in this country,” he said to a reporter. “If we can’t even fill a few festival screenings with The Cabin in the Woods, we’re sending a clear message to the distributors that they were right, we were wrong and horror is dead.”

Good on him. Horror is alive, it turns out. The idea that the fans rescued the film from oblivion – as they did, so long ago, for the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead or El Topo – has become an important part of the story of The Cabin in the Woods, and it couldn’t happen to a more appropriate film: one that sends up obsessive fandom with real affection, and rewards it at the same time.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in New Zealand from November 7.