Saturday, April 14, 2012

Choose Your Apocalypse: Cabin in the Woods

OK. first and foremost, Spoiler alert. You've been warned. 

Cabin in the Woods has existed as a legend for years now, much like the "ancient ones" the films Lovecraftian mythology makes a reference to. It existed in its own nightmare universe, where films are subject to the malevolent forces of bankruptcy and marketing. It was a legend whispered between the lips of fans of Joss Whedon. Now it has finally been released. 

The film has been compared to Scream as a kind of meta-horror, a knowing joke on the conventions of its genre. This is partially accurate;, there is much in this film that is quite funny, much funnier than Scream actually. However, the problem with such meta-horror, or meta-anything, the self-aware winks that are everywhere in this post-post-modern age, is that it is very difficult to laugh at a rule and have it function as a rule. For the rules of genre to work, they must not be perceived as rules. Eventually the winks get in the way of the scares to the point where everything is buried in quotation marks. This exhausted the Scream films, but it is more than that. Scream is over ten years old, and in the period since then genre deconstruction has gone viral. Youtube videos and tumblr sites mock the cliches and conventions of films

However, Cabin in the Woods is less a subversion of the specific rules of the"cabin the woods" subgenre than an attempt to restore rules that have become cliches. It attempts to make a "cabin in the woods" movie, while at the same time recognizing that such a film has been done to death, that we all know too well that a trip to the aforementioned cabin will involve an encounter with a creepy redneck along the way, and so on. It revives the rules that we all know so well, bringing them back from the dead. It keeps the standard clichés but it offers causes for them, explaining why the central characters go off in the woods to have sex, split up when they should stick together, and generally act like idiots. The clichés are displaced, no longer appearing as the frustrating way that people in movies act, but they way people are forced to act due to forces beyond their control.

The film opens with a group of corporate or government office drones having a usual conversation. As the film unfolds their workplace is revealed to be a vast underground bunker, like NORAD or NASA, only it is unclear exactly what their mission is. The film cuts between these scenes, which become increasingly mysterious, and a group of young college students heading for a getaway at a cousin's lake house. What connects these two sets of events is not immediately clear, even as it is revealed that the men in ties and lab coats are monitoring and engineering the student's trip. The men are engineering the trip into the cliches of the horror film: spiking one student's blonde hair dye so she becomes the "dumb blonde," filling the woods with pheromones so that we get the required horny couple running off to have sex, and so on.

This structural displacement from genre to narrative, in which we see the construction of the character's motivations, reminded me of a Samuel Delany lecture I heard years ago. Delany argued that science fiction as a genre could be defined in terms of particular reading practices, particular questions that readers bring to a text and particular answers that the text provides. These questions and answers stress the constitution of the world of the narrative, its objective conditions, this is distinct from the subjective questions of other literary genres. Delany's example of the latter was Kafka's Metamorphoses, Gregor's transformation into a bug is understood to be an allegory of the human condition. If it was science fiction,  if it was read as science fiction, then the story would be about the technology, the conditions of this transformation, rather than its symbolic significance. In this sense the operation that Cabin performs is similar to a different film than the obvious reference to Scream, The Matrix. Just as that film took the standards of the action genre, the action hero that can execute gravity defying martial arts moves, fly any helicopter or use any weapon, and dodge bullets, and created a world that could explain them, Cabin creates a world in which the standard horror clichés are made believable, every cliche is given a cause. In each case the explanation is also a transposition of genres, The Matrix embeds the action film in the science fiction film while Cabin places the horror film within the paranoid conspiracy film (at least initially), only to ultimately place one kind of horror in another. These are not just mash-ups, the combinations of genres (as in say Zombieland or From Dusk til Dawn)  but attempts to offer the pleasures of one genre by means of the narrative tools of another. One could at least provisionally map out three responses to the saturating of the horror clichés and the subsequent waining of affect: a restoration by saturation, as in the case of "torture porn" of Hostel and Saw,  in which the intensity of gore becomes the horror; a restoration by subtraction, as in the case of found footage films such as Paranormal Activity, in which the imagination becomes the horror; and Cabin in the Woods,  which restores horror by displacing it through other codes of genre.

Cabin in the Woods was originally scheduled to be released in 2009 but was delayed due to studio troubles. Its release in 2012, a few weeks after The Hunger Games, draws out some interesting parallels between the two films. Both deal with a thoroughly monitored environment, with universal surveillance, and with "puppetmasters," people behind the scenes controlling this environment. The goals are also the same, kids, or at least college students, will die, and their death serves some supposed higher purpose, it is a sacrifice. The Hunger Games included the architects of the game in order to adapt the novel into the film, replacing Katniss' observations about the game with the architect's construction of it. While the film did use this to explore some of the political dimensions of the later novels, it did not really explore the psyche of the game makers at least in comparison to Cabin. Cabin in the Woods presents the mundane details of the lives of the bureaucrats that orchestrate the horror, complete with chit-chat and office betting pools over who will survive.  The bureaucrats, technicians, and temps in Cabin also function as stand-ins for the horror audience, caught between voyeuristic enjoyment and guilt.

This brings us to the film's most clever use of the government conspiracy framing device (and the biggest spoiler), the way it incorporates the audience, one could even say the audience's cliched response. Anyone who watches horror films, who enjoys horror films, will find themselves identifying with the killer, the monster, mutant, or alien. This identification, which initially is ambivalent, becomes stronger with subsequent sequels, as characters become more and more interchangeable and disposable. The result is that the sequels to horror films become something else, less about scares and more about the sadistic pleasure of watching a bunch of idiots be torn apart. Cabin is able to sustain the ambiguity by providing a reason for wanting the kids to die (other than the desire to see blood and guts). The reason that this entire mechanism exists, the entire underground compound of surveillance cameras, chemically engineered horniness and stupidity, and a vast underground compound of monsters and ghouls, is to provide a sacrifice to ancient Lovecraftian gods slumbering beneath the earth. If the sacrifice goes as planned, with each of the archetypes dying in the right order, the gods are appeased, if not, if something should go wrong, then the ancient ones will return to earth, destroying all of humanity. The film makes the ambivalence of horror, of an identification split between victims and monster, a part of its structure. We are not sure who we want to live, or what we want to happen. Thus, the film is really a horror film of one subgenre, the cabin in the woods film, placed in a conspiracy film, which is in turn placed in another horror film, that of more Lovecraftian apocalyptic variety. These genre displacements are ways of anticipating the reactions of an audience, an audience which perhaps wants to see the typical horrors, but knows the horrors all too well. The ancient gods which must be appeased then function as a stand-in for either the audience, or, given Whedon's conflicts with studio executives, the film company itself. The studio demands the requisite sex scene, the characters that repeat stereotypes, and the body count.

One question remains, one question for even the most skeptical viewer, and that is why the cabin, the monsters, the ghosts, the unicorn, mermen, zombie rednecks, etc., why not just sacrifice the characters?  Throw a virgin into a volcano, to quote one character. The explanation given is that of choice, the college students must choose their own demise. It is for this reason that the cabin comes complete with a basement filled with forbidden books, scary dolls, cursed objects, and so on, a kind of clearing house of nightmares.  Each of these objects is familiar to us, and represents a film that we have seen. Whatever object they choose, whatever curse they awake, will be their demise, but it is their choice. The film is not very clear as to why this choice is necessary, except to suggest that it has something to do with youth. Nor does it address the fact that this choice is thoroughly compromised by the drugs and pheromones that reduce the characters to a set of clichés, dumb blonde, virgin, etc. One could take this contradiction to be symptomatic of the culture industry in general, which must preserve the idea of choice, while at the same time rendering its conditions meaningless, dumbing its audience down to the point that their choice makes about as much sense as splitting up when being pursued by monsters in the woods.  At the same time the movies inability to decide between freedom and determination, between a theology of choice and a materialism of hormones, reflects one of the pleasures of the genre. We want the characters in a horror film to be rational, to be capable of autonomous choices, but that desire must constantly be thwarted, since rational individuals rarely go into dark basements or ignore the warnings of gas station attendants. (Case in this point this take on the clichés of horror films:perfectly reasonable and sensible, but also perfectly boring to the point that nothing happens.) We want to want the clichés, but they have to be justified.

Cabin in the Woods is a film that loves horror, but recognizes that its object of its love is lost, buried in clichés. However, there is no horror film without these clichés, they can only be displaced, shifted and multiplied to the point where they are pouring out of the elevators, filling up the lobbies with blood and corpses, and running all over the place (Just see the movie, you'll see what I mean).

Concluding Marxist Postscript 10/11/18

This is one of my more popular posts, a popularity that owes as much to the popularity of the film as anything else. I rewatched Cabin in the Woods and saw it totally differently. While my first viewing was animated by genre exhaustion and saturation, the second time I thought more of the movie in terms of its intergenerational conflict--the old sacrificing the young. Perhaps because generational conflict has become so popular as of late, with new articles blaming millennials for the decline of everything from fast casual dining to diamonds. Here the film is instructive in that the conflict between the young and the old stands in for and obscures a structural conflict between living labor and dead labor. The ancient gods being the allegory for capital, updating Marx's ur-text on the interpretation of horror films, "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." Or to twist a saying from Stuart Hall, "generational conflict is the modality in which class conflict is lived." The conflict between the young and the old is actually a conflict between those who have bought in, and been bought, by a system and those who have nothing to lose but their chains (or in this case, the world). Once again the film's emphasis on choice is important. The young generation has to buy into a world that offers them less and less. That is the necessary condition of reproduction. 


Schizostroller said...

I've been ranting for a while about the insidiousness of the phrase used by (nu-Labour, the Tories and the advertising industry) of the phrase: "it's your choice".

A particularly nasty bit of controlling rhetoric. I've always understood 'choice' to be an externality (Fichte?) it's decisions that I own and make out of the choices that are out there, just like i own my labour and emotions (lest one be a beautiful soul). I don't own 'my choices' despite acting on the world I am not that powerful!

Great review and a wonderful dissection of the entanglement that Horror has found itself in the 'postmodern' hegemony.

But Whedon has always been a confused soul, hasn't he? Very much a Northern soul caught up in the Southern myth of autonomy (going by Firefly); that spirit saturated with Republicanism, desiring the Northern free market with Southern rugged individuality, unable to reconcile the glaring contradiction in the bases for their different histories.

There was an amusing critique of Buffy on a pdcast called Pop Philosophy (i think) alluding to the subtle fascisms (in the Deleuzian molecular sense rather than any molar Fascist sense) of Buffy and its relation to the Other.

There is a sense where Whedon's works seem to be a postmodernly emotionally fluffy, Scream (which do I mean: the film or painting) meets Fisher's Capitalist Realism - The real Cabin in the Woods?

unemployed negativity said...

I reading a piece in Buffy and Philosophy, which argued that the rigid distinctions between human and monster where fascist, but I did not buy it. Buffy proliferated friendly demons, vampire with souls, and werewolves to make that division difficult.

However, I will admit a certain confusion on Whedon's part. Case in point The Avengers, which has a critique of mutually assured destruction as its middle act crisis, only to end with Iron Man nuking the attacking aliens.

Schizostroller said...

Indeed in Charismatic Christianity, emotional disturbances such as depression are treated as demons. The Hearing Voices Network is known for using a form of therapy known as voice dialogue in a similar way, seeing the voices that are heard as alienated or excluded emotional disturbances/ personalities that they refer to as daimons.

To come to terms with such emotional monsters shows an element of emotional depth, and to call the distinction between humans and monsters as Fascist is to deny such an emotional depth in Whedon, as light as he may be at times.

I only listened to a podcast that may or may not have been the same author, although interestingly in that Podcast the author alludes to angel as an Anti-Fascist of the molar order, unable to come to terms with his more moleculat facistic tendencied such that they return as demonic forces.

Schizostroller said...

john xerxes said...

Interesting that these are ritualized to keep the ancient ones appeased. Twists the whole sacrificial meaning from expenditure into entertainment (possibly making the gods return to the ancient mythologies meddling?).

An interesting comparison would be the corporation-against-itself of HALLOWEEN iii Season of The Witch.

Unknown said...

Bloody analyses aside, that movie actually gave me enough reason to call a conveyancing sydney firm to look at lake houses and cabins for sale. They look so good in that movie.

Unknown said...

This is amazing. An eclectic cabin design with a charm of the apocalypse? Interesting and ironic at the same time.

Carlisle Dekerlegand

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Because of this movie, I postponed moving in to my new apartment because I didn't want to stay in there alone. After I finally moved in, I just laughed at myself for feeling scared of the movie. - Raizel

Unknown said...

If an electronic cabin really does exist, it would be an honor to meet its contractor. I wanna know how he managed twice the headache of combining technology with an old cabin at the top of the mountain. - Cyrus

FiveGunsWest said...

what a brilliant blog site.

James said...

Hi, Nice work, I've bookmarked this page and have a feeling I'll be returning to it regularly.
verhuizen gouda