The UKHS Ecstasy & Agony Showcase #6:
The Agony of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012)
The marketing campaign for the Joss Whedon-scripted “horror-comedy” (it’s neither) The Cabin In The Woods was incredibly effective. In spite of the fact that the film sat on the shelf for years – long enough for Chris Hemsworth to be known as Thor by the time it finally came out, instead of just some random Australian fellow – when the promotional material was eventually unleashed, it felt new, fresh and even original, thanks to a cracking trailer and a poster that hinted there was more to the titular cabin than was at first obvious.
For me, Cabin was one of the biggest disappointments of a life spent obsessing over horror movies. Relentlessly smug and self-congratulatory – not to mention much less clever than it thinks it is – it renders a decent cast completely useless by offering them absolutely no back-story whatsoever, beyond a throwaway line here and there (she used to fuck her professor, she’s pre-med, Thor understands economics). Meanwhile the only likeable character – the stoner – is betrayed by a heavily-expository and not to mention downright ludicrous explanation towards the end, about how smoking weed has made him immune to the tricks of the puppet-masters.
Even in his own right though, Marty is really just a rubbish version of Randy from Scream, though he does still get the best lines in the film: “I’m on a reality TV show!” he decides at one point, “My parents are going to think I’m such a burnout…”. Further to this, the fact that certain characters aren’t acting like themselves actually has to be explained to us because clearly we don’t know enough about any of them to notice any difference in their behaviour.
Considering the ideas at play, Cabin takes far too long setting everything up with absolutely no carnage whatsoever until almost an hour into its ninety minute running time. The villains – zombie rednecks – are of the lowest calibre imaginable, sporting shitty make-up and the same, boring weapons we’ve seen a million times before. Their presence is later rendered totally worthless by the influx of villains on the Killing Floor, which teases us with what could have been (the less said about the merman joke, which some mouthy bastard clearly thought was HILARIOUS, the better).
Self-referential meta humour can work really well in horror movies, like with Scream which is probably still the best example, but here it falls utterly flat because there are no scares to bounce off the comedy. Everything is so smug and self-congratulatory that it calls to mind Gale Weather’s line from Scream 4 about Stabathon being a circle-jerk: Cabin is the epitome of a circle-jerk for know-it-all horror fans. It’s supposed to make us feel like we’re in on the joke, like we’re too good for it, but we can’t laugh at the horror elements if there are none.
Nods such as the harbinger of doom might have worked better if someone didn’t outright refer to the character as ‘the harbinger’ later in the film, thereby hammering us over the head with it. Sigourney Weaver’s cameo might have been funny if she hadn’t just utterly phoned in her performance: her delivery is so stiff she might as well have been reading the phonebook aloud. The ending might’ve packed a wallop if Weaver’s character hadn’t shown up to specifically explain it, and if its centrepiece wasn’t a laughably bad CGI hand. In fact, lots of moments are lost because they go a bit too far and are a bit too knowing, much like the recent influx of improv comedy bits in films such as Anchorman 2. The joke stops being funny after about ten seconds… And yet it lasts five minutes.
The two most interesting characters are the office workers, but they’re not given enough screen time for us to really give a shit about what their jobs entail or the difficult position they’re in. This B-story, in fact, is the most Whedon-esque element of the entire production, almost harking back to Buffy and her dealings with Riley’s special unit. Even when the two are given some room to breathe, the humour is so on-the-nose it’s completely interminable. Everything has to be spelled out, nothing is left to sink in and, much like in the A-story, there are zero moments of tension, unease or even mild peril (not to sound like a BBFC rating).
There was talk when Cabin was first released of Whedon originally wanting to write a straight horror flick but being talked into this by his superiors instead. Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t excuse the end product or indeed the way it was sold as a love letter to horror fanatics. Where Scream invites us in on the joke, Cabin beats us over the head with it, as if to say “horror movies are so dumb, right?”, which misses the point: even though it can be an utterly silly and throwaway genre, we still love it and it’s special to us. It doesn’t deserve to be torn apart, especially when it’s not even done cleverly.
At one point, Chris Hemsworth’s character demands they all stick together, which encourages the office workers to pump gas into the cabin to make him change his mind – anyone who’s seen a horror movie knows that the group inevitably separates, no matter how hard they try to stay together, so why wasn’t this moment simply allowed to play out? Why did it have to be such a gut reaction?
I was worried I’d judged Cabin too harshly (everyone else seems to love it, after all). But upon re-watching it years later, I’ve discovered it’s become even more of a chore. It’s plodding, bloated, incredibly self-congratulatory, expository to the point of nausea, unfunny, not in the least bit scary, highly derivative and just plain dull.
A horror film for people who don’t like horror, The Cabin In The Woods is not something I enjoyed either time I watched it, and it sucks that it was such a disappointment because I really did want to like it. Try-hard and blatant in its execution, Cabin tries to be the new Scream, but goes one step too far and actually makes us the joke.
Read the previous Ecstasy & Agony features by clicking on them here: