A few of my fellow Wordslingers, as well as wonder-editor Jennifer Brozek, will be attending as well. There seem to be a few really interesting writing panels this Saturday that I'm looking forward to attending.
I have an odd relationship to horror. I do write a little horror, I'm working on a Lovecraftian story set in Aberdeen right now. And I love Richard Laymon, John Everson and I have a lot of respect for at least half of Stephen King's output. I was a big horror fan back in the '90s but after 9-11, I lost my taste for tragedy and torture. But there is one thing the horror genre does that no other genre can: It takes away the certainty that things are going to end ok.
In horror, there are not guarantees that the main character will succeed or even survive. And on one level, I really like that. Uncertainty drives tension, so long as it doesn't swerve into confusion. But as much as I appreciate that tool in the toolbox,it can be mis-used. And that brings me to "Cabin in the Woods".
While I admire the concept and enjoyed some of the performances, it didn't work for me. And a big part of that is the ending.
So, let me talk spoiler first and I'll backtrack. Jump out now if you haven't seen or if you have and want to talk about it at World Horror, look me up. I'll be the big, bald guy in black...or one of them.
So the central concept of Cabin in the Woods is that all the slasher and horror killings are real and they have a purpose. They are human sacrifices that are used to appease sleeping elder gods and keep them asleep. These killings are stage-managed by a mundane company hidden beneath (in this case) the titular cabin. If the killings are not accomplished, and in a specific-ish order, the world ends. Those are the stakes.
Either we (humanity) kills 5 kids a year, making them suffer, or the world ends*. And the stoner character fucks us all up, destroying the world. It's almost the biggest anti-drug movie since "Requiem for a Dream". Or it should be. I can't tell you how much I hate that character and his actions. But I don't just want to rail against the character, I want to rail against the writing. So let's do that.
Ok, now that I spoiled the ending, I'll back up and describe the rest of the story. The movie opens with a couple of office/corporate types talking inanely about work. Then there's a big title drop, deliberately over the top. We get introduced to the young characters, the designated 'survivor girl' walking around in her panties and a tee shirt while the 'slut' is fully dressed.
This is what the movie does well and does wrong. First, it's playing with our expectation. Like showing the 'virgin' character...isn't a virgin. Far from it. And showing 'behind the curtain' at the technicians who'll be stage-managing the horror. And, with the title leaping out, telling the audience that it's not taking itself seriously. And all of this, with the exception of playing with expectations, is a mistake. But let me go on.
After we're introduced to all five characters (including the hated stoner character who is driving around bombed out of his head. If he was drunk instead, I wonder if people would have laughed as hard at him. Or maybe they're showing us early just how irresponsible he is, which still doesn't endear me to him). The five kids to to a cabin in the woods, vaguely owned by a relative of one of them. On their way to the cabin, the are met by a creepy guy who warns them away. They ignore him, go to the cabin and settle in for some good times.
Down below, we see the techs debating the morality of what they're going to do. We see themes of voyeurism and horror, right out in the open. All good so far. Then a basement door is opened and a variety of occult objects are discovered. Still good. Whichever item they are drawn to, determines which monster they will be stalked and killed by. An old diary containing some spooky Latin-esque text is read aloud, inbred zombies rise and begin the killing.
There is a lot going on here. Still good stuff, lots of genre-aware commentary by characters in the cabin and downstairs in the control room. Still good. There's some nudity (but no sex, though we get plenty of gore...sigh. I miss the old 80s movies that served up both) and one by one the kids are killed by zombies or by traps or by the control panel folks just being bastards. Chris Hemswroth shows a LOT of charisma in this movie. He doesn't really have much screen time...and that's another huge mistake...but he seems noble, active, protective. His supporting cast is a bit in his shadow but ultimately he dies as does everyone but the last girl.
Only....that isn't what happened. In a hard-to-believe twist, the stoner character gets the better of his killer. Off screen. After being stabbed in the back. And with him alive, they survivor girl can't be killed. Again, the order of the death matters because otherwise the elder god won't be appeased. Again, this is important, end-of-the-world kind of important.
The two surviving kids get into an elevator that leads down, which somehow the stoner knows how to hotwire. They go down into the complex, discover a HUGE collection of monsters, free them, cause everyone in the facility to get killed, and end up confronting the director of the company/organization. She tells them about the purpose of the killings, about the stakes and they see the temple holding the elder god as he slumbers. And...though a variety of contrivances, manage to outsmart and overpower and trick the remaining monster and the Director and...let the world get destroyed. While they light up a joint and say that maybe someone else's turn will come next, that humanity doesn't deserve to survive. They die as a huge hand breaks free from the prison, the end.
So, back where I came in. This ending really, really pissed me off. If the stoner had been right and refusing to kill himself or let himself die somehow did not unleash the elder god or if the survivors had found some other way to avoid the god's awakening, I could have bought the ending. The movie would still have serious flaws, which I'll get to next, but it would have ended 'well'. Or if he or the survivor girl had killed the stoner and saved the world, it would have ended well. Or even if they tried to avert the awakening of the god and failed, it would have ended well. Or if the characters had been LIKABLE, it would have felt like tragedy. But it didn't.
See, this is where the strength of the horror genre, that happy endings are not guaranteed, is wasted. Because a 'down' ending only works if you care about the characters. And we don't here. And I don't think it's just because of my dislike of the stoner character. The problem with the movie's ending is structural.
We open on the real protagonists, the techs. They're the ones trying to save the world. They are making the hard choices, sacrificing not just the 'teens' but their own honor and morality. But we're wired to like the kids, to want them to survive and triumph and the movie half supports that. But only half. See, it's not just the opening that's the problem. Opening on the techs does fake out the audience but it also spends precious minutes establishing characters that we aren't supposed to be rooting for. And the normalcy of these guys going to work wastes time that could be used creating tension.
Because the Cabin in the Woods is neither a comedy, nor a horror movie. It's trying to be both and it fails. Comedy and horror are conflicting emotions and themes. Comedies are cathartic. Horror is creating tension. Laughter removes tension. It distances the audience from what they're seeing. It's insulation when what you need is a live wire.**
If it had committed to comedy, the movie could have worked, despite the gore. But a comedy can't have a down ending. Down endings don't make you laugh and the purpose of a comedy is to make the audience laugh and feel good at the end.
If it had committed to horror, the movie could have worked, despite the humor. Humor is a great tool in defusing tension, in creating a positive catharsis, just as the 'kills' create a negative catharsis. A horror movie can have a down ending, if you care about the characters. It's still risky, which is why most 'down' endings are surprise or stinger endings (like the last shot of Carrie or the last image of Prince of Darkness) but it can be done but only if you are invested in the characters.
And this is the other big failure of the movie: we don't have focus on either possible protagonist(s). The movie jumps from the control room to the teens, never spending enough time with either of them to let us get immersed in their struggles. We're robbed from feeling the tension of the dead rising and stalking the main characters because we keep jumping to the control room. We're robbed from caring about the protagonist(s) by having to split precious screen minutes with the other characters, separated from each other in every way. The teens are painted as archtypes by the control room people and despite the fact we're 'told' that they aren't cliched characters, we aren't given time to be shown how they aren't cardboard cutouts.
So the deaths mean less. We don't have a clear rooting interest in either side. The control room people have the high stakes, higher than just their own life and death. But they don't have the majority of the screen time. The teens have the emotional sympathies of the audience but they aren't given time to develop and become real people.
There's a lot more I could talk about, things that worked and things that didn't. But I'll stop here.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is basically a 'Scary Movie' title with a bigger budget and subtler gags...and a worse ending.
*This sort of plot is handled with much better grace in the story " The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
**There are very, very few movies that work as both.
Tucker and Dave vs Evil " is a similar movie but despite the gore, it's a comedy. "The Evil Dead" crosses both lines but is ultimately a horror movie with lots of cathartic laughter and silliness.