Missed opportunities: The Cabin in the Woods
Yeah, I'm going to get flack for this most likely. The Cabin in the Woods is a very popular, critically acclaimed film, with a very popular co-writer. And seeing as I do love Joss Whedon as much as the next guy and horror comedies (as the movie was first marketed) are one of my most sought out genres, I was really surprised on how much me and The Cabin in the Woods disagreed.
It took me a while to figure out why. I mean, the acting was really good, the effects were at least passable and the story had a really good message to it... all in all, there are a lot of good elements in this movie. But the more I thought about the message of the movie, the more I understood where my frustrations came from. The film indeed wants to say something. And it tries so hard in doing so, that all the other elements suffer for it.
Let me see if I can demonstrate. And since this won't be the only time we're going to cover something in terms of missed opportunities, let's do so scientifically, by introducing a completely made up unit of measurement. Every time the movie does something that's not used to its full potential or teases something it won't deliver on, we give it one unit. The units of measurement will be Trolls, to show my complete lack of bias.
Also... we'll be deconstructing the whole movie here. This is the furthest you'll get without having the whole movie spoiled.
The movie starts in an office environment. Here we meet one half of the movie: office workers trying to save the world. To be precise, the most inept office workers ever trying to save the world. Seriously, these people are horrible at their job. I'd get that in a regular company, but in the hands of these people is the fate of the whole world. You'd expect some sort of competence, no? We catch them leisurely talking about family stuff, when someone informs them that another site has failed to do the world saving ritual for appeasing the elder gods. They don't care. Wow... two minutes in and the movie doesn't even care about its own premise anymore. That's... I've never seen that happen so fast before. I know it symbolises they've been doing this for too long, but come on, it's still the fate of the whole world. This is still not a weekly basis thing. You can talk about safety drawers once you know there will be anything left of them.
The other half of the movie comes in the way of five college kids, as per usual, going into a remote, creepy place, as per usual, having genuine chemistry, personalities and even showing caring for one another, as per.... complete opposite of the stereotypes we usually see in movies. This would be a great thing, except for the fact that these are not the characters we are stuck with for the rest of the movie, since their personalities are changed by The Organisation at a whim.
And thus these two halves interact with each other to form the story of Cabin in the Woods. One is about kids being slaughtered in the woods, the other about a jaded, badly maintained organisation trying to make it happen. Yes, the movie does harp on the latter quite a bit. I've long maintained that to make a horror comedy, you must love what you do. The problem is, this movie was never about the horror. This seems more like an outlet for frustration than anything else. To what you might ask?
Well, the movie doesn't hold back in presenting its premise as a parallel to creating horror movies. The victims represent the movie, The Organisation represents the workforce behind creating the movie. As such, Cabin in the Woods isn't really a horror movie, but more like a satire, depicting the relationships between different parties interested in a movie. It has been suggested that the elder gods that The Organisation is trying to appease here are the audience... but are they really? Let's look closely. The gods demand a certain structure with certain elements placed all around the movie. They require a specific outcome within a certain deadline. They even provide the resources that the movie can use in the form of the monsters. And when they are dissatisfied, they pull the plug on everything instantly. This isn't the audience. These are company executives. This is movie is kind of like the passive-aggressive e-mails that you never send to your boss.
Sticking to this satirical nature might be an interesting direction, but it also points out some of the biggest issues with the movie: If the characters aren't invested in what's going on in the movie, why should the audience? (1 Troll) If the characters don't act as themselves, we are just watching puppets act out a play, knowing it is one. (2 Trolls) Worse still, we are being denied a better movie, where the characters would act logically - exactly as the same characters state they would do, if it weren't for the magical-decision-altering-happy-gas. (3 Trolls)
The Organisation doesn't help things at all. Thanks to their involvement, the story goes at a very slow, predictable pace (4 Trolls) and the only reason there is a twist at the end at all, is because of a level of incompetence that would give Prometheus a runs for its money (no Troll here, they were pretty upfront on how horrible at everything these people were the whole movie through). At least Prometheus didn't have Sigourney Weaver randomly killed by a one armed child, which isn't really something you'd expect I'd have to give Prometheus of all films credit for... (5 Trolls)
It's not that the movie doesn't have any good moments though. The Fool character has a few genuinely funny lines and the movie sports some powerful ideas. They are just bogged down by an unfortunate need to ham fist as many metaphors into the movie as possible. For example, the obligatory sex scene was well made fun of before The Message kicked in again and the act itself was... uncomfortably rapy. Not just because of a bunch of old guys staring at it like zombies, nor of the brutal violence that ensued afterwards. The fact that got me was how involuntary the whole thing possibly was, since both participants were actually drugged into doing it. It made it easy to question what the boundaries are of both art and real life in such a private act.
But other than that, the movie seemed to have fallen into a strange trap that satires sometimes stumble across: being so faithful a parody, that you become indistinguishable from the thing you are making a parody of. With this being a parody of horror movies, Cabin in the Woods not only set out to make a bland generic horror movie, but throughout the watch it pauses itself to tell you how exactly this could've been a better movie if it weren't for the existence of horror tropes. (6 Trolls) It poses some questions about these conventions, but outside of the aforementioned fornication, never really draws any conclusions on them beyond “this problem sure exists.” (7 Trolls)
This is what probably made Cabin in the Woods such a frustrating watch for me. The original premise that actually held back any originality. The lack of courage to do something especially drastic and the lack of insanity to go all out. It's not that the film didn't have the imagination to do so. The monsters presented towards the end would be so much more interesting than the original redneck zombies. Why not let loose a banshee? Or a rejected Cenobite? Or... whatever ungodly abomination the Sugarplum Fairy was? Sure, towards the end of the movie they do let them loose, but even that part felt somehow restrained. It was more like a preview of what could've been, if these were used instead. (8 Trolls)
Some might argue that this is what satires do... take a concept, and show you how bad it actually is. Personally, I'm not sure that such finger pointing is good enough of a premise, if it doesn't also bring something new to the table. I don't really think Cabin in the Woods did that. But that might just be me. If you felt the same, I'd recommend Tucker and Dale vs Evil or Feast, if you want something to make fun of horror tropes. If you want a commentary on interaction between viewer, film and film making, I'd recommend either Perfect Blue or Videodrome.
For now, I wish everyone a great 2015.
End result: Trollololololololol.
Lessons learned: If you're labelled a Virgin, not even the bloodthirsty elder gods care if you're alive or not.