ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Cabin in the Woods: Slasher-Films, and Meta-Horror

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Gregory Cwik

Self-referential movies aren't infrequent within the many subgenres of horror--the mock-docudrama Behind the Mask: the Rise and Fall of Leslie Vernon is probably the best recent example but rarely are as angry and caustic as The Cabin in the Woods. Horror's newest excursion into postmodernism-lite, Cabin doesn't settle for harmless irony; it goes for facetiousness, and it succeeds in big, bloody droves. In fact, the film most akin to it isn't Scream, as one might expect, but rather Orson Welles' underappreciated meta-docu-joke F is for Fake (below). Welles' film is a dithery hour-and-a-half critique of so-called experts (the film critics who berated and decried Welles throughout his career). Welles' signature wit, trenchant and self-satisfied, is at its sharpest here: he slips in some scathing jokes about his viewers, the people who are supposed to be on his side, consequently ostracizing much of its potential audience during its initial run in theaters. You can only imagine Welles' reading the reviews from the experts and, in his cavernous baritone, saying aloud to no one, Fuck em.

While Cabin doesn't try to vaunt its viewers to the extent that Welles's film did, it doesn't shy away from calloused, navel-gazing punditry.

Navel-gazing and celluloid have long been consorts, affably conspiring to usurp viewers expectations since the Golden Age of cinema. In 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (above), a family-friendly send-up of Universals unholy trilogy Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein drove the final nail in Universals coffin. After the comedic duo played peek-a-boo with a strung out, visibly ill Bela Lugosi, monster movies felt inherently silly, unintentionally hammy their teeth were filed down. The comedians self-aware farce successfully derailed an entire genre of movies; horror went through ten years of moderate stagnation, with only occasional glimpses of prestige, before Hammer Studios reanimated it with an unprecedented exhibit of sex mingled with violence; blood lust, you might say.

Co-written by nerd demigods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Whedon produces, Goddard directs), The Cabin in the Woods continues horrors long-established penchant for pseudo-meta musings. Its an irony-tinged, often seething (albeit loving) profile of that cliché-riddled spawn of horror film that dominated cinemas in the 1980s: the kind that puts large, heaving, often fake breasts on full display to get adolescent boys in the seats; the kind that doesn't worry too much about the freely-flowing fake blood looking too gelatinous or too red (realism isn't a priority here); the kind that insisted, despite precedence, that every movie must have at least five stock characters, none interesting, each fulfilling a particular template (comedic relief, patriarchal jock, blond slut, heroic virgin, the sensible thinker, sometimes a token black guy), and that these stock characters must die in gruesome, yet disappointingly unimaginative circumstances --a spear through the jugular, a knife to the lower stomach, the villain kneeling over the victim and the camera capturing his silhouette from behind as he delivers the final blow in dramatic fashion. These films were steeped in the grandiose and excess of the 80s, of selfish indulgences reaping no ramifications.

The slasher films of the embellished 80s the gaudy, bloody, insipid, bastard spawn of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) were all guts, no brains: large, often fake heaving breasts and rampant promiscuity replaced Carpenter's observant empathy for bored suburban teens; bright gelatinous blood by the gallon replaced his deliberate pacing and creeping dread, deceitful shadows, and subversive depiction of two-story houses and tranquil streets. In the wake of Friday the 13th's inexplicable success, horror films lost interest in character development and scares, opting for a multitude of sharp weapons mutilating young, usually naked flesh. Though Reagan-era horror movies rarely had big budgets, their superfluity, their blood lust and pedantic excess, was extremely popular with teenagers.

The vainglorious superfluity of Reagan-era horror likely stems from a misreading of Carpenter's seminal film, which is often wrongfully accused of being a morality play. Carpenter's victims smoke pot, engage in premarital sex, lie to their parents, and don't do their homework; they're rebels. When they're slaughtered by the guy with the knife, it almost seems consequent of their immoral actions.

The heroine, Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis [above], the first so-called Final Girl), is a nice, well-behaved young lady: the children she baby sits love her; she's articulate and studies hard; and she balks at the idea of being set-up with a guy. For some film buffs, she has become an archetype of feminism in horror: When she stabs the masked psycho in the face with a knitting needle, then a clothes hanger, then a knife, part-time psychosexual theorists likened the thrusting and vaguely phallic weapons to an expunging of her sexual frustration. For those interested in authorial intent, on the 25th Anniversary DVD release Carpenter made clear his own reading of Laurie venting her sexual frustration with every fervid stab: She's the one that's killed him. Not because she's a virgin but because all that sexually repressed energy starts coming out. She uses all those phallic symbols on the guy.

He dismisses the morality play theories, however, saying the critics missed the point.

Halloween was made on a micro budget --Carpenter had to throw piles of hand-painted leaves into fans to create the illusion of autumn, as the movie was filmed in California; palm trees are clearly visible in several scenes and the use of subtly menacing shadows and lack of overt gore was both an artistic decision as well as a practical one. Halloween is really a minimalist film, with the synthesizer score comprised of 3 notes in tandem and an un-dollied camera creating a drifting, voyeuristic sensation. But Carpenter's characters aren't symbolic of lust and sin; they aren't being punished by some evil deity for their actions. They're simply acting like teenagers. His suburbia is the carapace of normal life. Halloween's greatest achievement is the effortlessness with which he turns banality portentous. Halloween's greatest sin is its vicarious responsibility for the Reagan-era deluge of bad horror movies.

So, from the box office success of Halloween the 80s slasher film was born. Two years after Carpenters film grossed over 200 times its budget horror began its unremitting descent into bloody insipidness with the surprisingly successful Friday the 13th (left). Directed with the finesse of an inept cave troll by Sean S. Cunningham, it borrows heavily from Halloween, using Carpenters POV camerawork and voyeuristic savagery to veil the killer's identity, but it really adds nothing of depth, nor is it aesthetically enjoyable. Powell's Peeping Tom, unfairly ostracized during its initial run in 1960 (the same year as Psycho, which was praised), does the whole POV thing with grace and genuine unsettlement; it's an expedition into loneliness and delusional obsession, not unlike some of Hitchcock's greats, but it remains unique for the warmth and empathy with which it treats its villain. High art is not expected of every horror film --relative competence is often par for the course but Friday the 13th never attempts to rise up even remotely close to the level of its predecessors. And it's one of the best entries in the series.

Schlock horror found its Citizen Kane in 1981 when a film student named Sam Raimi unleashed his furious, blood-soaked debut, The Evil Dead. The pedantic gaudiness of Friday the 13th paled in comparison to Raimi's extravagance. Five young people--three girls, two boys--set out to spend a relaxing weekend in a cabin in the woods. Instead, demons cut them into pieces. The plot isn't intricate, but its presentation and ferocity were ground-breaking: Body parts are lopped off and flop on the floor with unsettling fap fap fap sounds accompanying, and boyfriends are forced to shoot their (possessed) girlfriends in the face with shotguns. Wounds don't ooze, they explode and gush with fervor, torrents of multi-colored blood and pus spraying everywhere. The final 15 minutes are a cacophony of bodily mutilation, yet it never feels repulsive. It's disgusting, but accessible. Most importantly, it's terrifying. The film moves deliberately, sometimes very slowly--the agonizing slow pan of the basement shows more restraint than anything in the first Spiderman film (also directed by Raimi).

One of the best jump-scares in the film occurs when a cellar door flies open suddenly and without catalyst (perhaps its the wind, one character wonders --not ironically) in The Cabin in the Woods during a particularly effective homage to The Evil Dead). Raimi's camerawork is dizzying and active, and the special effects are bravura. The movie looks much better than its $300,000 would suggest.

The Evil Dead didn't try to counter the clichés; it perfected them. Six years later, the Evil Dead II was released. The sequel isn't a continuation of the original, but rather a satirical, hyperbolic remake. The Evil Dead II ushered in a new era of wry, self-referential horror-comedy hybrids. Gremlins 2: The New Batch followed suit, as did Wes Craven, though with scares heavily outweighing laughs in New Nightmare, his conclusion to the original Nightmare on Elm Street series. Horror didn't have to go solely for cheap scares anymore; it could make them think, too.

It's into this pseudo-philosophical school of thought that Whedon and Goddard delve in the Cabin in the Woods. Easily the most ambitious meta-horror movie to find mass appeal yet, The Cabin in the Woods doesn't look at the camera and wink or laugh, as Bruce Campbell does at one point in The Evil Dead II. It treats its material with sincerity, even if it's simultaneously mocking it. It feels self-deprecating, even self-loathing at times, but it treats its viewers with respect. It's handled too delicately, too beguilingly, to be written off as just dithery criticism. The film expects viewers to be able to decipher its puzzles and recognize its allusions; it challenges amateur experts to unpack its every loaded scene, every slip or nod towards the past.

Akin to The Evil Dead, a group of college students--the jock, the jokester, the promiscuous girl, the sensitive guy, and the virgin--set off to spend a weekend in solitude, drinking and dancing and engaging in premarital sex. Once there, things start to go awry (not a spoiler by any means). But the film warns us of some dubious, illusory string-pulling from the first shot as two white collar workers (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in an unnamed facility are casually discussing their weekends. Whitford's character complains of his wife child-proofing their cabinets before they've even conceived the child (it takes five minutes to get a damn beer!). Jenkins is preoccupied, playing with his disposable coffee cup. Are you even listening to me? Whitford asks, and without a beat passing, the title slams onto the screen in huge red font, accompanied by a loud minor chord. Whedon and Goddard are asking the audience, Are you paying attention? Are you watching closely? Were so distant and detached as viewers of horror that weve stopped caring about characters. These two guys are trying to have a friendly conversation and reveal intimate details about their lives to each other, to us. We are privy to their private conversation. Why is this empathy and emotion so rare in mainstream horror films? Is it because we just dont care? This idea of cheering on the gore for our own amusement is a leitmotif that gathers weight as the film goes on. Voyeurism is insidious; Michael Powell tried to say something similar in Peeping Tom, and then his career went comatose.

Soon, our five college students (Thor's Chris Hemsworth is the jock, Kristen Connolly is the virgin, and Fran Kranz, who not only displays wonderful comedic timing but brings a genuine sense of internal contention to his performance, is the stoner/comedic relief) are en route to their vacation getaway. But the plot starts to wrinkle and writhe, and it folds in on itself again and again and again and the inner workings start to spill into the horror narrative. You can literally see the gears in motion (a nice visual touch). That the film makes several references to puzzles, as does its advertisement campaign, is not unintentional. The movie was made for horror fans to pick apart. Whedon and Goddard have given us two films --one a standard horror film, complete with a we can cover more ground if we split up line; the other akin to a behind-the-scenes feature on the inevitable dvd. The cabin in the woods part of the movie isn't very scary, nor is it that interesting, and its lit too darkly for us to see much--though all of this may very well be intentional, as if Whedon and Goddard felt that an effective fright fest would undermine their overall criticism.

An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, two highly successful films from 1981, ushered in a new era of meta-horror. Both conflate winking-jokes and meta-humor with lacerating scares; they're full-fledged horror films with a sharp sense of humor, not comedies with bite.

American Werewolf (above), directed by John Landis, is the funnier of the two. It depicts a pair of young Americans who are attacked by a wolf on the British moors. One of them dies; the other is bitten but survives. The dead one routinely shows up to warn the survivor David about his upcoming carnivorous lunar activities. There's one uproarious scene in which the victims of the subsequent attacks appear as mutilated, bloody corpses in a porno theater, all offering advice on how best he can kill himself. The special effects are truly outstanding, and haven't aged at all in 30 years (Rick Baker won a special Oscar for his work). And every song featured in the film has the word moon in the title (Bad Moon Rising; Moon Dance; etc.). But the films mix of off-beat humor and gory scares left a lot of viewers uncomfortable. Reviews, while generally favorable, are still mixed to this day, with some people proclaiming it as a masterpiece, some decrying its lack of plot and character development. And its abrupt ending is the epitome of anti-climatic. One has to wonder what Landis was trying to say there.

The Howling, directed by Joe Dante, contains even more references, but it maintains a more serious tone and hasnt reached the cult status of London. Numerous references to wolves are peppered throughout the film, from the subtle a copy of the Allen Ginsberg's Howl appears briefly to the blatant The Big Bad Wolf from Walt Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933) is seen on TV, Sheriff Newfield is seen eating Wolf Brand chili and a similar can is seen on the counter in Eddie's cabin to the more ominous a mention of disc jockey Wolfman Jack, and in Karen and Bill's cabin there is a picture of a wolf who killed a sheep within the flock. There are also stores named after Bucket of Blood and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And many, many characters are named after horror figures both famous and underground, including: Terence Fisher (The Curse of the Werewolf ), Freddie Francis (Legend of the Werewolf), Erle Kenton (House of Dracula), which co-stars John Carradine, who plays Kenton in The Howling), George Waggner, who directed The Wolf Man (1941), R. William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), Sam Newfield (The Mad Monster - above left), and Charles Barton (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).

Like An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, The Cabin in the Woods is a film for horror fans. With the glibness of a veteran croupier, Whedon and Goddard lace their movie with countless references and homages to the horror films of yesterday, the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly. The references are sometimes subtle, sometimes boisterous, but always a joy. Rarely are films this bloody this intertextual. . .

Easily the most well-known and popular meta-horror franchise, Scream (1996) revitalized Wes Cravens career while simultaneously allowing one-trick pony screenwriter Kevin Williamson (see: The Faculty, Cursed) the chance to put his big trick on the map of popular consciousness. The movie name-drops and subtly alludes to, among others, Prom Night, Halloween, Basic Instinct, Psycho, The Howling, Hellraiser, Terror Night, Silence of the Lambs, and Carrie. Its references to other self-referential movies, footnotes within footnotes, momentarily made Kevin Williamson horrors David Foster Wallace.

The movie begins inside a calm suburban home, where a young woman (Drew Barrymore) is making Jiffy Pop on her stove top and preparing to watch a movie. She gets a phone call (the monotonous ringing of a telephone will sound insidious by the time the movies done). She answers the phone, Who is this? and the caller, a male, retorts, Who is this? They establish that he has the wrong number, it happens, and she hangs up.

And the phone goes off again. I guess I dialed the wrong number.

So whyd you call again? She hangs up again.

It rings again.

Wait, dont hang up I want to talk to you, asks the smooth, flirtatious voice (provided by Roger L. Jackson, who is also the voice of the villainous ape Mojo Jojo in the Powerpuff Girls).

After some banal chit-chat about popcorn, she reveals that shes about to watch a scary movie. Oh, you like scary movies? the voice asks. Then he asks her what her favorite scary movie is. She responds Nightmare on Elm Street, saying after the first one the rest all sucked (a little jab from Craven to those who ruined his series, though he did write the 3rd installment).

"Who is this? he asks again. And the first moment of terror: I want to know who I'm looking at.

A generation of college-students, away from home for the first time, just had their security, their thick sense of impermeability, torn from them.

Eventually, they play a game of scary movie trivia. He asks who the killer in Friday the 13th is, and she says easy, Ive seen that movie a hundred times. Its Jason!


The caller, clad in dark robes and a spectral, Munch-esque mask, enters the house, a long, glimmering knife in his hand, and chases the woman around. You know the rest; if you dont, go put it atop your Netflix queue. (Or, the way things are going for Netflix this year, go grab a Blu Ray copy for fifteen bucks at some evil corporate chain.)

This scene, probably the best Craven ever directed post-Nightmare on Elm Street, is utterly terrifying in a subversive, visceral way: a young woman is invaded in her own home. Shes killed while help is but a few feet away. And she knows the rules of a horror film, yet she still ultimately succumbs to the fatal Telos of the attractive blond. The killer knows her; he knows who her boyfriend is, knows where she lives, can see her. Shes defenseless, and as that sordid realization sets in, she, and we, realize that this is a sadistic killer who likes to toy with his victims. He doesn't seem to be a supernatural entity, alà Jason or Freddy or Michael Meyers, but a peer, a friend who knows what he does in the next hour and a half will seep into our collective, horror-addled subconscious for the rest of cinematic time.

Even so, this killer opening is hardly original: When a Stranger Calls (left) worked a similar set-up in 1979; it proved to be the only effective scene in what amounted to a boring, redundant 97 minutes.

Suburbia lost its innocent glow when John Carpenter spray painted a slightly altered William Shatner mask and had the first famous masked madman stalk promiscuous teens in their tranquil neighborhoods, balmy skies stretched overhead. These are not teens who are horror aficionados. They're oblivious to whats going on until only the final girl remains. What Craven does in Scream is to take away the protective shroud of ignorance and inform them of their imminent demise. They discuss the kind of people who die in these situations; their awareness of their situation is funny--hip dialogue and snappy comebacks aplenty--but it adds a tragic undertone. Being in a horror film is cancerous.

Wes Craven reversed the self-aware stigma that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello catalyzed in 1948. Now, self-awareness was scary.

The sequels feature riffs and rips on sequels; the 4th movie knocks on remakes. Probably the most fun bit from the sequels is Park Posey's take on Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) in the otherwise forgettable Scream 3 (the only one not written by Williamson). But the first Scream set the new standard for meta-horror; everything has subsequently had to live up to it, or surpass it, or else try something altogether different.

Like Scream, Cabin in the Woods is tauntingly circular. The final 20 minutes of Scream, which borrow heavily, and with complete translucence, from Halloween, have become iconic in their own right. One character is commenting on and narrating Halloween, which is playing on TV, warning Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around, while a masked killer is directly behind him. Someone even says, I'll be right back after be warned to never, ever say, I'll be right back. The irony is gleefully obvious, which makes it all the more likeable. It doesn't reek of pretentiousness. The curious contrast between Wes Craven's satiric slasher and Cabin's bloody Rubik's Cube is the acidic quality with which Whedon and Goddard etch their characters and plot twists. The movie is at times barely coherent, but it doesn't matter because it moves at a furious pace and, unlike Craven's film, has some anger behind its eyes. Whereas Craven wanted to dissect his own movie and took great pleasure in cutting clichés into bits, Whedon and Goddard are out for blood, taking swipes at Eli Roth and his torture porn cronies in particular.

The acting is actually very good, with Franz a stand-out as the surprisingly bright stoner. In one of the films early comedic moments, our stoner pal pulls out a telescopic bong that, when collapsed, looks like a coffee thermos. Later, he uses the thermos-bong as a weapon against a zombie. Perhaps this thermos-bong is a salient assignee for the films things are not what they appear motif. Later in the film, it also serves as a handy, impromptu tool. Maybe its a reference to the permeation of the Devil's Lettuce and all things horror; after Halloween was labeled a morality play, its characters seemingly punished for acting immorally, smoking became a death sentence for horror characters. Instead, Whedon's pothead uses his bong as a weapon against the enemy. Maybe it's a sign of changes to come.

Or maybe it's just a bong.

A recent college graduate, Greg Cwik is currently pursuing his master's in Arts Journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication, Syracuse University. As an essayist and critic, he frequently writes about popular culture (with his brow at varying heights), film, music, baseball, literature, and Pauline Kael, with whom he is fascinated.

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c. 2012 Gregory Cwik / photographs c. their respective studios / owners.

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244