When I compared Cabin in the Woods to Shaun of the Dead I was told that it was an unfair comparison because Shaun of the Dead is a spoof, and Cabin in the Woods is a “deconstruction”. I sort of frowned, because the point I was trying, and possibly failing, to make was that Cabin in the Woods was a far inferior satire.
But I guess I’ll concede the point, it’s not satire. It’s a “deconstruction”. I still don’t like it, though.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about how “smart” this movie is, and I put that in quotes because I really don’t think it’s that smart. It’s certainly not the first movie genre deconstruction, nor is it even the first horror movie deconstruction.
Let’s look at what deconstruction means.
According to Google it’s: “A method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.”
Yikes. That’s a mouthful. I think we better ask our friend Wikipedia. There’s a lot of disclaimers at the top Wikipedia’s page on Deconstruction, including: “This article may be confusing or unclear to readers.”
And it is. For me actual philosophy, though interesting, has always been a tough subject. Feel free to dive in if you want.
I think that ultimately the term has a different meaning on internet movie message boards than it does in academic literature. Essentially, when people say that Cabin in the Woods is a deconstruction, they mean that the movie plays with the tropes and mechanics of the horror movie genre in such a way that it is able to comment both on the genre itself and Real Life. TvTropes.org in this case is a better source for information than Wikipedia.
Anyway, I guess that’s where the attraction for fans of The Cabin the Woods lies. Other films have similarly taken apart genres in this way, specifically Scream (1996). But I think a better comparison for Cabin in the Woods is the action movie deconstruction, Last Action Hero (1993).
I know, I know, applying a term like ‘deconstruction’, which is steeped in philosophical importance, to an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick might feel a little silly, but we want to look at a few factors here. First off, I want to list some influences, since a deconstruction movie is nothing without the primary source it’s commenting on. Last Action Hero (or LAH for short) is a movie within a movie starring Arnold as a cop who never plays by the rules and always saves the day. Seeing release in 1993, LAH was following closely on the heels of the first three Lethal Weapon movies (1987, 1989 and 1992 respectively) as well as Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990). Though I don’t think these are the only movies LAH is commenting on I am sighting them as a major influences and sources of commentary.
The Cabin in the Woods (or CW) doesn’t really have anything as recent or as specific. The setting seems to be an obvious homage to Evil Dead (1981), leaving a 21 year age gap. But as you progress through CW it seems to suggest that its aiming at a larger more amorphous target: Horror in general.
This is all well and good, but the real weakness in CW, in my opinion, are the film’s “Meta Mechanics”.
LAH uses a fairly straightforward forth wall break. The main character is a kid who loves action movies and gets a “magic ticket” that lets him enter into the movie. In doing so we get a clear comparison between the unrealistic laws of the movie’s universe and those of the Real World.
In CW the forth wall is a little murkier. The main narrative is a run of the mill horror plot. A group of attractive young people take a vacation in a cabin in the woods. Once darkness falls, however, monsters begin to hunt them.
As for the meta-side: there’s one obvious nod, which is a team of people who orchestrate the monster attack. A couple guys along with their assistants are a silent audience to events unfolding at the cabin, both commanding and watching the monsters kill the vacationers. Later this is explained as some sort of complex pagan ritual to appease the gods. Then there’s the less obvious forth wall break, which suggests that “we, the viewers” are the pagan gods, intent on consuming our sacrifice via the artifice of a horror movie.
Here’s the conceptual core of the movie: horror movies are actually sacrifices in which virgin blood must be spilled.
Personally I thought it was a little trite, but that’s just me. If you liked the movie that’s okay, I don’t hate you.
Here’s what I found obnoxious about CW. It’s treatment of its main characters, the vacationers. For the first half they behave in a highly annoying fashion, exemplifying the worst cliches of any horror movie. There’s the jock, the stoner, the slut and finally (and most bemusing) the virgin. Later it’s explained that the characters were acting this way because of “drugs”, which dulled their senses and made them witless victims to the monster mayhem. In so doing the movie completely sidelines the vast majority of its characters, removing agency from them. Now it could be argued that’s “the point”. After all in the horror genre the removal of power is part of the thrill, just like how action movies are conversely power fantasies.
But we still have to watch them blunder around like idiots for most of the movie without any explanation. Certainly in LAH, Arnold acts like an over the top caricature of himself, but we know he’s supposed to behave like that. When he eventually starts to realize that something larger than himself is pulling the strings we don’t gasp in cheep surprise, we nod in appreciation of his character’s evolution. When the personality altering drugs are revealed in CW, the expected viewer reaction is supposed to be an amazed “Oh! Now I understand!”
Unfortunately it feels sort of like an episode of the Twilight Zone. There’s a word for cliches like this: The Jar of Tang. To quote the Turkey City Lexicon:
“‘For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!’ or ‘For you see, I am a dog!’ A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.”
For you see, it is you the viewer who is the pagan god, slavering over your horror movie sacrifices!
Here’s why I liked Last Action Hero, but totally disliked The Cabin in the Woods. One explored an idea, while the other is just a conceit.