This year has not had a lot of brilliant breakout films. Sure, there have been smart studio pictures like Looper, artful independent minded films like The Master, superhero movies like The Avengers that you can’t help but love, and there have been great indie films, magical like Ruby Sparks and dark like Compliance. Usually my favorite film of the year ends up being something super cool that bridges Hollywood and insanity like Drive or Inglorious Basterds or a real indie character driven story like The Wrestler or Fish Tank. This is why I am so shocked that this late in the year my favorite picture so far has been a horror film from last April that arguably has B-level effects and no particularly deep or rich characters. As of today my favorite film of the year is The Cabin in the Woods.
I recently picked up the blu-ray because I needed to re-watch this film. Why did I love it so much? I remember leaving the theater thinking it was genius. As the year has progressed I can’t seem to find a film that I like more. Is it only my film school snobbery that is even forcing me to look for one? Why couldn’t I just except the fact this was the best film I had seen all year. So I popped in the disc to re-watch it… and it only confirmed that The Cabin in the Woods is in fact the best film I’ve seen in the first nine months of 2012. It’s because it does three things that I personally eat up. One of these things is enough to have won me over. But all three? If you haven’t seen the film, stop what you’re doing and watch it now. There are SPOILERS ahead.
IT SUBVERTS ITS GENRE
When Scream came out, the thing that was fresh and original about the film was that it featured characters that were aware scary movies exist. Up until then, no one in a Halloween-type film had ever seen a slasher movie. It was as if, in their world, Psycho was never made. I guess it was happy Disney films all the time. Cabin in the Woods does something very similar in that it builds on all the past horror archetypes. The film doesn’t just feature them conveniently as characters to be killed, but we learn they were sought out to fulfill the archetypes. A group of five college kids are chosen. Then one by one are forced to become the stereotypes we expect. The fool is made more foolish by his pot being laced. The whore more whoreish and ditzy through dye put in her hair. As they say in the film, “the dumb blonde.” There is an expectation of what the characters who are slaughtered in these stories should be. The clandestine underground crew led by Sitterson and Hadley need to make that happen, even if the “virgin” is a bit of a knowing cheat.
Much like Scream, the film winks at the audience. It takes at least thirty to forty years of horror and spins it on its head, by showing us how ridiculous the idea of film stereotypes are. No jock is as one note as the typical stock character we’ve seen in past films. Here, he needs that push to become less complicated. Curt has complicated feelings and a brain until the puppet masters make him what horror audiences expect him to be. A muscle-bound jerk who’ll insult his friends.
And it’s not just with our victims, but with our killers. Almost every creature in the film is recognizable from a cinematic nightmare. Redneck zombies. Werewolves. There is a creature with dead glaring eyes and saw blades through his face that is clearly a takeoff on Pinhead. This familiarly isn’t merely homage to Drew Goddard’s and Joss Whedon’s favorite horror creatures; it’s calculated. There is a line of dialogue about how the sacrifices to appease the gods have evolved over the years. You can’t just toss a girl in a volcano anymore and call it a day. It’s because society has evolved. What would populate our nightmares if not zombies? A girl today doesn’t have to worry about being tossed in the volcano. But every time she goes to a horror movie she leaves with that fear inside her that says a zombie could be lurking around every corner.
Which brings me to the second thing a film can do that I eat up:
IT MAKES THE AUDIENCE A CHARACTER
Many films make the viewer complicit to the horrific acts on screen. This film goes even further to making the audience not just a knowing voyeur, but an actual character. Whose blood lust is being satisfied here? The old gods. That’s us. Before Jules is coerced into taking her top off, a character rightfully questions if it is necessary to see her breasts. He is informed that the gods need a show. We, the paying audience, need that show. If we don’t get tits in a horror film with attractive young women, then we will be pissed. Our wrath will take to the IMDB message boards urging others not to go see the film. The box office much like the world of the film will crumble. All because we weren’t given a good enough show. We need death. We demand it. Because of this The Cabin in the Woods gives you everything you could want.
Nothing that’s set up isn’t paid off. That’s right down to the merman.
Shouldn’t we feel guilty watching these characters beaten and bloodied on screen? Maybe. But universally, when I speak to those who love this film they say the same thing about the third act. That they watch it with a giant grin on their face. As things get insane and all the nightmares attack the underground workers (poor folks just trying to entertain us) I couldn’t stop smiling. The insanity even goes beyond the point of normal film insanity, beyond anything that you could expect from a film called The Cabin in the Woods. You can’t help but be giddy watching it.
Not only are we directly the old gods (with Sitterson and Hadley really being the filmmakers, Goddard and Whedon), but we can also relate to the put upon employees of this underground facility. They just want to wrap up a hard day of work, joke with their friends, and drink some tequila. Is that so wrong? Haven’t we all been an intern at some point? Haven’t we all worked for a company with questionable morals? At least murdering these kids will save the world. Which brings me to the third thing it does that I love in a film:
IT ENDS THE WORLD
There is no more definitive an ending to a film than the total destruction of all mankind. It’s the ultimate ending, there is nowhere else to go. No sequels. No ambiguity. That’s it. Clean. Even a mediocre film like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is made better by actually ending the world! But here it serves a double purpose. If we are the audience is the film actually saying we weren’t entertained? Our god characters destroy the world because Marty lived. As an audience member do we feel betrayed? Did we want him to die? When leaving the theater are we satisfied? Maybe it’s not even the filmmaker’s intention to leave us satisfied. Maybe we’re supposed to be upset with the outcome. But at the same time, understanding this possible intention only makes a viewer more excited by the outcome. The film successfully has its cake and eats it too by cleanly ending the world but leaving us feeling the blame. Is this really what we wanted?
There are other great reasons to love this film. Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins give stellar performances. Laughs and scares abound. But at its core this is a complicated film. It plays on similar ideas that everyone from Hitchcock to Haneke also have perfected. There are a lot of films I’m excited to see in the next few months. Argo looks phenomenal, Django Unchained will be amazing, I’m sure. And how could I not want to see The Hobbit? But I’m willing to bet that Argo won’t subvert its political thriller genre by referencing The Sum of All Fears. Django Unchained won’t actually make me a plantation owner buying and selling slaves. And Bilbo Baggins won’t cause the destruction of Middle Earth, thus negating all the Lord of the Rings films I currently have on my shelf. The Cabin in the Woods hits the trifecta. So far, it’s the best film of the year.