I heard a lot of good reports for the Whedon/Mutant Enemy horror film the Cabin in the Woods recently, so I went out to catch the matinee. I'm not normally a horror fan, and have completely avoided the recent trend in sadistic puzzle-torture-box franchises like Saw and Hostel and the like. I don't even particularly enjoy your run-of-the-mill zombie-apocalypse flick, so perhaps I was being self-deluded in thinking this movie would be my sort of thing, but I've been fond of previous Mutant Enemy productions, and went in smiling.
I am not going to cater to anyone's highly sensitive NO SPOILERS sensibilities, for either the Cabin in the Woods or Tucker & Dale Vs Evil so please don't read further if that's a problem for you.
Anyways, I went in expecting something half-comedic, since that was the sales pitch that everybody was making. I did *not* find it to be particularly funny, but then, nihilistic slaughter-porn about elder gods, evil bureaucracy, and metafictional commentary about slasher pictures probably shouldn't be funny to anyone with a functioning moral sense. The Cabin in the Woods has a close didactic relationship with its contemporaneously filmed peer Inglourious Basterds, as both of them are essentially j'accuse diatribes against the target audience, with evil villains who watch satirically nasty filmatic depictions of abomination with sadistic enjoyment, so that when those paper villains are subsequently horribly destroyed by each film's nominal protagonists, the audience is primed to applaud their own condemnation-by-proxy, just punishment, and symbolic demolition. The proper (and probably intended) response to both films is a combination of sickened revulsion and shame, a feeling that one has participated in something vile and degrading. Both movies are in effect anti-spectacles, aimed at destroying the audience's emotional connection with the genres they are satirizing, namely, war spectaculars and slasher pictures.
Mind you, both films are spectacularly well-constructed, well-made, and highly polished - marvels of technical competence, especially in their screenwriting and script-doctoring aspects. This emphasis on the Cabin in the Woods's supposed surprises and secrets is exaggerated, really. The lack of any strong characters or emotional provision of connection to those characters leaves the audience with plenty of time to take in the fairly broad hints and suggestions which serve in place of explicit explanation of the premise. It's pretty obvious from about ten-fifteen minutes into the movie that the story is one of ritual sacrifice, the details which are filled in afterwards are just that, details and justifications. Instead of elder gods, those "downstairs" might as well be the actual viewing audience - it would have only made the movie just a hair more metafictional.
Some people have noted that the film sort of acts like a hard-R long episode of Buffy or Angel, with the nameless corporation running the ritual sacrifice acting as sort of a vicious blend of Buffy's Initiative and Angel's Wolfram & Hart. The problem here is that the Initiative season was the weakest season of Buffy, unsatisfactory and overpoliticized, and I, at least, had as much of Wolfram & Hart from the Mutant Enemy crew as I ever cared to see. Furthermore, the Cabin in the Woods acts as so much of a literal Bottle Show that there's no sense of how the events interact with a greater world. So, when (SPOILER!) the surviving kids destroy the world, the movie almost gets you to celebrate; the script certainly acts like it wants you to buy-in to the conceit that "we've had our turn", so wipe out the world, sure, fine, kill everybody! It only works because the kids are shown as having no family, no ties, no human life beyond their status as, well, status-seeking college grinds.
That leads into the next problem, which is the writers have built into the film this conceit that society is "sacrificing youth out of envy", that torture-porn slasher films are all about hatred of the young, vital, and beautiful, that somehow the inevitable demolition of Hollywood, music-industry, and other entertainment flash-in-the-pan celebrities are baked into the cake. Now, this may be some sort of reflection of the creative industries themselves - there's been some ripping horrible stories of systemic child molestation, prostitution, and epic "using" coming out of that sector in the last three-four years or so - but it's a total non sequitur for describing the world in general. Furthermore, given that the audience for slasher pictures are usually (or at least traditionally, among a segment of "geek culture" the youth-culture genres of their youth end up becoming increasingly creepy and age-inappropriate as they fail to let go of their expiring youth) teenagers and young adults. Normally, these films don't cater to the middle-aged and elderly, you know?
But basically, my complaint about the movie is that it just made me sad, upset, and depressed. I don't go to movies to feel bad, and I don't like movies that are trying to get me to agree with the thesis that "people suck and should be allowed to self-destruct".
That brings me around to a movie I also had heard some good buzz about, but which never made it to theaters in my section of the country, or came and went without me having noticed in time: Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil. I used the "rental" feature on Amazon on Demand, and watched it yesterday afternoon as a palate-cleanser. The evil murderous, bigoted hillbillies were presented without any real irony or sympathy in the Cabin in the Woods, they were just vicious, clownish animals used by the evil conspiracy to destroy the victim college kids, they had no moral agency of their own. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, on the other hand, is made from the view-point of a pair of clownish hillbillies, the Tucker and Dale of the title. They, themselves, have bought their very own Cabin in the Woods, and they've just blown into the woods with a trailer and truckbed full of horribly dangerous sharp implements, planning on renovating that sucker into a nice "vacation house".
I've observed elsewhere that there are two species of TV police
procedural, one made by creators who fear chaos and the world, and one
made by creators who fear the devil and evil designs. The latter is
filled with wicked conspiracies of the rich and malign, like
Castle; the former features protagonists always
struggling against a tide of petty evils and wickedness, marinating in a
bubbling cauldron of stupidities, selfishness, and desires gone awry -
shows like the Shield and The
Closer. The Cabin in the Woods is very much an exemplar of a conspiracy show, a Manichaean
fable of corporatist, bureaucratic demiurges building a wicked world in a
bottle within they plan to destroy their children. Tucker
& Dale Vs. Evil is a chaos story, wherein the
innate craziness and emotions of the children are the problem, the
threat. The eventual antagonist of the latter movie is a
Templar gone horribly, horribly wrong. He rants and raves
about Evil, with an explicit "E", and his paranoias, stories about old
murders, and seething hate for "hillbillies" - born out of his mother's survival of
a previous massacre as a Final
Girl - spark the second, accidental massacre.
In the Cabin in the Woods, the college kids are manipulated towards their bloody ends by a careful conspiracy of banal evil, a corporatist act of puppeteering. The college kids of Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil are panicky, ignorant, and horribly, horribly careless. They *are* the children running about in the rye field by the cliff in Salinger's evocative metaphor, bound to go charging blindly out over the abyss without some careful adult to catch them before they fall. Or, at least, by a pair of dimwitted, amiable country boys just looking to help.
In the Cabin in the Woods, the college kids' stupidity is carefully crafted, created, and pr-ordained by evil intent - the monstrousness is so by corporatist agency. In Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, their stupidity is innate, the result of kids being kids, addled by adrenaline, fear, paranoia, pot, and massive, comedic carelessness. The hillbillies have their own faults, aggravated by too much alcohol, stupidity, and their own adrenalized outrage, but the kids are the drivers of the confrontation, and by and large kill themselves or each other. In the end, the movie's incidents are described by the media as an inexplicable mass suicide, and to a certain extent, that's the truth. Only one kid is saved from the cliff hidden in the rye, but at least she's saved. It's the distinction which saves the movie, keeps it from being another sadistic exercise in torture, humanizes it. As much as Shaun of the Dead, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a comedy in the end, a buddy picture, and something of a romance. It isn't one-fifth as well-made as the Cabin in the Woods, and is full of plot holes and okay-sure-whatever arbitrary scripting, but at least the core emotion is marginally uplifting.