Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Cabin in the Woods: A High Concept Problem

I saw Cabin in the Woods some time ago, but this post was triggered by a recent call for papers: Slayage ( – the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association, no less – asked for papers reflecting on Cabin in the Woods, and while I have no intention of submitting a paper to the journal, I did pause to reflect.  Slayage is an appropriate catalyst since I can only assume the rave reviews I read about the film principally gushed at the altar of Lord Whedon. Since I do not see eye-to-eye with Whedon – in fact, I don’t think I’ve overly enjoyed anything he has created – I won’t dwell on him here.

Another alternative reason that many may have rated Cabin in the Woods so highly is that viewers were enamoured with Cabin in the Woods’ idea more than the whole. I did not hate Cabin in the Woods. In fact, I found the first 50 minutes or quite fun. Having sat through the morbidly dull Headspace immediately beforehand, Cabin in the Woods at least offered some sass, and moved forwards at a fair pace. The conceit was reasonably amusing, and I do not mind suspending my disbelief for 90 minutes to partake in the ludicrous set-up. Still, it bothered me. I have only just been able to put my finger on why.

So what went wrong? For a start, Cabin in the Woods’ central idea was nowhere near as clever as the filmmakers and some sectors of the fanbase evidently believed it to be. The whole film felt rather too smug for my liking. Neither did I think the idea was especially original. I had not seen that particular set-up before, but that is akin to saying that Hack! Is a radical departure too – really, both are just variations on the Scream metacommentary/genre deconstruction motif, which in turn was a continuation of New Nightmare…which arose out of the fact that 1980s slasher franchises quickly became self-parody (Freddy’s Dead, Jason Lives, Jason X, Hand of Death: Jackson’s Back, Slumber Party Massacre…). Although Cabin in the Woods had a smart little gimmick, it was not the radical, refreshing turn in horror many claimed that it was.

Had the film ended with the ‘office party’ moment (specifically the line about the Merman), I would have enjoyed the film much more. What really kills it for me is the way the plot moves forward beyond the 50 minute mark. Whedon et al evidently decided that the third act should be all-out destruction. Many viewers were clearly impressed, perhaps because decimation is the logical conclusion to deconstruction. To me it smacks of desperation – an attempt to distract the audience with a layer of increasingly ridiculous nonsense and CG, padding out what is a much shorter story.

Throwing in extra intertextual-references (“ha ha, he looks like pin-head”) is equally dubious. Such inclusions are hardly fruitful, and add little to the content. The strategy relies on an audience’s willingness to congratulate themselves for recognising said points of reference. Since my cynicism is flowing at this point, I may as well run with it: audiences’ mental-masturbation should not distract from the lack of content. Perhaps audiences responded so positively to the film precisely because the mechanism encourages one to indulge in and endorse the movie’s over-arching smugness.

This is not to scapegoat Cabin in the Woods alone. The same problem haunts many contemporary horror films. Kill List was another film that suffered in the same way. I enjoyed the first hour or so, then the direction slipped, and the plot became flabby and unwieldy. I seem to be in the minority here, since Kill List is another film that received glowing reviews for its originality. For my money, there is a vast difference between ‘game changing’ and losing focus.

The problem does not originate with the writers, but with the commercial movie system. Filmmakers are required to pitch their idea to studio execs. The ideal film pitch is high-concept – the film’s central idea should be summated in as few words as possible. That system is fine – films should be about something, and filmmakers should have a clear grasp on what that “something” is. However, writers should begin with a complete vision and summate the conceit based on that whole. The problem is that so many films feel like the idea came first, was pitched, and then had to be developed into a feature.

Cabin in the Woods is one such example. The idea is exhausted within 50 minutes. Beyond that, it feels like the writers have painted themselves into a corner. Since the idea was not fully formed (or edited well enough in the early drafting stage) the only viable response to the self-imposed constraints is to explode outwards, changing direction. No amount of writing-in foreshadowing can alter the fact that the plot of Cabin in the Woods is a tale of two halves, and the opening section is significantly stronger because it contains the narrative’s concepts. Judging solely from the film itself, I am unconvinced that the final reveal was mentioned in the concept-pitch, and have my doubts that the writers even had a definite grasp of that reveal when they first pitched the idea.

Many films suffer from the pressure of having to sustain a narrative for 90+ minutes. Frankly, I would much rather pay half the price to see a coherent, complete, tightly edited 45 minute film than sit through a bloated film like Headspace, or Cabin in the Woods: the filmic equivalent of an easily distracted child.

No comments:

Post a Comment