We love genre films in part because their formulas are so familiar. But after we have seen the cliches play out hundreds of times, they lose their power to surprise us. Take the horror film, for example. When you know something scary is bound to pop out from behind any door, or can predict the order in which the stock characters in a horror film are going to die; when you've already seen tons of gore, you're just not going to be as scared the next time the axe falls on one of the characters' heads.
What can the makers of such genre films do to keep things fresh? In the case of The Cabin in the Woods, the filmmakers let the audience know early on that the whole thing is a contrived set-up. (Warning: if you haven't seen the movie and continue reading, then I assume you are the kind of person, like myself, who thinks there is nothing you can say about a movie in advance that will spoil it for you. Or else you're not planning to see it.) Anyway, The Cabin in the Woods opens, not with a cabin in the woods, but with a bunch of workers in lab coats who are somehow manipulating the action behind the scenes. And then the filmmakers gradually let us know how and why these nerdy engineers are setting up the film's stock horror characters to go through their familiar motions. So far, so good. We the audience are flattered in our movie cliche knowledge, and we can identify with the people who are cheerfully pulling the strings.
The movie still needs to scare us, however, and we are not that scared by the contrived violence that we know is going to take place at the cabin, particularly since we know exactly how contrived it all is. The reason we're not too scared is because we are watching a lot of the action through the eyes of the people in the control room. In order to scare us, or at least make us think a bit, the film finally makes us realize that the people in the control room, and by extension us, the audience, are the real monsters. Not only are they (and we) fully prepared to pull the trigger on the victims, they (and we) also laugh and party without a second thought while watching a (perhaps) innocent girl getting (perhaps) mauled by a giant zombie. Since we set the zombie in motion, and chose to be entertained by the spectacle of the mayhem the zombie is causing, no monster could be more depraved than we are. If we become horrified, we have to be horrified at ourselves.
Now that the film has turned the idea of the monster on its head, it must, in true horror movie fashion, set the heroes of the film against the real monsters: the voyeurs sitting in the control rooms, and by extension, the audience in the theatre. I was a little disappointed with this ending, however, because it became something of a giant pie fight. Granted that created the opportunity for a classic "oh shit" moment, when the SWAT team realizes that a whole parade of horrible creatures is about to slaughter them all. But it might have been better to unleash those creatures one by one against the control room workers, saving the scariest creature to face off last against the leader, as is the custom in action movies.
We wonder whether the guys in the white shirts and lab coats deserve what they get. Although we understand that they are far from innocent, we also come to realize that maybe they're not even especially evil; they just have to adopt a cold-hearted attitude to perform their necessary function. We finally find out that these people are in fact another kind of stock horror movie type. They contain a bit of the mad, Dr. Frankenstein, scientist, but they are also descendents of an ancient cult like those who guard the mummy's secrets, or those who fight vampires down through the ages. They have simply updated the job that used to be performed by the priests who threw virgins into the volcano to appease the gods. So they are not really stand-ins for us, though at times they play that role.
If the filmmakers had wanted to burst through another layer of convention, they could have led the monsters through a third scenario. After the cabin, and after the underground lab, they could have taken the monsters through the invisible fourth wall to attack the filmmakers themselves, just so we could fully understand how contrived the whole spectacle was. Since it was already so obvious that all we were doing was watching a movie, that probably wasn't necessary. The filmmakers had already succeeded in showing how you can still make a clever, old-fashioned horror movie in this self-conscious age. I found it more thought-provoking and fun than I expected.
[I could try to add some analogy to the usual themes of this blog, but I'm not sure there are any good analogies to make, so I'll just excuse the last few posts by saying that I might have needed to take a little break from writing about politics and write about some other interests for a change. Sorry for any confusion.]