When Horror Goes Meta: A State of the Horror Movie Industry Address

The Cabin in the Woods came out on Friday the 13th and that was too great of an opportunity to not see it on opening night. I have so many thoughts on this film bouncing around in my head I don’t think it is possible to fit them all into a concise post. I want to talk about the commentary it makes on horror movies, the parallels to Evil Dead (and how Evil Dead, surprisingly, doesn’t fit into the obvious archetypes that the movie also addresses) and how it fits into the legacy of Scream’s revitalization of the genre. So this is more a stream of consciousness post that I apologize in advance for; however, it is categorized into three discussions. Also, if you haven’t see The Cabin in the Woods and do not want to be spoiled (which for this one you really shouldn’t) then just…don’t read this. Please.

Cabin’s contribution to the contemporary discourse on horror movies:

Self-identified fans of horror movies (myself included) are so used to the formula it is almost ingrained to the point of invisibility. Why else do we watch literally the same variation on a theme countless times with only the big bad, locale, and kills slightly modified? CitW points out that any deviation from the norm results in dissatisfaction: case in point, the need for female nudity; or, as Randy appropriately calls it in Scream, “the obligatory tit shot”. When the puppeteers are ogling the couple about to have sex (a scenario they have engineered) Richard Jenkins remarks that if the girl fails to show some skin, “they” won’t be pleased, as in nudity is such a given to the horror formula that fans will be disappointed without it. Can’t say that I agree with this assessment because honestly I feel like if you attend horror films hoping for the nudity, you are not there for the right reasons; studios that make nudity a cornerstone are probably also not concerned with the overall product and hence why we get such formulaic dirge every year.

I love Kevin Bacon. But he starred in Friday the 13th, I did not go in with high expectations for his mortality.

To enjoy horror is to turn off a little valve in your head that would otherwise be horrified by the events depicted on screen and, of course, you need a healthy dose of suspended disbelief and detachment. In Friday the 13th we are not expected to grieve for the counselors as they die (I hope), their missed opportunities, or to think about how their parents will react upon hearing the news (“We regret to inform you that your child was murdered by an insane woman who believes all camp counselors are at fault for the drowning death of her son…”). We are supposed to fear the unknown: who the next victim will be, how they will die, and whether the evil will ultimately be defeated. And be entertained throughout. However, when horror movies do depict the fallout of murdering an innocent or stop to ask questions similar to those we would tackle if such events happened in the real world –the film proves that its ambitions are higher, that it aims to carve out its own niche in the canon.

Your son dripping from the ceiling. Probably not awesome.

For instance, it is hard to separate what happens to Johnny Depp’s character in A Nightmare on Elm Street from the wails of his mother when she discovers the scene. And other than just abiding by the rules of a sequel (“Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore – *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead” What would any of us do without the dedicated wisdom of Randy?), Halloween II also pays off what we learn in the first film: Laurie’s murdered friend Annie was the sheriff’s daughter and before the hospital mayhem we get a poignant scene (for a horror movie) where the sheriff realizes that his daughter is one of the victims. Setting certainly lends a hand (these teens were dying in their homes and around their parents) but it indicates a certain acknowledgement that even though these characters were engineered to be serial killer fodder, they are not an island unto themselves and death has immediate consequences.

To take this commentary as criticism of the formula seems a little odd to me. In fact, I would be very much in favor of a return to the standard formulaic themes of horror that function under a innovative idea. Hostel was innovative. The new Oren Peli movie, Chernobyl Diaries, looks to have promise. These days horror seems comprised of two types: the remake/reboot/prequel (which employs the formula, but is recycling an already established premise) and the “lost footage” gag which I was already annoyed with after Paranormal Activity and I now beg to never see another poor exorcism movie again. I recently discussed how the Final Destination formula (working with but separately from the tradition horror formula) is one of the most predictable while also being the most nerve-wracking. It is an instance where we know the formula enough to anticipate where we are going with the narrative but it is also highly effective because of repetition: they will try to surprise you with how death actually occurs and they consistently follow through with unique devices.

The commentary doesn’t resonate with me as much as Joss Whedon would like it to; it is an interesting concept, but not one that makes me question myself. Should we enjoy watching teens being murdered by some supernatural force? If you approach it in some ways, probably not; but the point of horror is the rush: as humans we are scarily attracted to falling and other dangerous activities, we are attracted to the thrill of being scared. And yes, maybe sometimes we want to see ingenious kill scenarios or gratuitous blood and guts.  This may be compelling for a psych major but I don’t find anything particularly disturbing about being a rabid horror fan.

A frame that could easily be from CitW; it's Evil Dead.

CitW takes a crack at the Evil Dead formula:

The obvious parallel that viewers are supposed to draw from the beginning of this movie is Evil Dead. (How many people who went to see the film have seen Evil Dead? Especially since the remake has yet to grace our screens? I can’t answer that.  But I assume that the answer to “How many of the people who saw The Cabin in the Woods and have also seen Evil Dead enjoyed CitW?” is the majority). In both, our main stable of characters pull up to a cabin in a secluded area (in ED they must cross a bridge; in CitW they must go through a tunnel). Inevitably, these means of access will be obliterated and the characters trapped. This scene in CitW worked really well for me: being unable to escape their circumstances is a must for horror movie characters and the panic over the tunnel still being accessible as they drove towards it was pitch perfect. There are large floor openings to the cellar in the living room. The cabin seems to grow and expand as the movie goes on. Investigating what you find in the cellar may not be the best idea – reading out any foreign phrases is also not a good idea.

Something very unnatural happens to this bridge...

(Side bar on more horror commentary) The cellar in Cabin serves as a staging board: whatever object is activated by a character will be what is sent to kill them (a puzzle ball reminiscent of Hellraiser, a merman whose closest analog in my mind would be a creature from the black lagoon, an old wedding dress, a music box, or a diary). Possession is the watchword in Evil Dead but without becoming an exact replica, CitW instead went with hillbilly zombies. But in CitW this scene (jam packed with images that evokes horror movies of years past) establishes that the basic premise is set: you have five young people in a secluded spot, whatever bad decision they make in the cellar is arbitrary. It calls to mind those old Goosebumps books where you chose your own pathways (Go into the tomb: turn to page 40; run after your brother: turn to page 105). Your free will only extends as far as the moments leading up to a fatal decision. (Mostly…end of side bar)

Ash's sister is one of the most annoying horror characters I have ever encountered.

The other horror trope CitW wants to criticize is the necessary archetypes that must exist in the horror formula: the stupid jock, his blonde slutty girlfriend, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. Early on CitW establishes that these archetypes were not initially the core of our characters: the jock is on scholarship and majoring in sociology, the blonde has literally just gone blonde and the “virgin” just ended an affair with a professor. Interestingly, Evil Dead more so than other films from the same period, bucks the trend of these archetypes. Bruce Campbell’s Ash is the clear leading man, shunning the prevalence of the female lead protagonist. His friend Scotty could be considered the typical hard party-goer, if only because he is the one most eager to party and most disbelieving of supernatural forces. Ash and Scotty’s girlfriends seem to be on the same level of annoying and neither fit into a category. Ash’s sister, sidelined like the fool but also imbued with characteristics of the virgin, is the first to be possessed. Evil Dead is a-typical of many horror films and perhaps that factored into the reasoning behind choosing it as the foundational material for CitW.

Is CitW the new Scream?

The Cabin in the Woods is getting a lot of buzz over being the most inventive horror film since Scream. Apparently, when it comes to being awarded buzz about creating game-changing horror, you had to start out entertaining teens over on the WB. Thanks to Kevin Williamson (of Dawson’s Creek) and Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) we now have two of the wittiest scripts in horror.

CitW is more interested in illuminating specific tropes and the state of formula horror. Scream begins in a world that acknowledges its horror predecessors, which is actually revolutionary in itself. The members of The Walking Dead can’t even refer to the walkers as zombies because to admit that such a catastrophic event was predicted in pop culture would undermine something…somehow. Not only is Ghostface asking future victims about their favorite scary movies in the form of trivia, but even Tatum has enough knowledge to accuse Sidney of acting out some “Wes Carpenter flick” (I didn’t say her knowledge was correct). The references weave together seamlessly in Scream: it seems innocent when Billy is watching The Exorcist (sadly on TV) but he also watched Carrie to get ideas about pig’s blood to fake a stabbing. Sidney knows that the big breasted girl will always run up the stairs and Randy knows that the “werewolf movie with E.T.’s mom in it” is code for The Howling. And to cap it all off, perhaps the most seminal slasher movie, Halloween is the background soundtrack to the climax of Scream.

"Maybe your movie freaked mind lost it's reality button."

The best conclusion that I can draw from my musings is that Scream reigns supreme, revolutionizing horror for the modern age and making filmmakers remember that it is possible to make smart, provocative, game-changing horror without falling back on a ridiculous premise and existing archetypes. CitW is a love letter to people who have this formula ingrained in the very fiber of their soul: the archetypes, the settings, the cliches, and every plot contrivance in between. It is more of a commentary on the genre as well as those that are entertained by it (the target audience for CitW).

I think, besides his commentary on formula horror, Joss Whedon wants us to go into our next horror movie thinking “is there an exterior force pulling the strings on this situation?” and thus, that is his contribution to modern horror. Or his attempt to destroy it: I get the point, I like it, but I also think this theory being applied to any given horror movie is an unnecessary distraction. Scream’s takeaway is this: our society is saturated with horror movies that most people are aware of on some level; people like Randy (and yes, myself) obsess over horror movies because they are movie geeks. People like Billy and Stu think that a preoccupation with horror is the ideal motive for murder (“It’s the millennium. Motives are incidental”).

Scream is accessible to any viewer and the horror fan only gains but so much by knowing all the the references dropped throughout the film (in my case, I was young enough to be very unfamiliar with most of them but Scream spurred me into seeking out these movies to be part of the club). But CitW is only accessible on its best level if you have put in at least a few years of horror movie watching. CitW even hopes you have experience with J-horror, which I assume most horror fans do; otherwise, the fact that the school girls in Kyoto defeat the Ring-like menace with a song and turn it into a song is just not as hilarious. I am not sure at what point maximum saturation would occur for you to enjoy all that the movie has on offer but suffice to say, you need significant experience with the genre.

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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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