Editorial: The Cabin in the Woods is Not the New Scream - It's Something Else
The Cabin in the Woods is an uproarious, clever and insightful film, one that’s been released to acclaim from horror fans and critics alike, and whose genre-defying exploits have drawn comparisons to that last breakthrough genre-defying horror meta-commentary flick, Scream.
The comparison has been so ubiquitous, in fact, that folks are quick to label The Cabin in the Woods (review here) “the new Scream,” or “the Scream for a new generation,” or the like. But I think that label does a disservice to both films, because aside from one surface element of their respective premises (they’re both about characters that on some level realize they’re inside of a horror movie), they’re about as different as two horror/comedy meta hybrids can be.
Scream is an attempt at a genre deconstruction of the slasher film. In casual use, people generally think of the term “deconstruction” as the same thing as a “dissection,” but in academic terms it means something more specific: a deconstruction brings the ideals of the fictional subject into “the real world” to expose certain quirks or flaws. Scream is a horror film that takes place in the real world. Its central ‘joke’ was that serial killings don’t necessarily happen the way they do in the movies and if one did, we would spend half the time in awe of how much it was “just like the movies!”
The Cabin in the Woods, however, is more of a direct analogy. Rather than the real world, Cabin takes place in a sci-fi fantasy in which the events of the horror film are controlled by a program of society in order to appease an angry, evil force or god. The monsters hunting the characters in the woods is just half the story: it’s a high-tech front put up in order to keep society going, and Cabin conjures questions of free will and fate in its scenario. If Halloween was the horror film’s Superman, and Scream was its Watchmen, we might have to step out of the comic book analogy to come up with an appropriate one for Cabin: it is the horror film’s The Matrix.
There’s another aspect to Cabin that separates it from Scream, one that I think many will disagree with and might even take a little offense to. In any case though, I think it’s an idea worth thinking about and discussing:
The Cabin in the Woods hates the horror film.
This is ironic because Cabin was undeniably made by people who adore horror movies. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have been very public with their affection for the genre and have crafted a movie that’s a joy for the horror fan to watch and behold, but, intentionally or not, they’ve created a tale that harbors some pretty heavy implications toward the subject of the horror genre – and the people who watch them.
The contrived cabin murders scenario is, of course, a stand-in for the horror film, and the agency carrying out the illusion is a symbol for Hollywood: its leader is even listed in the credits as “The Director” (that was one helluva cameo by Sigourney Weaver, by the way). According to Cabin, the horror film is a literal modern-day human sacrifice to the gods: gods who are in this case a stand-in for the audience, or at least, their dark desires. The audience demands a ritual in which certain archetypes (including the Whore, the Athlete, the Scholar and the Fool) are slain for their amusement, saving only the Virgin for last: stray too far from the formula, the agents say, and they’ll face the wrath of the audience. Cabin climaxes with a stand-off between the Director and the two escaped survivors, Dana and Marty: Marty is the designated Fool and the Director insists he must be killed so that the audience is satiated and humanity is saved. However, they defy this notion, the angry god is unleashed, and human society apparently perishes.
The end of Cabin can be read a number of different ways. It’s both right-wing in how it champions the worth of the individual as well as left-wing in its insistence on equality: if we can’t all survive together, we ought to die together. But no matter how you slice it (no pun intended) the inference is clear. An even earlier meta-horror film, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, envisioned the horror film as a safe way for people to engage the dark side of human nature. In Cabin, however, the horror film is a way for society to avoid its darker nature, and if society needs it to survive, then maybe we ought to reconsider the worth of human society. It cuts deep.
Scream has been accused of hating the horror film, too, but I think they mistook its frustration for hatred. What Scream actually hated was the rut the genre had gotten itself into in the early 90s, a position the genre earned by devaluing itself. The horror genre had answered accusations of misogyny and questionable ethics by disowning its own artistic integrity: “who cares if every character that has sex, drinks or does drugs dies, it’s just a dumb movie, stop reading so much into it” was the straw man response, and it led to formulaic movies that audiences learned to avoid, and put the genre to its near death. Scream may be smug, but that’s because it tried to lead by example: here was a horror movie that wasn’t afraid to be “about something.”
Scream told us that like it or not, every movie says something, and The Cabin in the Woods definitely says a lot. It might be right, and it might be wrong, but it’s a film that’s uncompromising and mature enough to own up and face what it deems are some ugly truths. It may not be “the new Scream,” but that’s because The Cabin in the Woods is something new entirely, and it will hopefully carve out a place in the horror film canon all its own.
*** Scott Kessinger is the author of the book Scream Deconstructed: An Unauthorized Analysis.
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