Why Cabin in the Woods wasn’t scary

Okay, so this post has only a little bit to do with books. Right now I’m reading a collection that examines the accomplished career of Joss Whedon—you know him as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, to name a handful. Shortly after I received the book, I went to see The Cabin in the Woods, a horror movie co-written by Whedon and Drew Goddard, who contributed to some of Whedon’s work in the past.

Imagine the supernatural “scares” of Buffy, add in a lot more humor and less camp (no singing vampires here), and you’ve got Cabin in the Woods. I had planned on waiting until my review of the Joss Whedon book to talk about the movie, but necessity calls: When someone writes an article as misleading as the one at Vulture.com, it demands a counter-response.

First off, the title: “Why Wasn’t Cabin in the Woods Scary?” I hoped the article was going to educate those who were missing the point because they were disappointed over the movie’s real nature (non-stop funny, smart, well-characterized—the list goes on, but “scary” isn’t on it), but instead the writers used it as a soap box to discuss what the movie allegedly did wrong … thus missing the point themselves.

(Warning: contains spoilers)

Is Cabin in the Woods a horror film game-changer?

No, nor should it have to be. It’s a witty, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny horror-comedy. It sprays its bullets wide, hitting (briefly) every kind of scary-movie trope out there: the dark-haired dead girls in J-horror movies like The Ring, deadly flying creatures from The Mist, puzzle sphere-holding pale men like in Hellraiser, white-mask wearing murderers like in The Strangers, and of course, zombies galore. We didn’t see any vampires, but that might be because Twilight destroyed them forever. Unfortunately, the hype that followed Cabin out of the South by Southwest film festival (following a premiere for people predisposed to love the hell out of this movie anyway) might have set expectations way too high. Except for the killer unicorn. That was the best thing ever.

I watch a lot of horror. Not only do I love it, but my boyfriend loves it, so you can imagine how many movies we’ve gone through. Cabin in the Woods is indeed a “game-changer”—more precisely, it’s a genre-changer. Whedon excels at mixing genres, and he was one of the first to do it on television with Buffy, which blended drama, comedy, romance, horror … and occasionally musicals. Cabin in the Woods is so fresh because it breaks the conventions of horror—instead of the Big Bad getting the best of the good guys, the good guys get the best of the Big Bad, and that’s only scratching the surface.

Were expectations set too high? I went into Cabin in the Woods without knowing anything about it, and I was impressed on every level. The Dark Knight was one of the most anticipated movies of 2008, but it still blew us away. If it’s a good movie, hype shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

As for why Whedon probably didn’t use vampires in the movie, think about it: Didn’t we see enough of them on TV?

But … shouldn’t it have had some scares?

Cabin has been closely compared to Scream, but there seems to be one important difference to us: Scream was authentically scary even while dissecting horror tropes, while Cabin … not so much. The movie didn’t have much in the way of suspense or memorable kills, and the bogeymen sent after our main characters — a family of redneck zombies — wasn’t pulse-quickening in the slightest, or even all that distinctive. At Vulture HQ, we found the scares so scarce that we’ve been debating whether the movie was even supposed to be scary. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard managed to freak us out in their small-screen endeavors, but why is Cabin so tame?

I can half-heartedly agree with this one. Cabin in the Woods could have been scary, but I think Whedon’s “small-screen endeavors” thrived more on suspense and drama than they ever did scares. At best, they made you jump. I saw a few people in the full audience do just that. If anything, I was horrified by the explicit scene involving a certain character’s execution—when comedy and drama play back-to-back, you won’t know appalling until it hits you like a brick. I think Joss Whedon’s point was more to show how desensitized we are to violence through the characters than to spook us through Hollywood moments, and isn’t that a more frightening thought than anything else?

Does Fran Kranz give the best or most irritating performance of the year?

We’re totally split on this one. As Cabin‘s sagacious stoner, is Kranz playing things so wildly, obnoxiously over-the-top that you root for him to get dispatched early? Or is he simply trying to make hay with one of the movie’s five intentionally underwritten victims-to-be?

They’re talking about the character Marty, who’s probably the funniest character in the whole movie. So I disagree completely: Maybe it was because I thought Kranz’s was the only actually funny character on Dollhouse, but I was rooting for Marty to survive. I think Whedon planned what he did with the character from the start. He knew there would be fans in the audience, so he appealed to them through the actors he brought on from his old shows. But that doesn’t mean people who hadn’t watched Dollhouse didn’t care about the character: My boyfriend was cheering him on, as well.

Can Bradley Whitford ever escape The West Wing?

No. In some ways, his Hadley (now, that’s a name for an Aaron Sorkin show) — a sarcastic, white-shirted, merman-obsessed functionary — is just a refracted version of Josh Lyman. He talks fast, makes time for some laughs, but is a professional above all. It’s quite possible that his character is the film’s most entertaining. (“Ugh, these zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl in a fucking volcano?”)

He was funny, but I don’t watch The West Wing and never have, so I can’t comment.

Should Hollywood ever make a movie from an H.P. Lovecraft story?

Probably not. Cabin’s talk of the “ancient ones” may describe the bloodthirsty audience who demands horror movie sacrifice, but it also evokes the memory of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” and “Elder Gods,” the ones who sleep under the Earth or at the bottom of the ocean, and it primes the audience to see something truly crazy as the third act concludes. Lovecraft describes their very appearance as being enough to drive a man insane — that’s a pretty high bar — but the brief shot of a giant hand shooting up from beneath the Earth at film’s end might have been the cheapest-looking thing in the movie. It’s a reminder that despite all the crazy monsters we see in this movie, to actually do proper justice to Lovecraft’s apocalyptic creations in a film might be impossible.

These guys aren’t Whedon fans, are they? Yes, the connection to Lovecraft is totally plausible, and the giant hand was indeed the cheapest thing in the movie—the ending was weak in general—but I think the plot derived more from Angel than anything else. The corporation that turned the cabin-goers’ stay into a nightmare, the need to appease the “ancient ones” with rituals, the destruction of the facility by their own monsters, even the elevators—that’s all very Wolfram and Hart. I doubt Whedon’s trying to honor Lovecraft. He’s doing his own thing, as he always has. Even when Whedon meddles with the familiar and established, it becomes something new.

How did you feel about the Sigourney Weaver cameo?

Cabin played Weaver’s involvement in the film awfully close to the vest, though the game is kind of given away when her distinctive voice is heard earlier in the film. Regardless of that, though, did her exposition-heavy cameo work for you? Or were things getting a little too meta by that point? (Really, Sigourney, we don’t need you to explain the concept of the “final girl” to us. We all saw Scream.)

It’s fair for opinion to be divided here, but I’m not so sure most audiences members picked up on Weaver’s voice earlier in the film. A lot of people didn’t even recognize her when she narrated Planet Earth (me included). And anyway, it’s Sigourney Weaver. She’s awesome.

Like I said before: This post might not have a lot to do with books, but considering how revered Whedon is, the whole debate does bring up issues and provide insight into the writer’s process.

What did you think of Cabin in the Woods?

7 thoughts on “Why Cabin in the Woods wasn’t scary

  1. Sarah

    Of all the blogs I read Stephanie, yours is the one I look forward to the most. It’s the one that fires me up and inspires me. Ugh, I really can’t explain it at all…..and it’s so frustrating!

    Our interests are varied, but your passion for the subjects you write about is infectious. If I could write even half as good as you can, I’d compose a brilliant sentence that describes exactly how much your writing, no matter the subject, means to me….

    Another brilliant review!!!! Loved it!!!

    1. Stephanie

      Aww thank you, Sarah. That means a lot. I’m glad my writing inspires you! That’s something I can be proud of, and I hope other people find as much meaning in my articles as you do.

      And I know, I know—I’m a pretty big nerd. :)

  2. KM Huber

    Doubt that I will see it, Stephanie, as I am not a horror fan at all but like Sarah, I look to your reviews to enlighten me, and they always do. Fine, fine writing.

    Karen

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