Sunday, October 21, 2012

Critiquing the Slasher Movie

Puppeteer at work?
To begin with, this post is going to be about the Whedon/Goddard not-quite-horror flick The Cabin in the Woods.  It's been out on DVD for a while now and if you haven't seen it, be warned that there will be a few spoilers in this post - nothing that a quick look at doesn't have, but still . . . if you want to skip to the "bottom line," here it is.  See this movie.

Okay, now that we have that taken care of - what sets Cabin apart?  It's a movie that viewers enjoyed, but critics loved.  The "Tomatoes" rating is a fine and respectable 76% for viewers, but a whopping 91% for critics.  Then again, I suspect critics saw different things in Cabin than most casual viewers did.  Whedon is known for genre-mashing and Cabin (which he and Goddard co-wrote) showcases his fondness for creating hybrids.  I daresay some purists in the horror world despised Cabin for that reason and I'm sure a few fans felt disappointed in the film.

Confession time - I'm not a huge horror buff.  I'm fine with suspense and I can handle creepy, but the trend towards finding more and more creative ways to hurt people (usually young females) leaves me cold.  Oh, I can trot out all the theories about why being scared serves a valid societal and psychological purpose, and I agree with part of those theories,* but I still have no desire to see most of it.  Like all genres, horror films have certain tropes that must either be obeyed or subverted - here's a great rundown of those tropes and cliches.  Cabin not only acknowledges these "rules" (for instance, the sexually-active girl has to be the first to die and the virtuous girl must be the "final girl"), it creates a world in which these rules are ironclad.  Whedon likes to toy with the "free will vs. game is rigged" conundrum and Cabin shows that off, too.

I like this movie quite a lot because it asks some questions about just who watches these movies. While there are several excellent scenes - including one in a stuffed-to-the-gills basement - the one that best underscores this point takes place in a sterile control room where a celebratory party is going on, with the relieved partygoers completely ignoring the live images on the giant viewscreens that show a girl desperately fighting for her life.  If you laugh at this scene, it's probably some very uncomfortable laughter - after all, we're also watching this and we paid money to be entertained by images of innocent people being hunted and killed.

I think that ought to make us uncomfortable.

*Stephen King has written extensively on this and his Danse Macabre is well worth a read.  If you really want to know more, check out the Journal for Horror Studies.  Yes, it's real.

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