DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: CABIN IN THE WOODS AND LOVING HORROR FILMS

I love Cabin in the Woods and want to marry it. If you are a horror fan and have not seen this movie, drop what you are doing (as in, reading this post) and just go see it. Now. Then make plans with all the significant horror fans in your life to see it again. And talk about what it means. And fall in love with monsters all over again.

Now that I’ve gotten the fanboy wanking off out of the way, lets talk about some of the things that this film might mean. And let me say, right away, that this has to be an ongoing conversation since it’s a film that can’t be encompassed in a brief space. One of the things to love about this film is that it’s less a valentine to the horror genre and more of a dissertation on it.

And yes, I am going to do this spoiler-free. I’m with those of you who thought the trailer already gave way too much away. I am not going to ruin a second of this great movie experience for you.

I will tell you that one of Cabin’s most interesting subthemes concerns supervision and surveillance. Francis Kranz, brilliant as burn-out Marty, tells us in the beginning that society is “filling in all the gaps,” that our lives are being blogged, cataloged and spied out. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that Whedon and Goddard filled the film with images of surveillance, ranging from two-way mirrors to high-tech spy equipment. Its very concerned, as are many horror films, with what we want to look at and why.

Monsters in America readers will remember that at least one chapter riffs on the idea of the slasher film as a way to punish the young and that idea certainly appears in Cabin in the Woods. What’s more, it’s a film that, behind its mythpoeic narrative, imagines the deep structures of society as intertwined with monsters. This is exactly my own view of the meaning of monsters in American history. They are more than metaphors or psychological reflections of anxiety. They are hardwired into American experience and they rise up from beneath us demanding sacrifice. The darkest parts of our history are those moments when the nightmares have come out to play.

This is also a film that, like all metanarrative, interrogates our own gaze and our own tendency to steal the subjectivities of what we gaze upon. Horror has been dealing with the power of the image and the look for a long time. Wes Craven filmed Last House on the Left so that it had the feel of a grainy documentary and forced the viewer into the experience. Craven has frequently played with metanarrative, most famously of course in Scream, but I would argue more effectively in his earlier New Nightmare. More recently, the “found footage” phenomena(which has its modern beginnings in The Blair Witch Project) has also rearranged our perception of violence, death and engagement in the modern horror film .

Cabin intertwines these themes in ways that will put a lot of scholars who see it in a Foucaultian frame of mind. Michel Foucault is, of course, the French theorist who described the rise of what he calls “normalization” and the way that power functions subtlety in a society to “discipline and punish” various kinds of behaviors. The rise of the prison and the asylum (both phenomena of the early modern and Enlightenment eras) interacted with emerging social controls to shape a concept of normalcy that we find ourselves insistently ramming our head against in classrooms, work places and even households.

Whedon and Goddard may or may not have meant to take us to Foucault-ville but Cabin certainly extrapolates many of his ideas and raises some interesting possibilities for those of us who want to ponder horror films as something more than social myth. Perhaps these narratives are also sites of social power.

Finally, and it would give away too much of the narrative to talk about this in detail, I think we saw a bit of Joss Whedon’s oft-ignored misanthropy in this really pretty dark film. Whedon has always seemed to me to have a far gloomier sense of humor than even some of his fans realize. I remember a good friend and fellow Buffy fan telling me during the sixth and seventh seasons of that show that “something must be wrong with Joss.” I think in those  final seasons, to paraphrase a favorite line from the series, the subtext was rapidly becoming text.

The value of the universe, and of living in it, has always been a basic theme of the Whedonverse. Its possible to read the last two seasons of Buffy as a meditation on the meaningfulness of life, or perhaps its lack of meaning. Although the series repeatedly reaffirms the value of community and of self-sacrifice, it does so in the context of a nihilistic worldview that says  (with Buffy) “the hardest thing about this world is living in it.” I’m sure all you Browncoats are thinking about Mal’s often dour sense of the universe, the captain of Serenity sometimes wondering openly (and in dreams) if anything means anything at all.

But what I’ve always loved about this theme in Whedon is that it never becomes an outright expression of spiritual despair, never a renunciation of meaning that amounts to what Jean-Paul Sartre would call “bad faith.” What we see in the Whedonverse seems to be something more along the lines of Camus in La Peste. The willingness to fight a battle we know we will lose is, to quote Camus, to be a “saint without God.”

But you know the best thing about this Cabin the Woods? It’s about monsters…indeed a kind of celebration of the monstrous as a form. So many of the scenes become more clever, more creepy, more deeply meaningful the more you think about them.

Best of all, you’ll want nothing more than to watch Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, stat, once you see it.  And you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of monsters.

Speaking of thinking about Monsters, I’m giving the keynote this weekend at the University of Florida’s Monsters and Myths in the Making conference. More later.

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