“No matter how ironic a mullet is, it’s still a fucking mullet,” said my brother as the credits rolled for The Cabin in the Woods (2011), directed by Drew Goddard. And he is right, for The Cabin in the Woods is still just a horror movie that fails to come into its own because it gets buried under its own statement.
Co-written and produced by Josh Whedon, the film follows a group of friends who vacation for a weekend at a cabin in the woods. With more than a nod to the Evil Dead (1981), directed by Sam Raimi, the movie follows a group of friends who soon find themselves attacked by zombie-like creatures. The twist is that the zombies and evil dead are actually part of a larger conspiracy that designs conventional horror movie death-traps for the younger generation.
Beyond some brief patches of snappy dialogue, and good performances given by Kristen Connolly as Dana and Fran Kranz as Marty, the movie is eager to let its audience in on the gag that its world is a constructed one. Overseen by Sigourney Weaver, The Director, and two old white men played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford who operate from an office-like environment, the virtual world they administer is revealed through an omniscient camera shot of the youngsters as they speed off to the cabin retreat when a computer-generated falcon honeysmacks into the invisible bee-comb wall of the trap.
It is in this very digital representation of the film’s artifice that it missteps and feels hackneyed. Movies such as the Matrix (1999), directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, or Brazil (1985), directed by Terry Gilliam, play with their artifices in much more compelling and visually stimulating ways. In The Cabin in the Woods, the true reality becomes a “big brother” control room, replete with elevators and office chatter. But it feels entirely predictable, and the mise-en-scène and cinematography of The Cabin in the Woods do little to differentiate themselves from the Resident Evil(s) they critique, for when the cabin floor is torn away and the film’s protagonists crawl through a ventilation duct to discover the truth, all that is revealed is a cliché of a cliché.
A film such as Being John Malkovich (1999), directed by Spike Jonze, conversely takes on the clichés of the real world’s reveal. In Jonze’s film, Lance Acord’s cinematography, while certainly drab, depressing, and grey, feels deliberate and methodical, and emotively resonates whether we like it or not. Equally touches such as Phillip K. Dickian 13.5th floor of Kauffman’s script for Malkovich feels like one of those momentary and inspired truths scrawled as an afterthought on a Post-it note, immediately familiar in its alien strangeness, and resultantly able to offer a more acute commentary on our relationships to the consumption of media.
To consider it from another vantage point, the film’s central thesis is that it has all been done, and it is time to put the old paradigms out to pasture so that something new can arise from the ashes. Sure. Why not? But it is also a sentiment begging for that time-honored and knee-jerk reaction, “Hasn’t it all been done? What about Shakespeare?”
I turn to Little Richard on The Dick Cavett Show.
“WHY, YES, IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF AAAART! THAT’S RIGHT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! WHAT DO YOU KNOW, MR. CRITIC? WHY, WHEN THE CREEDENCE CLEARWATER PUT OUT WITH THEIR ‘TRAVELIN’ BAND’ EVERYBODY SAY WHEEE-OOO BUT I KNOW IT CAUSE THEY ONLY DOING ‘LONG TALL SALLY,’ JUST LIKE THE BEATLES ANDTHESTONESANDTOMJONESANDELVIS – I AM ALL OF IT, LITTLE RICHARD HIMSELF, VERY TRULY THE GREATEST, THE HANDSOMEST, AND NOW TO YOU (to Segal, who now appears to be on the floor) AND TO YOU (to Simon, who looks to Cavett as if to say, really old man, this has been fun, but this, ah, fellow is becoming a bit much, perhaps a commercial is in order?), I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK, MYSELF, I AM A WRITER, I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK AND IT’S CALLED –
“ ‘HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD’! THAT’S IT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD! THE STORY OF MY LIFE. CAN YOU DIG IT? THAT’ MY BOY LITTLE RICHARD, SURE IS. OO MAH SOUL!” (Marcus 3)
The lesson, even making a generic observation that has been said to death – “Well, hasn’t it all been done before?” – can become sublime poetry pushing at the boundaries of language, when said with the fire, anger, humor and soul of Little Richard. The Cabin in the Woods takes a stab at redefining convention, but by placing its point at the forefront and doing so rather predictably, the film is stifled and not nearly “Tutti Frutti” enough.
Greil Marcus. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’ n’ Roll Music. Fifth Edition. New York: A Plume Book, 2008.