(Seriously, DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS until you've seen The Cabin In The Woods, unless you don't mind knowing about what surprises it contains. The subject of this post requires discussing them a bit, but it's really a movie best seen completely blank, because even the trailers don't reveal much of anything really important about it. So, if you haven't seen it, STOP RIGHT HERE and DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER. Check out my review at Tor, which is light on specifics, but long on reasons why to see it. Alles klar? Okay, let's continue. But do not say you weren't warned.)
Yesterday, the long-delayed (for reasons having nothing to do with quality and everything to do with its initial distributor going tits up) Joss Whedon-Drew Goddard collaboration The Cabin In The Woods finally came out. For most of the week leading up to it, there was a furious argument online about a number of reviews and whether or not they were in the right, divulging as much of the picture's plot as they did. Here is, in broad strokes, the situation:
1—The trailers and official plot synopsis focused mainly on a group of five stereotypical-ish horror movie characters: the two hot girls, representing the “virgin/slut” (horror's terms, not my own) dichotomy, and three dudes, the jock, the intellectual, and the stoner. HOWEVA, there are oblique hints that All Is Not What It Seems (the movie's poster, aside from the tagline, featured a cabin floating in a void, unmoored to the earth, the trailer had a shot or two of a control room-type space). But, it must be stressed, those were not explained any further than serving as an indication that there was probably something up and that it was not a paint-by-numbers slasher picture.It's a big fucking mess. Although I'm more on the Snider/Weinberg side of this particular fence, having thoroughly enjoyed my near-clean-slate viewing of The Cabin In The Woods the other day, the non-Rex Reed contrary opinion is equally valid, and one that I personally find myself on more frequently than not. A lot of plots don't spoil. But The Cabin In The Woods is a bit of a unique case. (Seriously, I'm about to start talking about it, so if the opening spoiler warning paragraph didn't chase you away, going any further is your own damn fault.)
2—That last observation could very easily be reinforced by the presence of names like Joss Whedon (and to a lesser extent Richard Jenkins and Brad Whitford) in the cast/crew listing.
3—It screened at South by Southwest to a borderline unseemly amount of critical fapping; between it and The Raid it's amazing hospitals in Austin weren't working around the clock reattaching penises that had accidentally snapped off.
4—Since point 3 was in large part related to point 2, the kind of film critic whose formative years predate the assimilation of fandom and criticism (meaning, very roughly, people who were too old, be it chronologically or otherwise, to have grown up with Star Wars) looked at all those tweets and advance reviews and some of them bristled; “Ah, shit, here we go, another one of those fuckin' nerd movies.”
5—Whether as a reaction to their younger (chronologically and otherwise) counterparts' enthusiasm or simply because it wasn't their kind of picture, people like Rex Reed wrote things like this.
6—Eric Snider, Scott Weinberg, and other members of said younger generation, hit the fucking ceiling. Not only because Reed spoiled plot elements, but because a lot of his scorn, like that absurdly gratuitous “writing on crystal meth” swipe, was so disconnected from the reality of what the movie was. I've never done crystal meth, but I've done old-fashioned speed, and let's just put it this way, speed writing is nothing like The Cabin In The Woods. Not to mention the fact that he indiscreetly yaks about a number of plot points that would be surprising if he hadn't told you about them.
7—But, because neither life nor the Internet is simple, an increasing number of people coming out of Cabin are taking, if not in its bitchily irresponsible totality, a similar side to Reed and other critics' seeming belief that there is nothing in The Cabin In The Woods that really merits caution about spoilers.
(I'll give you another minute.)
Okay. What makes Cabin a bit of a rara avis in terms of the whole spoiler discussion is the fact that the very first scene is something unexpected, based on what the movie was obliquely hinted to be. A lot of the people making point 7 in the above list do so because, hey, if the first scene gives away the alleged “surprise”, how the fuck's it supposed to be a spoiler? Well, that's the thing: when I saw that opening scene of Richard Jenkins and Brad Whitford being awesomely loose office douchebags, I was like “whoa, holy fuck.” Because that had nothing to do with anything I'd theretofore heard about The Cabin In The Woods. I thought it was a movie where a bunch of kids go to a cabin in the woods. WTF are Richard Jenkins, Brad Whitford, and the foxy WASPacita in the lab coat doin up in this piece, yo?
So, yes, the first scene makes it clear that the subsequent stuff where the girl dancing around in her underwear, her newly-blonde friend, the NBF's jock boyfriend, the dude the NBF and JBF are trying to get the girl dancing around in her underwear to shtup, and the stoner with the bong that collapses into an apparent travel coffee mug is all in some way being controlled by Richard Jenkins and Brad Whitford. Fine. But that opening scene is just an opening scene if someone tells you there are control room guys. How the fuck were we supposed to know there were control room guys? That one tiny insert of a lever with a lit-up button next to it in the trailer?
Since everyone still reading at this point has already seen the movie (RIGHT?) we know that it subsequently transpires that Jenkins and Whitford are manipulating the cabin-bound college kids into a situation where they enact horror movie plots in a ritualistic fashion, only to be killed off one by one in true horror movie fashion, to placate the dormant (for now) “Ancient Ones” with blood. If the kids don't get killed, the Ancient Ones will, presumably, rise and end life on earth as we know it. The Final Girl, or the Virgin as she's called here, is allowed to live only if everyone else dies.
It is thus that The Cabin In The Woods manages to be both horror and meta-horror (even if it succeeds far more decisively as the latter), light and dark, observer and the thing observed, and have any number of either/or dichotomies both ways. Most importantly, with regards to the spoiler question, it's simultaneously completely upfront about what it is and yet consistently surprising. This is why, however Richard Jenkins/Brad Whitford-y that first scene might be, it's kind of shitty to tell people who haven't seen the movie that it's about Richard Jenkins and Brad Whitford manipulating stuff. First off, because spoilers, fuckface. But second, because over the course of the movie you see the extent to which the two of them halfass their jobs, and because they're gradually laid bare as a couple dorks who play God to hide their own impotence, describing The Cabin In The Woods as a movie about Richard Jenkins and Brad Whitford controlling shit is patently inaccurate. They don't control shit. And the movie isn't about them. It really is about horror, and the rules of the horror genre. The movie's (inevitable, really) conclusion serves as a darkly tongue-in-cheek warning against violating those rules (when comrade Final Girl neglects to murder the stoner Fool, the Ancient Ones do indeed rise, in the form of a giant fist rising from the Earth and coming right at the camera, ending the movie and thus the world), a firm reinforcement of the picture's theme, which is, again, genre and the rules thereof.
Now, that might not be everyone's cup of tea. Because I am, however scruffy and foul-mouthed, an intellectual and an academic (especially when it comes to genre), The Cabin In The Woods was basically Joss Whedon gift-wrapping a movie to me. And I'm thankful, not to mention relieved that there aren't any lingering hard feelings about the time Hudak and I set up camp in the TV room at Bard's student center to watch the Knicks and pre-empted that evening's Buffy conclave. But I am not the world, and the world is not me. So I understand people maybe not being so thrilled by the fact that it's more meta-horror than horror-horror. I could even understand the movie losing people when it goes bugfuck at the end of the second act when ALL THE MONSTERS come out. Shit, I could even understand people feeling cheated by the ending when the Giant Fucking Hand eradicates existence. I loved all three, to be clear, but if things like that are gonna bother you, they're gonna bother you.
Where I have a problem is in the unilateral decision that because the genre being deconstructed isn't one's personal cup of tea that said deconstruction is without merit. I'm not, comparatively, really a Joss Whedon fan. I've seen a couple episodes of Firefly and Dr. Horrible, and as above I've gone to extreme measures to not see Buffy and antagonize its fans; the Joss Whedon piece I'm most familiar with is his script for Speed, which he wrote approximately 95% of the dialogue but was ineligible for credit because the WGA requires any writer subsequent to the original to have created a certain percentage of new scenes as opposed to “merely” doing dialogue rewrites. But fan or no fan, I can recognize that the guy's extremely intelligent, a master of genre, and really goddamn fucking good with characters. I'm probably never going to see The Cabin In The Woods again, and will have to check out of the kind of massive fan geek-out conversations that'll result should it become the classic it's being heralded as, but I'd be staggeringly disingenuous if I were to claim that it didn't succeed almost perfectly in being the kind of picture it set out to be, which is the most important metric in determining if a movie is good or bad. “I didn't like it” and “It's bad” are not the same thing.
This is why, however entitled we all are to our particular opinion, criticism is more than simply I liked it or I didn't. It's about looking at what a thing is, rather than what we want it to be. If a picture you're reviewing is outside your frame of reference, do a little research. It's not going to kill you. Google exists. Shitting all over something for the sole reason of it not being within the realm of one's own personal taste is irresponsible criticism. If one doesn't particularly care for horror pictures (for example, since we're talking about Cabin), when reviewing a horror picture one is nonetheless responsible for determining how effective the given picture is within its own context. And if one is unable to properly determine how well a given horror movie is within its own context, one should offer the disclaimer that one is out of one's depth as a critic in the given instance. But hey, who the fuck wants to confess fallibility.
Empirically, this all comes down to one thing: consideration. All spoilers aren't created equal, and there is a point, undefined though it may be, when one can take the cultural temperature and begin to publicly discuss things like “she's got a dick” or “he was dead the whole time,” or “holy shit, Woody Harrelson really does need a stepladder to dunk a basketball.” But before a picture's release, when there is a clearly stated desire within the community for whom (almost exclusively) the picture in question was made, maybe shut the fuck up about its reveals. Even if you personally think those reveals are done really early. Just don't be a dick. Especially if the way in which you're going to unzip is by accusing the writers of a movie of being on crystal meth, when you clearly have no idea what that drug does to cognition.
Oh, by the way, feel free to ram this post straight up my ass if I ever fuck up and spoil something in the future. Even I'll admit I deserve it. Until then, though, I'll just stick a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on the side of my soap box and enjoy the view from up here.