On Friday evening, after several abortive attempts, I finally managed to see the much heralded Cabin in the Woods. Given all the hype surrounding Whedon and Goddard’s “postmodern take on the horror genre”* (yawn) I was both surprised and relieved to find that, as an exercise in self-reflexivity, Cabin was not simply a sub-Tarantino pastiche. Part Scream, part Funny Games, part episode of The Twilight Zone, as an explicit deconstruction of the horror genre Cabin certainly poses some interesting questions concerning how we watch horror films that (thankfully) avoids becoming a Haneke-style lecture from the pulpit?
Including as many story and character conventions as the script can hold, Cabin follows an alpha-jock, a sexy blonde, a stoner, a sensitive hunk and a final girl prototype on a weekend away in a remote woodland cabin. Inevitably our five heroes quickly find themselves the prey of a group of redneck zombies that they have inadvertently awakened from a subterranean slumber. As the film progresses each of the characters begins to increasingly play up to their own archetypal role, to the point that they become little more than dramatic ciphers that service the furthering of the narrative. However even before the credits have rolled it is revealed that the scenario in which the five characters find themselves has been constructed by a couple of boffins working for some sort of covert government agency. From their hi-tech underground bunker not only do this, seemingly affable, pair of agents dispassionately observe the murderous carnage unfolding via various monitors but they manipulate the events occurring above in order to ensure the demise of the five heroes in a manner befitting a teen horror movie. It quickly becomes apparent that Cabin is less a revival of the self-aware, ironic horror cycle initiated by Scream than a piece of metafiction that suggests that its audience examine their own voyeuristic bloodlust as viewers of the violence occurring onscreen.
In this regard perhaps the most obvious cinematic antecedent for Cabin, on a thematic level at least, is the 2008 French horror film Martyrs. Combining elements of supernatural horror and the torture cycle popularised by the Saw and Hostel series, Martyrs presents a situation in which the protagonist, an attractive young woman, is subjected to extreme levels of torture in the secret underground lair of a mysterious agency not too dissimilar to the one featured in Cabin. Martyrs has a more sinister tone than Cabin and the physical and mental torture that the protagonist experiences is much more harrowing than the pantomime violence of Cabin. She is relentlessly humiliated and degraded throughout the second half of the film and her captors defile her body to unimaginable levels, culminating in her being skinned alive. It eventually transpires that the motive of this covert organisation of torturers is to find young women that can survive extreme levels of physical torture (“martyrs”) in order that they might be able to transcend their physical existence and provide some insight into the afterlife. What elevates Martyrs above mere exploitation is the fact that the motives of the antagonists mimic our own desires as horror movie audiences. As spectators we venerate the characters in horror films that can (and indeed must) withstand the extreme levels of violence that they are subjected to. Similarly, in Cabin it is revealed that the agency that is arranging the deaths of the nubile protagonists is actually carrying out the orders of its “director”, played by Sigourney Weaver in a cameo role. She explains that the cabin in the woods scenario is actually an elaborate blood sacrifice ritual to the “ancient gods” (for ancient gods read cinema audience). Both pictures prompt us to question our hunger for onscreen violence by explicitly conflating the desires and behaviour of the antagonists with our own desires and behaviour as spectators.
That said, Mr. Marvel and his co-writer, Drew Goddard, are more beholden to Grant Morrison’s much heralded 26 issue run on the DC comic Animal Man than to any cinematic precedents. For the uninitiated, Animal Man is the superhero alter-ego of Buddy Baker, a seemingly regular middle-American family man and part time stuntman. Animal Man’s power is that he can absorb and use the powers and abilities of any animal that he comes into contact with. Although Morrison initially used the title as a vehicle for raising awareness for political issues such as animal rights, the series quickly developed into a fascinating piece of existentialist metafiction, tackling themes such as mortality, self-sacrifice, determinism and pre-destination. The culmination of the series saw the eponymous Animal Man meet his writer, Grant Morrison himself, where he learns that the inconsistencies that he had observed in his existence were a consequence of his being a fictional comic book character. Just as Animal Man questions the logic of being able to fly without wings (issue #18), one of the characters in Cabin also questions the increasingly preposterous nature of the characters’ plight, observing how his colleagues are increasingly embodying the archetypal roles of genre stereotypes. And just as Animal Man #25 features a purgatory for discarded fictional characters awaiting their resurrection, Cabin reveals an area of the underground bunker where the creatures and monsters of horror films are housed in reinforced containers, waiting to be unleashed on some unsuspecting victims of the blood sacrifice.
Yet the structure of Cabin borrows most heavily from issue #5 of Morrison’s run on Animal Man, The Coyote Gospel. This particular issue focused on a grotesque, man-wolf hybrid being pursued by a hunter around Death Valley. Despite being shot, falling hundreds of feet down a canyon, having a boulder dropped on it from several hundred feet above and being blown up, the beast displays an amazing capacity for survival and physical regeneration following each attack. We soon learn that the beast is named Crafty and that he previously existed in an alternate universe where the inhabitants were stuck in an endless cycle of violence “with bodies that renewed themselves instantly, following each wounding, where nobody thought to challenge the futile brutality of existence”. The segment covering Crafty’s backstory employs a more cartoonish style of artwork and it quickly becomes apparent that Crafty is based on Wile E. Coyote and that the world that he originated in was that of the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes.
To end the cycle of violence in this world Crafty offers himself up to his “God” (illustrated in the comic as a cartoonist, brush in hand) who agrees to bring peace. However, in exchange, Crafty is sent to “Hell” where he must bear all of the suffering and pain for his world. This hell is the world that Animal Man exists in, where the pain of explosions and boulders is not as throwaway and inconsequential as it was in the Loony Tunes universe. Although he retains his power for regeneration this too is a more “real” and painful process. At the end of the story Crafty is shot by his hunter assailant and finally dies in a crucifixion pose on the freeway, the artist’s brush visible on the final panel.
Cabin adopts a very similar metafictional structure. In Animal Man #5 Morrison created a fictional milieu in which the worlds of the DC Universe (as imagined and interpreted by Morrison) and the non-copyright infringing Loony Tunes simulacrum coexist. The “God” of the Loony Tunes universe with whom Crafty/Wile E. has made his bargain is also, it transpires, the same textual “God” of the DC Universe (as indicated by the paintbrush on the final panel) and this indicates that a single “God” is controlling the entire milieu. Clearly the “God” represents the figure of the artist/creator/writer of the fiction. Similarly in Cabin the “gods” to whom the sacrifices are made impose their rule over the entire world in which the film is set. The fictional world of Cabin is the filmmakers’ interpretation of an alternate dimension in which the imagined plots of horror films actually occur – not just Evil Dead style woodland cabin horrors but all varieties of violent horror genre films. The two agents controlling the horror frequently refer to an equivalent Japanese agency carrying out similar work and there is an ongoing live feed on one of their monitors of a similarly manipulated scenario being played out in a Japanese classroom that is clearly modelled on a supernatural “Ringu” style piece of paedophobic J-horror. Whedon and Goddard have created a world in which the horrors of horror films are inflicted upon unsuspecting people in order to satisfy the “ancient gods’” (the viewers’) lust for violence. Like a Marvel or a DC Universe, they have created a “Horror Film Universe” in which all previous horror films actually happened. The “director” and her subordinates are aware of omnipresent gods with an extreme lust for violence (horror movie audiences) and the horror films that we have seen were elaborate blood sacrifices designed by her and her underlings to satisfy us. At the close of the film, because the rituals of the horror film have not been observed (one of the other characters as well as the final girl has survived) and the bloodlust of the gods (and by extension that of the audience) is unsatisfied, the world collapses. In both Animal Man #5 and Cabin a singular textual deity or group of deities oversees and controls the fictional setting, however in the former the deity represents the creator and in the latter it represents the viewer/audience. Although the figure of the director is a textual character in Cabin, she exists merely to serve the whims of the greater deity (the audience) and simply oversees and prompts the manipulation of the characters.
Ultimately, though admirable and thought provoking, Cabin does not quite match the achievement of Animal Man as a piece of metafiction. Firstly, while the fictional universe of Animal Man provides Morrison with a recognisable set of CHARACTERS that he can flesh out, Whedon and Goddard can only draw on generic archetypes. Yet in order to make these archetypes truly identifiable they are stripped down to the point where they are little more than empty ciphers. While the end of Animal Man #26 exhibits one of the most moving pieces of comic book writing that I can recall, particularly the scene in which Grant Morrison yields to Buddy’s anguished and desperate pleas and resurrects his recently murdered family, it is difficult to feel anything for the suffering archetypes of Cabin. It is not inconceivable that this is partially by design and that the filmmakers want us to root for the agents rather than the suffering students in order to hammer home their points concerning how we watch horror films. However the tone of the final scene smacks of an attempt by the film to garner our support for a character that refuses to allow himself to be killed in order that the world in which he lives might be saved. This leaves a rather bitter taste and smacks of an endorsement of a very extreme example of the teenage solipsism that one might usually encounter in Australian soaps and US teen dramas.
Finally, the scope of ambition of Cabin is simply not commensurate with that of Animal Man. The film can ultimately be read on a purely literal level as it is entirely self-contained within its own fictional universe. I think that what Whedon and Goddard were really going for was a double coded genre analysis and are satisfied that certain audiences will not engage with the metafiction. Animal Man, on the other hand, does not disguise its metafictional purpose. Buddy’s misgivings regarding the inconsistencies of his existence are only answered when he meets his writer and learns of his own ultimate artifice. It is impossible to follow the narrative of Animal Man without engaging with ideas about the nature of fiction and indeed, perhaps, existence.
*Admittedly I can’t actually attribute this quote to anyone but you know as well as I do that lots of people in lots of places have said this.