Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Film | Blabbin' In The Woods: Horror Needs To Stop Blaming Its Audience

Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods is a concept movie, or rather, a movie with a point to prove, one whose entire existence revolves around jabbing its finger into your chest and waving its pamphlets in your face, a parodic deconstruction of shlocky horror that many film critics deemed so ‘game-changing’ that their reviews were reduced to vague schoolgirl burblings about ‘the less you know the better’. I suspect the young couple sitting next to me in the cinema, who’d clearly gone hoping to shriek a bit and put their arms around each other during a good old-fashioned bit of scary-movie fun, would have preferred having some idea of exactly what they were in for, but John Updike disagrees with me. Anyway.

'Groundbreaking. A game changer'. Like to explain those superlatives, Total Film Magazine? Like to articulate exactly which ground is broken, and how the game is changed? Oh, they're just gabbled buzzwords without genuine value, are they? My, what a surprise.

Cabin features a group of attractive young adults who are drawn out to a familiar-looking one-floor cabin in amongst the pine trees, which handily comes with its own easily-destructible mountain-pass and eerie standoffish petrol station attendant who makes it pretty clear they’ll all be dead by sun-up. Meanwhile, we observe a bunch of middle-aged office drones in an underground facility beneath the cabin, who at first simply monitor the youths on closed-circuit surveillance, and then begin to actively change their personalities, pumping pheromones into the cabin, drugging their hair dye, and using all kinds of devious trickery to mutate the young 'uns into a bunch of familiar one-dimensional stereotypes. The sporty lad played by Thor becomes a dumb jock; his confident girlfriend starts wearing hot-pants and French-kissing stuffed wolf-heads; the fairly average male love interest suddenly dons a pair of spectacles and becomes known as ‘egg-head’; the slightly more reserved heroine transforms into the pure innocent virgin who’s probably going to survive until the end.

Before we know it, these meddling kids are sent down to the cabin basement, where a cornucopia of foreboding artifacts awaits them; far below, the drones are taking bets on which hideous monster the gang's going to unleash by tampering with the wrong Dread MacGuffin (the office betting pool whiteboard includes entries such as ‘Merman’, ‘Dragonbat’, and ‘Fornicus, Lord Of Bondage And Pain’). The youths read a diary, summoning a family of sadistic zombified backwater folk, and suddenly the office workers’ job becomes about encouraging their victims to split up, stand with their backs to windows, and generally behave like imbeciles in order to be picked off one by one.

Fornicus, in case you were wondering, resembles Pinhead, only with circular saws in his face instead of nails. As visual gags go, it seems surprisingly like something you might find in Scream If You Know What I Did Last Summer for such a groundbreaking gamechanger.

The joke’s spelled out very clearly, and it's sometimes very funny; why is it that, with so many fascinating ghouls at their disposal, certain entries in the horror genre can come up with nothing better than moronic, one-note characters being sadistically dispatched in semi-darkness, with some tits-and-ass thrown in along the way? It's in answering its own question, however, that Cabin makes a argument which, if we are to take the film's thoughts on horror seriously, (and given how hard it labours the point, albeit through an entertaining monster-mash bloodbath, we’re clearly meant to) deserves to be shoved in a sleeping-bag and battered against a tree. Because it is, as it turns out, all the Audience’s fault.

The drones are merely reluctant servants of a higher power, you see; dark Lovecraftian Gods who are said to be ‘watching’ and who will inflict savage punishments upon humanity if the gory show leaves them unsatisfied. The hot blonde has to get her breasts out, the office workers explain, while watching the spectacle leerily onscreen themselves, because that’s what the Audience wants to see. The virgin has to screech and suffer her way through the film, enduring more in the process than her corrupted friends who are killed more quickly, because the Audience is both rooting for her to survive and secretly desires to see her punished. Later, the Director (who should really, really have been played by Jamie Lee Curtis) shows up and interprets the ‘horror film’ as a ritual sacrifice carried out to satiate both the bloodlust, and the deep-seated desire for formulaic plotting, of those who are watching.

Perhaps great Cthulu only really broke loose, ravening for delight, because he felt that the groundbreaking, gamechanging third season of Skins tried too hard to break loose of the show's existing formula.

Drivel. Drivel that not only attempts to place moral responsibility with the audience, but aesthetic responsibility, too, and the curious thing about Cabin, which is ostensibly so much about the mechanics of making horror, is that it never bothers to seriously reflect upon the responsibility of the artist in all of this; the Director explains that she ‘has’ to carry out the ritual and keep it to its dull formula in order to please the Gods, and, by the end, she’s proven to be right. The film repeatedly portrays the drones as callous, detached and desensitised, but it’s only really interested in castigating them in terms of their role as an audience, and not as creators. So we see them whooping as the kids choose their otherworldly doom, drooling as the young couple gets naked, even celebrating with tequila, in one highly-pointed, extended sequence, as the heroine is beaten to a pulp onscreen. Jesus, we get it. We’re bad people for watching this. What about you for making it?

Are we really supposed to agree with the notion that not only sadism and voyeurism, but poor characterisation, derivative storytelling and illogical plots are all the result of audience expectations, and not creative bankruptcy on the part of the people making them? Because if that’s the case, then what are we supposed to make of the fact that The Others, a horror film that features none of these things (well, other than derivative storytelling), and no on-screen deaths, made $210 million at the box office, almost four times as much as Hostel Part I and Two put together, ($47 million and $19 million respectively), more than twice as much as the 2009 Friday 13th remake ($91 million), almost twice as much as the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake ($107 million), etcetera, etcetera?

I agree with Goddard about one thing; the horror film is heading down a bad road. But he’s taking pot-shots at all the easiest targets (lowest-common denominator films do rely on sleazy nudity to have an impact, yes. Any other shocking insights into the likes of Piranha 3 Double-D?) and, occasionally, long-outdated ones (the virginal heroine survives while her more worldly friends die, therefore the horror film displays a loathing of sexuality? Gosh, what a trenchant and unfamiliar analysis of 1978's Halloween) and using them to push a theory about the genre as a whole.*  

Groundbreaking! A gamechanger!

It’s all a bit off, and not least because Goddard isn’t particularly interested in coming up with a solution to the problems he raises - he admits, not ungenerously, via the pothead character who figures everything out, that Cabin’s own brand of self-aware commentary is only capable of bringing the whole stage crashing down - and actively tells us, at the end of his movie, that a humanity which ‘needs’ this kind of dull, sadistic entertainment isn’t worth saving. He does seem to push for the idea, once the marvellous menagerie of monsters makes its appearance, that the genre could find revitalisation in the sheer variety and inventiveness of its ghosts and ghouls, which is an appropriately Whedon-esque suggestion, but dead wrong; unicorns and mermen are funny, not scary, and horror is not about monsters - at least, not always**. It simply never seems to occur to Cabin, a ‘horror movie’ in name only, too concerned with its own sophomore thesis to ever bother frightening us, that the true purpose of horror is to horrify; to merely be horrible, which is all that the crappy movies it’s spoofing are capable of doing, is a perversion of the genre and always has been.

It also happens to be, unfortunately, horror’s real 21st-century problem. Not character stereotypes, not a reliance on attractive young actors, boobies or reheated stories; these issues are non-universal and symptomatic of bad film-making as a whole. But there's a false perception, which has persisted even since before Halloween’s bravura first-person prologue sequence or Peeping Tom's camera shots were said to be ‘turning the audience into a killer’, and which Goddard has entirely bought into, that horror appeals through being horrible and not through horrifying, that it's a genre whose fans are despicable voyeurs who enjoy watching the terror and pain of the characters onscreen, rather than seeking to pleasurably, vicariously share the characters’ fear at a comfortable distance (occasionally, too, they’re looking for a series of inventive, squirm-in-your-seat ‘squick’ moments, as in the Saw or Final Destination series, but it’s utterly cartoonish stuff, appealing to a young demographic who tend to see the films in groups for kicks; the difference between the intent of these movies and, say, Faces Of Death is fairly clear, I think); therefore, audiences are sadists; therefore, audiences must have their sadism pointed out to them and be chided - sometimes, actively punished - for their sadism.

How many clearly intelligent film-makers have scratched their nails up against this dead-end in recent years, with a startling lack of self-consciousness? Michael Haneke, in the detestable Funny Games, spent 108 minutes informing his audience that it was their fault that people like him made films like Funny Games, and considered this such an important artistic statement that he had to shoot the awful bloody thing all over again in English. Haneke’s movies often show a directorial interest in sadism, violence, and humiliation; so long as he has something to say, we shouldn’t place value judgements against him for that, so why is it acceptable for him to openly blame us this time around for the nastiness he's, quite characteristically, chosen to film? I doubt that any of the (few) moviegoers who went to see Funny Games were rubbing their hands with horrid glee, delighted at the prospect of seeing a loving family being threatened and murdered; rather, I suspect they’ll have attended based on the promises of a ‘shocking’, ‘provocative’ film. And yet many of these same highly thoughtful viewers were all too happy to agree with Haneke’s browbeating; yes, they were complicit in these sickening events by observing them, and what a brilliant point that was! (‘a truly great film, an incisive, artistic triumph’, the hard-hitting critics at IGN proclaimed the remake) This isn’t audience sadism; it’s audience masochism.

Groundbreaking! A gamechanger!

And for every Funny Games, there’s twenty pieces of genuinely woeful dreck - The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Last House On The Left, I Spit On Your Grave - that justify an otherwise utterly pointless bit of wallowing in absolute nastiness by claiming to be pushing the boundaries of the levels of horror that audiences will find acceptable. They're punishing us for our collective desire to watch films in which people can be hurt and die by making films that are solely about people being hurt and dying in extreme and graphic detail. It’s a fallacy, a feeble pretence towards making extraordinary unpleasantness artistically respectable in its own right, without qualifiers, and a supreme abdication of directorial responsibility all in one, and yet their creators too often get away with it (Cannibal Holocaust and Hostel, to be fair to them, were canny enough to also mumble about imperialism and the international imposition of Western values to get the liberal crowd nodding in thoughtful agreement) because of the presumption that their movement towards pointless extremes must necessarily make them challenging or edgy.**

The uncrowned king of this pack of directors-armed-with-mirror-shields, incidentally, is Mr Robert Zombie. I’ve seen all of Rob’s films - but that’s misleading, since he’s only made one. The sum of the Zombie cinematic experience, whether his film revolves around a sadistic hillbilly Michael Myers or the sadistic hillbilly Firefly family, I feel is best explained through the following allegory. 

You duck into a bar one night that promises ‘entertainment’ of some kind. Onstage is a tall bearded man who proceeds to fuck a horse. It’s nasty, and prolonged, and the bearded man is clearly into the whole thing in a rather seedy and unpleasant way. Halfway through, the horse and the bearded man swap places, and an audience member declares to you that it’s absolutely brilliant how he’s managed to twist our sympathies around on themselves.

If I’ve slipped into delivering value judgements upon artists. that’s only what a rising crest of bile will do to you.

Groundbreaking! A gamechanger!

The absurdity, of course, is that despite these directors ranting on at us about the horror genre being driven by our basic human desire to see cruelties inflicted on others, the vast majority of sadistic horror films just don’t sell, despite arriving on tides of free publicity. The concept of a Human Centipede has entered our collective lexicon, entirely thanks to a thousand newspaper articles written by hacks who knew, just as Tom Six knows, that a shocking concept catches the eye; the movie itself made just $200,000 on its theatrical run. Compare that, once again, to the success of the stuffy, old-fashioned period ghost story that was The Others. Or The Sixth Sense, or 28 Days Later. The Descent, a limited release British horror, made $57 million worldwide. Even Let The Right One In managed $11 million, beating Elisha Cuthbert’s dire Captivity, which benefitted from extensive headlines and boycott-campaigns thanks to a ‘shocking’ US poster campaign. Everywhere you look, the enduring popularity of good, scary horror films, violent or non-violent, that base themselves around an honest humanistic sympathy for their heroes, stake through the heart this myth that modern horror is about our lust for the horrible. The problem is entirely in the perception of where modern horror is at, not the reality - a perception that’s driven by a cultural media that plays ethical watchdog, barking about horror having ‘gone too far this time!’ while gratefully colluding with these ‘torture-porn’ films by writing endless shocking headlines about them.

Interestingly, the Human Centipede sequel, in between its doses of attention-seeking ultra-violence, mocked its predecessor’s own absurd reception in the press by starring, tongue-in-cheek, a bulge-eyed, freakish ‘fan’ of the original film, unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality, who decides to make his own Centipede, even going to the lengths of kidnapping one of the actresses (Ashlynn Yennie, who surely needs to get more work. It should be pretty obvious by now that she isn’t a diva) to include her in his anatomical abomination. Personally, I think that joke would have been far funnier and far better if the director himself, Tom Six, had been picked to join the Centipede. But then I suspect, somehow, that Mr Six wouldn’t have been interested in doing that sort of thing.

Horror directors need to take personal responsibility for their own creations; more than that, they need to fall in love with actual fear again. This sustained movement to make monsters out of their own audience, then torch-and-pitchfork viewers with pointless, degrading unpleasantness in order to prove that point,  is far more virulent and dangerous than any amount of tired cliches about a cabin in the woods.

* Bizarrely, The Evil Dead, the film Cabin is most openly referencing, features a non-female, non-virginal, non-innocent hero who becomes increasingly, deliriously macho as the series goes on.

** Who was the monster in Suspiria, I wonder? Poor old Helena Markos, who does nothing but lie in bed and get stabbed with a peacock feather? The giallo-style serial killer who vanishes halfway through? The room filled with barbed wire? Something unseen in the sky? The seeing-eye dog?

*** This is not to argue, of course, in favour of puritanism. It’d certainly be possible to argue for hours about which indisputably ‘horrible’ films are interesting for reasons other than ‘oh, because it’s really, really horrible’. I’d suggest Tod Browning’s Freaks, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name a few.

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