What if ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Had Certain Licenses? Would that Make the Movie More Enjoyable?
Enough time has passed since the release of The Cabin in the Woods that you’ve either seen it or you’re not going to see it for at least a few months when it comes out on disc, especially now that the summer movie season has officially started with the release of “Cabin” co-writer, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Due to that, I figure it’s okay to talk a little bit about the third act of the meta-horror film and what was the main focus of the lock-and-key secrecy surrounding the film in the months leading to the its release. If you’re reading this and haven’t seen the film and want to be kept fresh, turn away now. Click on another Joss Whedon-related post. Above all, don’t cry over spoiled film.
The Cabin in the Woods is built around the idea that the horror films we see (but are truly happening in the world of this film) are created and controlled by a higher power. Not as in God, but that there are directors and a crew pulling the strings behind the twists and turns and nightmare-inducing images depicted in the various types of horror movies we watch. The Americans dominate the Cabin-in-the-Woods subgenre that we see in the likes of Friday the 13th or Cabin Fever, where sexually-active teens need to be offed and virgins survive to tell the tale. Japan terrorizes their victims with images of ghosts and hauntings. If either polemic part of the Earth had a film industry, it’s safe to bet it would involve killer snowmen.
In the final portion of the film, the characters become aware of their constructed situation and invade the powers that be in attempt to put a stop to their imminently gruesome demise. They take a ride on an upwards/downwards, forwards/backwards and sideways-moving elevator that you might have first seen in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The difference is this one doesn’t take you past different rooms full of candy, but prison-like cells occupied by the all the horror creations that have starred in the decades of film we’ve consumed in our lives. These aren’t specific characters like Michael Myers or Godzilla or Dracula, but rather familiar tropes. There’s a madman wielding a knife, a destructive monster and a vampire. It could be Edward Cullen or it could be Lestat. Either way, he comes to suck your blood. If writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard had the ability to use specific characters from our movie-going past, would it have made the film any more enjoyable?
I go back and forth about how I feel toward movies winking at the audience. Knowingly making a reference to something the film presumes will be inherently understood by its viewers can sometimes work to enhance the experience or it can yank you out of the story in one rug-pulling jolt.
The 2011 Simon Pegg/Nick Frost-starring alien roadtrip flick, Paul had specific cues galore, adding to its laugh-value at each point. A Star Wars cantina song here, a Back to the Future quote there. These “jokes” aren’t available to anybody without prior knowledge of those films and certainly anybody in that situation was left wondering what in the world the rest of the theater was laughing at. “They walked into a bar. That’s only a setup to a joke. It’s about as funny as someone going to the bathroom. Actually, that’s always funny, especially if they’re taking a crap.” However, to anyone already versed in those cinematic pieces, “this Bud’s for you.”
Contrast Paul with the inimitable (this word being used in connection with this film, the same way the word “bad” used to mean “good”) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, whose constant references feel like a bevy of living-in-the-past, nostalgic recollections. As much as I’ll always revere Frank Darabont for birthing my favorite film in The Shawshank Redemption, he “confessed” (with pride, in this clip: http://youtu.be/8dakdQP6DTU) to writing the line, “It’s not the mileage, sweetheart, it’s the years,” an inverse of the “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” line from The Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s an instant groaner and forces me to think back to the far superior initial film in the series, while suffering through a two-hour cobbled bore of its “highlights.”
Apart from winking references designed to satiate a portion of the viewership, the transposable villains in The Cabin in the Woods can be viewed through the lens of specificity. The battle between generic versus brand-name.
In the film, there is a Hellraiser, Pinhead-esque character, which instead of pins, has circular razors protruding from his visage. It’s completely understood that there was no earthly way or financially feasible possibility that Clive Barker, along with every other copywrite-holder of the specific horror inventions these tropes were meant to emulate, would ever be cleared to appear in the same film, but let’s pretend it was possible.
You go to a drugstore and you have the choice of generic or brand-name medicine. Pepto Bismol or Tussin DM. The product contained within the bottle is the same. The only difference is the name on the label. However, there’s undoubtedly a price differential in these products. The generic one is cheaper than the brand-name. Some people purchase the generic one, being comfortable enough without the name recognition. They’d certainly be saving money if they did. But it can’t possibly be everyone making this choice. Otherwise, the brand-name product would cease to exist. Some people just feel more comfortable using the products whose name they recognize, which is due to the money those companies spend on advertising. You’re getting the same thing and even feeling the same amount of relief after taking the product, but spending more of your hard-earned money on the thing you recognize.
I’m wearing a knockoff wristwatch as I type this article. My brother and I have been obsessed with the Bell & Ross Military-style watch that was released a few years ago. It’s a thing of beauty that costs in the neighborhood of $3,500. I happened to find a replica for $20 at a Sears store. The one difference between the two, outside of price or the name embedded in the dial, is this one runs on a battery and the real one is an automatic (winded) watch. The watch on my wrist isn’t worth $3,500. There was nowhere near the level of craftsmanship and care put into this one as the authentic one, but the look is what attracted me to it in the first place and the look has been achieved at a far shallower price.
I’m not necessarily the happy-with-a-knock-off guy, though. If I’m wearing a jersey of my favorite sports team, I want the name and numbers to be sewn on, not in the style of paint-on-mesh. Why? They look pretty similar. It’s not like I’m unable to feel I’m supporting my team or my favorite player because their name can be scratched off instead of torn off. I don’t have an answer. It just feels right that way.
The best filmic example in the generic versus brand-name debate that comes to mind is in the depiction of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Cartoon characters are actors in animated films the way humans are actors in live-action. Roger, Baby Herman, Jessica, the weasels, none of these characters existed outside of the world of that specific film. But the story takes place in a town full of animated characters. The filmmakers could very well have created every single character in the movie, but in order to lend an extra authenticity to their story – somehow turning a world of cartoons living amongst real humans believable – they used pre-existing characters the audience was readily familiar with. Of course, the film not only ushered one world of animated characters into it, but allowed both Walt Disney and Warner Brothers creations to share the same frame. The film is certainly noteworthy because of this, but does it add extra credence to the film because it was inhabited by characters we could already recognize? Would the film have been just as effective had all toon characters been unique to the film?
Perhaps it doesn’t come down to whether you’re a brand-name or generic person. Perhaps it comes down to how you see those characters in the context of the film. Do you feel they exist to represent types of characters as opposed to the characters themselves or do you view them as generic wannabe imposters of the characters you know and love? I know if I was a kid and wanted an Indiana Jones action figure and ended up with an Illinois Jacobs, I’d feel ripped off. However, I think The Cabin in the Woods is representing tropes all around. Chris Hemsworth’s jock character isn’t meant to represent Loris Sallahian from Sleepaway Camp, he’s meant to represent every jock from films of that ilk. Our trope protagonists go hand-in-hand with our trope villains. But, just because one set of characters are generalizations doesn’t mean they couldn’t be mixed with a set of characters that are specific.
I realize that if my conclusion is “no, the film would not have been enhanced,” then you’d wonder what the hell the point of writing/reading this was. And if my answer is “yes,” I better have same damn fine reasons as to why, though knowing this merging of copywritten characters was never possible anyway, why even pretend? For those diametrically opposed reasons, there is no conclusion. I know this is maddening. I hate it when documentaries focusing on issues never present any solutions as to how to deal with them. Underlining things doesn’t automatically provide answers. They’re meant to provoke thought. And just because I don’t necessarily have the answer doesn’t mean you don’t. Share with me, won’t you?