The A.V. Club staff is full of horror movie buffs, but one film in particular has generated a lot of discussion over the past few years, just as it has in the horror community in general. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods was widely acclaimed upon its release for being a smart and immensely entertaining deconstruction of the genre, and its reputation has only improved since then (it came in number 11 on our list of the best horror of the 21st century). So staff writer Alex McCown was more than a little appalled to learn that assistant editor Becca James didn’t even consider the film to be deserving of the “horror” label. They decided to hash out what their disagreement really is—and it turned out to be a battle over what constitutes horror, humor, and the nature of scary movies themselves.
Alex McCown: Joss Whedon’s The Cabin In The Woods opened in 2012 after a lengthy legal limbo, earning glowing critical reviews and a middling box office. Among horror fans, it generated near-universal goodwill, not merely for obviously being a labor of love by two people (Whedon and writer-director Drew Goddard) with deep roots in the genre, but for intelligently deconstructing everything that makes horror films so great. It’s funny, scary, and clever in equal measure—a rare success among films that try for such a trifecta. Such was the film’s admiration among devotees of the horror world that no less an august presence than Wes Craven said, “It’s not the last horror movie but it may be the last horror film of this kind… It will challenge people to do something totally different.”
Which is why I was so shocked to hear my equally horror-loving co-worker Becca James express disdain for the film. Having seen it in the theater three times (and probably triple that number since it came out on Blu-ray), I felt that rare sense of possessive outrage that occurs whenever someone questions a work of art that has been elevated to the place of unquestionable greatness in your mind. But rather than challenge her to a duel, I thought it only fair to give her a chance to air her grievances about the film in an arena we’re both more suited to—namely, cowering behind the screens of our laptops. Because it turns out, Becca’s beef isn’t necessarily just with Goddard and Whedon’s film; it’s with the way in which the film has been received into the world, and how other films of its kind also don’t earn the descriptions applied to them. Becca, what’s your grudge? Knowing that it’s not The Grudge?
Becca James: I came to this film from a different direction than you, and I think that is a huge factor. First, although I’ve long been a fan of horror, I do not necessarily have favorites within the genre; if it is horror, I will watch it. So Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are not a factor for me. Furthermore, this has resulted in a lot of disappointment at the theater, and a longing to see a movie that could possibly be my favorite within my lifetime, because sure, I recognize that certain films rise above the rest, but those all came before my time. Second, I somehow missed this when it first came out, and in a panic, because of all of the hype, I rented it as soon as I could with the hopes that this film would be the film. Alas, I felt it tried to weave together about four disparate genres and didn’t pull off any. Or at least it didn’t do it any better than something like say Wes Craven’s subtler and still-scary Scream.
Instead, it got very close to Scary Movie territory for me, focusing almost solely on the humor and forgetting the horror. In the same way a magic trick loses its ability to amaze once the secret is revealed, The Cabin In The Woods lost its ability to be actual horror when it stripped away all suspense. So, go ahead and file this under some other genre and I’m fine with it; still largely disinterested, but fine. Especially when I can see numerous films that seriously pay homage to the genre, and even a few meta-horror films I would watch again—New Nightmare, Fright Night, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, and again, that entire Scream franchise.
So, Alex, why did this film, especially given how long you’ve been alive and able to view horror films in theaters, rise to the top for you?
AM: First of all, nice zinger calling me out for being a 97-year-old man who remembers seeing Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon in theaters as a child. But it sounds like there are two separate issues going on here, and I’d like to address each one in turn. First of all, you think the humor disqualifies it from being horror, and if it were labeled under some other genre, you wouldn’t have such a problem with it. This is a fair point, and worth debating. As Eli Roth mentioned in our recent interview with him, there’s a popular assumption that you can’t have comedy in a horror movie, but you can have humor. The difference is this: Humor is anything that might make us laugh, like someone not paying attention to where they’re going and walking into a door as a result. Comedy, by contrast, is jokes and set pieces intentionally crafted to make the audience laugh. To use your own examples: Scream has humor but not comedy, whereas Scary Movie is all comedy. (This essay by New Yorker cartoonist Bob Mankoff breaks it down nicely.)
And by that rationale, I still couldn’t disagree with you more. There are no “jokes” per se in The Cabin In The Woods. All of the humor flows from the well-established characters who have been put into this unbelievable situation. The movie doesn’t have any banana-peel-slip moments. The humor comes from watching believable people who refuse to play the roles expected of them by the architects within the film. (Hence, Fran Kranz’s stoner Marty ends up the hero rather than the cannon fodder.) It’s fine to disagree about whether we find certain lines funny, but there’s no comedy here preventing it from being a horror film. The movie is set up to generate scares. And if by the gonzo third act the scares have dissipated because the secrets have been revealed, how is that any different from the final act of most horror films, in which we’ve learned the nature of the threat, and it becomes either an action thriller or race against time to stop the bad thing from happening? (The Ring is a great example of this.)
Your second point is a bit thornier, as it speaks to our qualitative understanding of the film. It’s fine if you don’t like the movie—nobody should be faulted for their particular taste (unless their taste involves being a big supporter of, say, Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows). But your criticisms are telling. You say the movie falls into Scary Movie territory, despite having no “jokes” or breaking-the-fourth-wall, or even the suspensions of the film’s universe in which the Wayans Brothers’ films traffics. Similarly, you say it’s a mix of four genres and fails to do justice to any of them. What are these other genres? I’d say “horror” covers almost all the bases, unless you want to argue that having college kids star in a movie automatically makes it a “teen” film or something. But it’s not a romance, or sci-fi, or an action film, or a straight drama. What keeps it out of horror, when you yourself list those other meta-horror films above and don’t treat them half as harshly—or kick them out of their own genre, for that matter?
BJ: Okay, fair enough, apologies for being hyperbolic. But The Cabin In The Woods attempts to take horror, comedy (I’ll get to this in a bit), and yes, sci-fi—How else would you classify titan hands extending from Earth? —and cram them into one film in a way that’s too self-aware to work. It’s not winking; it’s assaulting. I count three genres there, and to get back to comedy, if you’re looking for a banana-peel-slip moment, I’ve got one for you: that unexpected honeycomb force field. What is that if not an attempt at an outright joke using a set piece intended to make the audience laugh? And that’s not the only instance. But even further, and more telling, is that The Cabin In The Woods harnesses this detached ironic sensibility, and it wants viewers in on the joke almost immediately, making it without a doubt a horror-comedy, not a horror film that happens to have humor, which yes, Eli Roth both explains and executes well, providing a solid example of the most successful way to marry the two genres.
Take Hostel, for example, which I didn’t mention before, but will mention now thanks to the lawless nature of our discussion—that film creates a dichotomy between terror and humor that triggers real fear and disgust because it’s grounded in reality, so not only is it disturbing, it’s disturbing to laugh at. Making it a “dark comedy” in the way that the terror comes from how the audience responds to the ridiculousness of the premise. The reality, though, is that The Cabin In The Woods hamstrings the horror and in turn the horror hamstrings the comedy. It panders, which is why I’m shocked so many horror fans got behind it, because it refuses to let the audience find the story inherently funny, as it’s too concerned with beating them over the head with how clever—the homage, the gotchas, the misdirects—it is, never trusting the audience, whereas the other films do. So what about this film to you is horror? Because it lacks the pieces needed to elicit any sort of negative reaction from the audience based on primal fears. So, please, instead of arguing the fine line between comedy and humor, get down to it and let me know why this is horror.
AM: Becca, I agree with your example of Eli Roth almost as much as I disagree with your arguments about Cabin’s comedy. But let me answer your question: What makes this a horror movie? Presumably, what you’re really asking is: Don’t I find the scares to be evaporated by the fact that there’s a shadowy agency manipulating everything that happens to our poor college kids? Because if you remove the corporate cabal represented by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins’ tech nerds, it’s a fairly straightforward horror movie. What makes the film brilliant, and the reason for all the critical acclaim, is the way in which this mysterious company creates an investigation into the very idea of horror. Why we watch it and what value it has become harnessed to a ridiculous and fun intra-film premise about preventing ancient gods from rising to destroy the universe. (Ah, yes, ancient giant gods: the backbone of any “science fiction.”) For you, apparently, having this added layer of reality—a second screen in between our home screens and the events at the cabin, so to speak—negates the scares.
On this, we simply have to disagree. There are multiple scares in the film’s first two acts, none of which are lessened by the knowledge that there are people controlling these events. Having the zombie corpse of a young girl darting in and out of our field of vision while Marty stares up at the sky is just as tension-raising as if it were happening with none of the below-ground setup. That knife that gets driven into Jules’ hand wouldn’t be any more shocking if we didn’t suspect it were coming—in fact, it would be less so. And watching a Buckner dragging Marty through the woods, his terrified cries for help echoing on the speakers, doesn’t become any less grisly or upsetting for having it orchestrated by all-too-human adversaries. If anything, this adds a layer of creepiness to the proceedings. Watching everyday corporate drones dismiss the real cost of their violence provides an unsettling backdrop to the discussions of whether it’s all worth it. I agree that it’s not the scariest film ever, but then, neither is Psycho. A horror film’s primary job is to deliver scares, but the best ones are full of themes and ideas that linger on long after you’ve stopped clutching the armrests. (There’s a reason this year’s It Follows is getting so much attention, and it’s not just because it has a couple of scary scenes.)
Honestly, it sounds like you just don’t like the damn movie, and on that count, we’re probably never going to agree. But can we find a middle ground here? If I agree that it’s not exactly The Exorcist in terms of scares, can you admit that structurally and content-wise, there’s nothing preventing it from being classified as horror?
BJ: I’ll go to my grave before I admit anything, and then, I will return without the help of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins to show you what horror really is.