By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 18, 2012 at 12:06PM
Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, we turn to Joshua Rothkopf, the Senior Film Writer for Time Out New York and current chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, and Jason Zinoman, a contributor to The New York Times and author of the recent "Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror." The duo tackles "The Cabin in the Woods," which opened last weekend, as well as the general state of contemporary horror movies.
"The Cabin in the Woods" is a movie with a lot of mysteries, although at least now we can assume more people have figured them out since it opened last Friday. Nevertheless, I leave it up to the two of you to discuss "Cabin" however you see fit -- spoilers, in this case, are both an asset and a hindrance, although as Matt Singer pointed out in Criticwire last week, most of the critics who spoiled the biggest secrets in "Cabin" are the ones who hate it.
Maybe the best way to talk about "Cabin" is by simply defining it: What the hell is this movie? Josh, in your review for Time Out, you called it "a pendulum swing back to the sarcastic vein of 'Scream.'" However, while "Scream" wryly interrogated horror movie conventions, it also legitimately was one: People died in rather conventional slasher-movie fashion. The narrative trickery in "Cabin" generates plenty of intrigue about what's actually going on, but is it actually scary? Can we actually consider "Cabin" as a bonafide horror movie or is it merely a commentary on the genre?
JOSH ROTHKOPF: You raise a good question: Is "The Cabin in the Woods" scary enough to be considered, first and foremost, horror? To my eyes, we're talking about a newer, sleeker form of metacomedy, very much in the "Scream" mode. In screenwriter Kevin Williamson's moment (massively influenced by Quentin Tarantino), that meant a bunch of teens sitting around and gabbing about the "rules." To Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, it means a more comfortable effects budget, one that allows the jokes to be digitally rendered.
In both movies, however, there's an expressed interest in pleasing the gods of horror (as it were), so as to achieve a formal satisfaction. That kind of looking-under-the-hood anxiety is simply not as scary as a movie that owns its scenario and fills it with feeling, i.e.: Those cannibals in the woods are seriously going to eat you.
And what is the metacomment, ultimately, of "Cabin"? Taking a stab and speaking obliquely (so as not to spoil), it's that we must offer up our lives so as to keep evil at bay. That's sort of a lame, pointy-headed premise compared to "An evil, unstoppable shape is going to kill you and the children you're babysitting." To raise a pet conviction of mine, the so-called torture porn of the last decade is more direct -- and perhaps more significant and socially revealing -- than snark horror.
Jason, you wrote a four-part series for Slate last year entitled "How to Fix Horror." Does "Cabin" address any of the issues you discussed? During the Q&A at the SXSW Film Festival world premiere, one audience member asked Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard if they intended to make "the last horror movie ever," to which Whedon replied: "It’s not the last horror movie but it may be the last horror film of this kind." Do you think he's justified in that assertion?
JASON ZINOMAN: For a discussion of the most self-aware horror movie released in a while, it seems apt and also very annoying (confessing this does not make it less so, by the way) to quote myself from my book "Shock Value": "The good horror movies make you think; the great ones make you stop." "Cabin in the Woods" is a good horror movie. Maybe a really good one. I agree with Josh that it's in the vein of "Scream," and in some ways, it's more clever in how it comments on the genre. "Scream" puts most of the analysis in the mouths of kids slightly more articulate than they should be, but "Cabin in the Woods" builds an entire structural conceit that does the meta work far more elegantly. At the same time, there isn't a scene as scary in this movie as the first one in "Scream." Not even close. As many have pointed out, there is a tension between the alienating meta comic intent and the scares. The scares lose.
I find conversations about whether something is or is not horror sort of pointless, because the genre is so huge now (Is "Twilight" horror? Like it or not, some people think so). I do think this movie has a strong point of view about what horror is, however, and it's no accident that the vast majority of the references come from the golden age starting with "Night of the Living Dead." You can spend the entire movie spotting them, as many including I'm sure Josh and myself did. Some of its ideas about horror are really interesting and relatively fresh, others less so, although to explore that we will have to give spoilers. To tiptoe around that problem for now, I think it's very savvy about the old debate between showing the monster and keeping it hidden -- the last line, which leads to a shot that nods to "Carrie," makes that clear. And the heart of the big trick of the movie is rooted in HP Lovecraft.
What I liked most about "Cabin" is it's essentially a movie of ideas, but it hides this very well. It does not seem heavy-handed or intellectual. And it understands the exploitation side (toplessness! bloody unicorn!) of the genre far too much to come off as respectable, which was one of the complaints in my Slate series. And yet, I'm not sure it ever made me forget myself like the best horror movie do. I suspect it will be fun to talk about, but at the end of the day, it's a triumph or craft, not art. Which is more than enough for me. And, oh yeah, will it be the last horror of its kind? Of course not. This is the genre where the dead always return.