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Critical Consensus: Joshua Rothkopf and Jason Zinoman on 'Cabin in the Woods' and Modern Horror

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 18, 2012 at 12:06PM

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," discuss "The Cabin in the Woods."
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The original "Scream."
The original "Scream."

JR: You're absolutely right about "Scream" being scarier -- it may come down to the director being a counterbalance to the writing. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are so in love with their own cleverness, it drowns out the visceral nature of horror. (The hubris of their SXSW comment is laughable.) Meanwhile, Wes Craven had his feet firmly planted in the gore pool after years of being offensive. He has more technique; this is an unforgiving genre that succeeds or fails on it.

JZ: Josh’s point about the director being the counterbalance is spot-on and insightful. This movie, to me, represents a moment when we can no longer analyze horror movies merely by looking at other movies. There is a television aesthetic at work here with its own distinct traditions. In TV, the director is less often the auteur.
 
But I also want to give a stab at the meta-comment, but to explain my theory, I will have to deliver spoilers, so please stop reading now if you care. You gone? Good. This movie imagines a world of evil ancient ones (Lovecraft, ahem) who the human world placate by offering up ritual sacrifice in the form of horror movie-style killings. A world of white-collar types orchestrating scenarios where real kids get killed by zombies, serial killers, etc. Most of the movie suggests these middle managers are a metaphor for audiences desensitized to violence or cynical executives pandering to said audiences. The metaphor shifts, however, once we learn about the Ancient Ones, because once this system of keeping the giant, incomprehensible evil at bay breaks down, we learn that the violence unleashed by these mostly unseen monsters is far worse.
 

"Maybe, when we sit down to see yet another serial killer chopping up kids, we are doing a small amount of psychological or moral harm. Hey horror fans: Are you scared yet?" --Jason Zinoman


I see this as a metaphor for the old explanation of why horror films are good for us, known to some as the catharsis theory. In short: Watching horror movies gives us a relatively safe outlet for latent violent tendencies. Which is to say: Sure, horror movies might desensitize us to violence, but that's better than the alternative, which is to unleash our barbaric side. This is a major theme of many horror movies and you can hear directors give versions of it when they are asked to defend why they make these disgusting films. It's not terribly original. And while I think there is some truth in it, I also think we like horror movies for reasons that have nothing to do with catharsis and that maybe, just maybe, the pleasure we get from them is not good for us at all. Maybe, when we sit down to see yet another serial killer chopping up kids, we are doing a small amount of psychological or moral harm. Hey, horror fans: Are you scared yet?

As Jason points out, "Cabin" contains many references to earlier horror films. A question for both of you: How essential is it that viewers know these films to appreciate the movie's overall effect? Is this movie even accessible to viewers who know next to nothing about the genre?

Jason, you got ahead of me citing your book, which is absolutely relevant to our discussion here. One of the reasons it's such an engaging read is that you focus on a terrific set of characters -- Carpenter, Craven, etc. -- whose approach to the genre was nothing short of visionary. Their means of using truly cinematic techniques to generate shock, surprise, fear and other visceral reactions, usually with microscopic budgets, speaks to a kind of commitment that's hard to pinpoint in more recent work. Josh cites "torture porn" as the most significant tradition in recent horror. By and large, those films were (or are? Is torture porn still an active genre?) inspired by earlier horror films, as is "Cabin" -- albeit in different ways. Another question for both of you: Is this a genre doomed to repeat itself? Or can you pinpoint some top-notch horror directors working today (not exclusively in the U.S.) who point the way to a brighter (so to speak) future?

JR: Jason, you nail Cabin's somewhat tame essence with some of your adjectives, especially "middle managers." In speaking to genre fans, the movie paints its audience -- unflatteringly? -- as a bunch of know-it-all button pushers who barely comprehend the beasts they unleash. If, as you suggest, that's part of the movie's metaphor, then it's a corollary to what I'd call the deeper function of horror, which is to scare people shitless. And, as you point out, that's not entirely wholesome a vein of entertainment (nor should it be).

"Halloween."
"Halloween."


Whenever we put on our "he's-making-a-reference" hat, we're taken out of a movie. Even the masters of the 1970s were making references, but of a more oblique nature: Audiences could watch "Alien" and recall, wistfully, "I remember when Veronica Cartwright was just a little girl being terrorized in "The Birds." Ditto with John Carpenter's "Halloween," which casts the daughter of a former scream queen.

Crucially, though, in both of those examples, the casting didn't get in the way of the thrills. Now, when the essence of the script is referential, it's hard to imagine an audience member having the time to put their brain aside and simply *be* scared. (For me, the scariest, most suggestive moment in "Cabin" is that sultry dance in front of the wolf's head -- mainly because it has time to play out.)

Still, that's not to say an audience won't have fun with it. Eric, as to your question about accessibility, I can't imagine an audience member who can't get some pleasure out of "Cabin" or "Scream;" even novice viewers understand the rhythms of suspense. I don't know how they do; it's biologically ingrained. And Whedon is no dummy; he's produced something very enjoyable (albeit, not scary), even for non-experts.

Horror is always about recycling; always has been, always will be. It's when an audience chooses to invest a movie, subliminally, with its own anxieties that a staple emerges. Torture porn, to my eyes, was a popular Bush-era phenomenon, with proximity to Abu Ghraib and bellicose "morality."

"Horror is always about recycling; always has been, always will be." --JR


I'm loathe to pinpoint referencing as the death of horror, especially since two of my favorite thrillers of recent years -- Ti West's "The House of the Devil" and Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's "Amer" -- are deeply indebted to the past. (The former nods to '80s babysitter slashers; the latter, to Italian giallos.) These films remember to work on their own terms, and not be too self-congratulatory.

The opposite side of the same coin: It bummed me out when, after years of being identified with the massively popular (and influential) "Saw" movies, James Wan only got critical love when he made a truly generic and boring haunted-house movie, "Insidious," one that allowed snobby critics to say, "Finally, he's playing nice."

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, The Cabin in The Woods, Joss Whedon, Joshua Rothkopf, Jason Zinoman, Horror