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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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Cabin In the Woods, Kristen Connolly,

JZ: I am worried that in debating someone whose basic approach to horror I agree with is going to push me into disliking this movie more than I did. But I will resist! "Halloween" was indeed an incredibly self-aware movie with references to "Psycho," "The Thing" and, most persistently, itself. So it’s a little odd that movies like "Scream" and "Cabin" get so much credit for introducing meta into horror. They didn’t. And horror always recycles, but the trick is to find moments of freshness within the cliches. In fact, the clichés can be critical in setting you up for the small refinements. That’s why I thought the opening to "Cabin" was great. The marketing campaign did not prepare you for this scene of office drones making small talk. It’s in the horror tradition of ordinary, almost mundane scene-setting (see "Alien"’s blue collar banter) but with a twist.
 
Josh’s broader point about the importance of putting your brain aside is important -- and I suspect it’s part of the reason that the wolf dance appeals. Titillating sexuality has a way of shortening ironic distance. I wonder if the movie would benefit from being thought of less as a horror movie, and more as a comedy about horror. There’s always been a fine line between the two, of course, and this movie, it seems to me, tries to walk it like a tightrope.

Also, random tangent, I'm curious what Josh thinks of the term "torture porn" now. It so often seems to be used these days merely as an insult.

JR: Jason and I agree on so much about horror (I tore through his book breathlessly), that there's a danger of us skewing in combined momentum. But he's peg on: Even the so-called inventiveness of "Cabin" has its precedent and is, in itself, a nod to the complex engagement we always have with the genre, one that, at root, asks us to bring our own fears to the table, a form of referencing.

I use the term torture porn (coined in this 2006 essay by David Edelstein) begrudgingly. It's a phrase that works -- one that everybody knows. But it also connotes a pinkie-to-the-mouth snobbishness that I find reductive (and, as it happens, insulting to porn). If audiences want to watch torture, that impulse should be examined a little more thoroughly.

When the book is finally written on the last decade's expressions of fear (and there was plenty to go around), half of the chapters should be devoted to high-art triumphs like "Mulholland Drive" and half should be devoted to the insanely popular franchises like "Saw" and "Final Destination:" evolutions of the genre for good and ill.

"I am surprised that more horror directors don't try to create a new Freddy or Pinhead. Those movies made a lot of money!" --Jason Zinoman

JZ: The horror director's ritual explanation that they set out to make something that wasn't "torture porn" has become its own tedious cliche. As we already mentioned, "Cabin" is in the tradition of '90s horror like "Scream" (and "Buffy") and is versed in '70s horror, but it also seems, to me, to display a love of the splatter horror of the '80s that had a very different relationship to violence than torture porn. "Cabin" is very bloody but it wants to be fun, cartoonish horror, the kind that one-named killers inflicted in sequels throughout the Reagan-era. I am surprised that more horror directors don't try to create a new Freddy or Pinhead. Those movies made a lot of money!

This raises another issue I think we should discuss. The horror genre is often viewed by studios as a major money generator. But serious horror fandom is a fairly marginalized strain of cinephilia, at least from my perspective -- you're more likely to find Bergman and Godard junkies at the arthouse than dedicated fans of Bava or Carpenter. How do you account for this disconnect? Why is it that horror movies are profitable but rarely get serious respect from critics? Am I missing the point here?

JR: You're not missing the point at all. Because it is so popular, horror often accrues skepticism from the critical world: How can it be complex or significant if any ordinary joe can appreciate it? Thankfully, that perspective is becoming as outmoded as the converse: "It's a foreign film, so it must be good." No form of cinephilia should be exclusionary.

Serious horror fans are used to making these defenses (to editors, parents, spouses, etc.). I think the genre inculcates a kind of fierce intellect among its marginalized defenders; it might actually make for better thinkers than other types of fandom.

When a movie -- and a discussion -- like "Cabin" comes along, it's always a good thing. Actually, the more popular a movie is (commercially speaking), the more cultural significance it can be said to contain. To wit: "The Hunger Games," by bringing serious ideas of dystopian exploitation to a huge young adult audience, is more significant than "Battle Royale" (even though that came first).

JZ: For the sake of dramatic conflict, I am going to respectively disagree: You are missing the point. There was a time when the problem with the way the media covered horror was that the movies were afforded too little respect. Today there are as many horror junkies as there Godard junkies, maybe more. Some of them even work in movie studios. If anything, the problem now is that horror gets too much respect. Movies get overhyped. And to a large degree, "Cabin" is evidence of the ascendent horror fanboy. That guy, or more frequently these days, that girl, is the target audience. That's a good thing, but the risk, one that Josh outlined here more forcefully I think than me, is that the genre gets too knowing, insidery, self-referential. I think that "Cabin" aims for the horror fan, then hopes to reach the crossover audience. I think it will be a giant hit among the first group. I am not so sure about the second.

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





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