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

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

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.
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.
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).

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.”

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.”
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.

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.
JR: At the risk of agreeing with Jason yet again, let me add that the deeper problem the horror genre now faces is being too reverential to the classics. Too often, I see new movies that are expressly conceived for (and targeted to) the midnight Austin crowd. They have a shocking gore moment or two, several knowing asides and a smidgen of nudity to earn a (respected) R rating. These movies are, by and large, forgettable.

I often wonder if today’s critics would be able to recognize a new “Alien” or “Rosemary’s Baby,” something truly groundbreaking (and by the way, those movies got mixed reviews). The good news is that audiences are often able to recognize something valid *before* critics do — especially in the case of horror, which works on a visceral level. (It should also be noted that those two movies were studio-made, not indies; it’s far from a given that the best entries will come from the fringe.)

JZ: And you see this same issue — being too reverential to the classics — in remakes which far too often are tentative, seemingly nervous about angering the fanbase. I saw an interview with the director of the “Straw Dogs” remake where he tried to reassure the fans that the new movie would be just as hardcore and shocking as the original. And I wondered: Is that possible considering change of context? And if so, is it desirable? But I also think that the culture more generally is increasingly fragmented and that’s reflected in the genre, which seems to cater more to niche tastes. That can be a good and a bad thing.

JR: My mind just exploded: “Cabin,” in a weird way, is itself a remake — not of a specific film, but of the videogeek’s revenge, in which every scenario is already whiteboarded, literally. (I did like the film when I watched it, but the more I discuss it, the more it’s unraveling for me.)

Jason’s point about the general fragmentation of culture contributing to a rash of niche-oriented horror films is almost certainly accurate in regards to low-budget horror films. But even those niches are familiar. Do we want to keep horror formula locked in a box (or a cabin), forced to imitate the same ideas indefinitely? That’s one of the issues that irked me about “Cabin in the Woods,” even though I enjoyed it a lot — it celebrates formula rather than innovation, even though it is itself rather uniquely formulated. And the celebration of formula, at least to me, implies a preference for repetition, which is not so good. Setting aside the point Josh made about the self-referential qualities of “Cabin,” is there a separate issue about imitation that we should address here? Or do we want horror films to satisfy our expectations rather than create new ones?

JZ: Interesting. How much of the pleasure of horror comes from ritual and repetition is a fascinating question. I think only a true old-school snob could deny that it’s part of the reason the genre is popular. You can’t argue with the startling success of remakes, sequels, not to mention that doomed coed who insists on going inside that scary house yet again. And I agree that “Cabin in the Woods” does celebrate the ritual of horror, and suggests there’s something ancient and primal about it. This also relates to a larger issue in the movie about free will. There’s that conversation where the middle manager insist that while the scenes they orchestrate are highly manipulated, the characters ultimately make the crucial choices. And in that moment, I think you see the refinement in the movie’s point of view: Horror, it argues, is rooted in repetition, but within its constraints, there is the possibility of innovation, spontaneity, flashes of freshness.
But does this movie accomplish that? I think we agree it’s not a game-changing work like “Alien” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but if one was to make an argument for its innovation, I think it would rest in the satirical world of the middle managers. They are often genuinely funny. The tone is unexpected. For much of the movie, their language is effectively oblique enough to keep up the suspense, although some critics think the trick was obvious from the beginning. Still, in the context of horror movies about teenagers in the woods, we don’t see these characters often. And the fact that the puppet-masters are not some evil mastermind like in “Saw,” but rather pathetic, white collar types as seemingly bland and disposable as the teenagers themselves is, I think, an interesting new idea. So to answer your question more directly, I hope horror satisfies expectations but also surprises. And this film did that for me, but only in small way.
JR: I’ll go you one further and suggest that innovation can be overrated. An expert’s repetition of a tried-and-true formula can be deeply satisfying (see the collected albums of AC/DC). The thing that bones me the most about “Cabin” is its lack of follow-through: It’s so clever about pointing out the clichés of horror — and deploys its wit via some terrific comic acting — that when the movie finally gets around to mounting a climax, it has accidentally neutered itself. If all the rules no longer apply, then why don’t any of these characters persuasively feel fear? Even the middle managers are snarky during their own death scenes. It’s as if the movie is “too cool” to be a horror film.

Horror, though, sometimes has a way of working despite the knowing wink of its makers. Some of the most significant remakes in cinema happen to be of horror films: Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring.” Honestly, I don’t think these remakes succeed because they’re smartened up by superior directors slyly hitting the expected notes of a knowing audience. They succeed because they are observant of the technical beats that serve the material. You can’t really fake the funk. Horror is a craftsman’s genre (not a TV director’s).

JZ: I never thought I would be sticking up for comic meta-horror, but here goes: I think you are asking the movie to be something it doesn’t want or aim to be. It’s alienating and snarky throughout, and in terms of artistic intentions, it doesn’t want to sacrifice this style in order to become the kind of intense horror film that you and I like best. It’s horror-comedy, maybe even just comedy. Now you might not like that genre, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the decision to go for silly, winking, grand guignol gore at the end is simply that they were trying to be cool. It’s perfectly consistent with the rest of the movie. If the characters reacted the way those did at the end of “High Tension,” it would be stylistically jarring. I believe “Cabin in the Woods” knows exactly what it wants to be. I also found the last act somewhat of a let-down, because the chaos of the violence didn’t seem particularly clever or well shot. I wanted a young Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi to take over for the finale.

JR: I think it comes down to the different flavors of horror-comedy: I like mine on the rare side. Jason, you’re absolutely right that a plunge into “High Tension” territory would be wrong, yet the Looney Tunes aesthetic could have been wrought with more flair. (And why *don’t* we see that apocalypse everyone’s afraid of?) Notice how there are no complaints when the movie is “Shaun of the Dead,” essentially a chatty Britcom yet zombierific enough to satisfy on horror grounds. As Jason already knows, one of my favorite movies is “Creepshow,” which not only casts Leslie Nielsen in a witty EC Comics homage, but traumatizes viewers of the right age. (Roaches!)

Maybe we should close this conversation by providing some alternatives. Since neither of you seem poised to put “Cabin in the Woods” on your top ten list by the end of the year, what do you consider to be some of the better horror films released in recent weeks or months? What are you eagerly anticipating?

JR: I’m loving the way Hollywood is rising to the occasion of some big-ticket horror that’s on the horizon. Which “Prometheus” trailer do I prefer? All of them. Paramount’s “World War Z” was nearly a prestige December release, until the studio decided to play it for next summer. And hope springs eternal for “Piranha 3DD” (you think I’m kidding, but the first one was trashy fun and beyond gross).

JZ: Yes to trashy fun! That last “Piranha,” directed by the virtuoso behind “High Tension” in a wildly different style, had one of the greatest bloodbath scenes ever. The “Cabin the Woods” filmmakers could have shot an apocalypse with the same success (even if they wanted to, which I don’t think they did; the ancient ones are best left to the imagination).
For true visual panache, horror fans will probably have to wait another year for the next Guillermo Del Toro film “Pacific Rim.” No one designs more original monsters in the genre today. I am also excited about “Prometheus” and haven’t seen a better roll-out to a movie in a long time. There isn’t much horror at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, but the film that looks most promising appears, coincidentally enough, to be a cabin in the woods movie that doesn’t wink at the audience. Check out the trailer for “Resolution.” Then again, there is that talk of storytelling and beginning, middle and ends. Maybe there’s no escape.


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