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marvel-ultron

First of all go read this from comics alliance

http://comicsbeat.com/thought-bubble-expands-to-third-hall-due-to-immense-exhibitor-demand/

So the next Avengers film, contrary to what we all expected, is going to be about Ultron.

Now, I have some opinions about this and they’re unfortunately not all positive ones.

Firstly in many respects I understand the desire to use Ultron in an Avengers film. For being the premier Marvel super-hero team the Avengers don’t actually have many villains of their own. When you think of the most famous Avengers stories the villains used in them are primarily from another corner of the Marvel Universe. Doctor Doom? Fantastic Four villain. Magneto? X-Men villain. Red Skull and Baron Zemo? Captain America villains. Thanos? More of a cosmic character likely to encounter Captain Marvel, Adam Warlock or Silver Surfer. Even Loki, the villain in the first Avengers film is mainly a Thor villain.

For the guys who are Avengers villains first and foremost you don’t really have many. Kang the Conqueror is probably the most prominent, a time travelling conqueror who wants to take over the past having subjugated the future, but using him means doing a time travel story which is always a narrative headache. Graviton? Molecular Man? The Hood? They’re basically pathetic schlubs who luck into amazing power, good for a fight scene but not for driving a narrative. The Masters of Evil? Well they’re a kind of evil Avengers which can work but they usually need a guiding force and that’s normally Zemo or another Captain America villain. And then you have Ultron.

Ultron is nice and conceptually simple. He’s an evil robot that wants to kill everyone. That’s pretty easy to build a narrative around. In addition not only is he physically powerful enough to go toe to toe with Thor in a punch up he’s also smart and able to do things like upload his consciousness into computer systems. So he provides a conceptually clear threat to our heroes and can engage them as a threat on multiple levels.

So it makes perfect sense why they want to use him and I agree that he’d be a great choice for an Avenger’s move villain.

So why don’t I think using Ultron is a good idea?

Well to answer that you need to know a lot more about the history of Ultron, so allow me to explain.

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In the comics Ultron was created by an Avenger, Ant-Man (real name Henry Pym). He was created waaaaay back in Avengers #54 in the 60’s. The original version was developed using Pym’s own brainwave patterns and shortly after his creation he immediately developed an Oedipus complex that caused him to want to kill his “father” (Pym) and marry his “mother” (Pym’s wife Janet Van Dyne also known as the super-hero The Wasp). Unfortunately for him as he was originally built by Pym Ultron was basically a face on wheels and not capable of accomplishing either of these tasks. So he hypnotised Pym (look it was the 60’s the moment you decided to become a super-villain you gained the ability to hypnotise people, they gave it out with the purple cape) into forgetting that he had ever created Ultron and set about building himself a stronger body.

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Once he had a sufficiently tough body Ultron set about trying to accomplish his three main goals of killing his dad, shtupping his mum and taking over the world. And of course the Avengers stopped him only for him to return again and again.

There would be many changes and developments for Ultron as an individual over the years, most significantly replacing his original body with a new one made of the indestructible  metal Adamantium, however his main contribution to Avengers lore has been his creation of various other robots, many of which would go on to become Avengers in their own right.

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The most prominent of these would be The Vision, a “synthezoid” with the ability to alter his density to become intangible or rock solid, fly and shoot lasers from his eyes and also possessed of the soul of a poet. The Vision was built to infiltrate and betray the Avengers from within but rebelled against his programming and went on to become one of the most long standing and respected Avengers in his own right.

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He even went on to marry another long standing Avenger The Scarlet Witch. Oh and his brain patterns were based on yet another Avenger, Wonder Man, effectively making them brothers of a sort (and they had a love triangle with the Scarlet Witch).

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He also created Jocasta (a copy of his “mother” Janet Van Dyne that he wanted to marry, which is all kinds of squicky) Alkhema (a villain but with a brain based on yet another Avenger Mockingbird) and Victor La Mancha (a robot disguised as a teenage boy with electromagnetic powers that was again designed to infiltrate the Avengers and betray them but ended up joining the Runaways and is now a member of Avengers A.I.).

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It i this aspect of Ultron that is to me the most interesting thing about him. He is a robot, and a pretty one note robot at that wanting nothing less than to wipe all non artificial life in the universe, but he also craves a family. And through various connections Ultron has a pretty sprawling family for a genocidal robot. In addition to his mum and dad, his two sons and two daughter/wives (ewwwww) that he directly created he is linked to many other prominent Marvel characters through their connections. Through his son the vision he has a daughter in law, The Scarlet Witch who herself has two children (if you’re wondering how a woman and a robot can have kids, well its a long story that doesn’t entirely make sense, suffice it to say, magic.) that also go on to become Avengers. The Scarlet Witch also has an Avenger brother, Quicksilver, and her father is, of all people, Magneto! Meaning Ultron and Magneto are related; a guy who controls metal and a robot, both of whom are racial supremacists, how has nobody ever done a story with these two yet?

And The Vision has his brain based on Wonder Man, yet another Avenger so that brings in Wonder Man’s family such as his murderous brother The Grim Reaper.

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So despite being a robot Ultron has all these links to different people forming a twisted and bizarre family dynamic, and that to me is what makes Ultron stand out from being just a genocidal robot, he’s a black sheep. A member of a family which is largely composed of noble super-heroes who wants to kill , literally, everyone. Henry Pym’s anguish at creating Ultron is akin to the mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the pain at being responsible for bringing such evil into the world. It’s like if Captain America turned out to be Hitler’s Dad.

It also brings up fascinating questions about nature vs nurture since Ultron is, in part, Henry Pym. They share a mind but in different contexts and it suggests that the capacity for evil on that scale resides within Henry Pym. And that works well for Henry Pym since his defining characteristics all seem themed around how he is a hero but so very easily could not be (like when he abused his wife during a period when he was mentally ill). Ultron defines Henry Pym as a character as much as he defines Ultron.

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So after reading all that you’re probably thinking; “Adam that all sounds fascinating. Not only have we got a genocidal robot that can engage our heroes on multiple levels but we’ve got a personal story of betrayal of the son in there that’s rife with potentially interesting character dynamics and symbolism. Why do you think this is bad idea?”

It’s because Hank Pym will not be appearing in Avengers 2.

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Yup, Hank Pym, the creator of Ultron, won’t appear in Ultron’s origin story.

And neither will the Wasp, Jocasta, Wonder Man or The Vision (we might get the vision but this is not confirmed) or indeed any of the characters that make up Ultron’s family except the Scarlet Witch and without the other family she has no connection to him.

Now, let me first and foremost state that I am not a comics purist. I understand that in adapting a story to a film you have to make changes. For example, you couldn’t do the Vision’s origin as it appears in the comics. To do it that way you first need to introduce Wonder Man and have him appear to die, then you need to introduce Ant Man, have him create Ultron, then The Vision shows up, does a few normal missions where he proves his worth as an Avenger and then reveals the shocking twist. You can do that in serialized story telling because you have the space to do a few filler issues where the point is to establish vision as a character before revealing the twist, you don’t have the luxury of doing all that in a 2-3 hour movie.

But if you do Ultron without Pym you rip the heart out of Ultron. He loses his whole family and the weird and fascinating Oedipus complex. He loses the aspect of the betrayal of the son, he basically loses everything that isn’t killer robot.

Now you can do one note killer robot and make it work, Sci-fi is littered with good examples such as the Daleks orThe Borg. But that simply isn’t Ultron. It would be akin to using Magneto and not referencing the concentration camp stuff, or using Thanos and not using his love (as in the romantic kind) of Death. The character’s have other aspects that make them function fine as antagonists but you’ve massively wasted the potential of the character.

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You’ve also torpedoed the character of Henry Pym. Hank Pym is the hero that fails. That’s pretty much been his defining motivation for the past 40 years. Hank Pym is the guy who strives for heroism everyday of his life but also beat his wife and built a killer robot. No other super-hero in the marvel universe is carrying such a burden on his shoulders (maybe Spider-Man in terms of how much it defines them but Peter failing to stop a thief doesn’t compare to building a creature that once killed the entire population of a country in terms of consequences). And that burden and trying to repent for it is what makes Henry Pym so fascinating to me. Take that away from him and you turn him into Reed Richards, just a science guy who thinks it’s cool to wear tights and punch people.

But, the Ant-Man movie they’re making might not actually feature Henry Pym but one of the other Ant-Men in Marvel’s history. So maybe they’re not concerned about ruining Henry Pym’s back story. In that case is there a way you can run this so that Ultron gets all his unique aspects back but doesn’t involve Henry Pym?

Well, you could have another Avenger build him. That way you still get to do the betrayal of the son and the twisted family dynamic stuff without introducing Ant-Man into the equation. But which Avenger? The most obvious choice would be Iron Man since he can feasibly construct an A.I. (he’s already built Jarvis after all) but this would ruin the character of Tony Stark by turning him into Henry Pym. Tony Stark can’t be the glib sarcastic guy if he’s built a genocidal robot, he’d have too much guilt on his hand. Having said that though Tony Stark does feel guilty for building weapons of war so maybe this would work. Bruce Banner is the other option since he has already made a monster that threatens the world (The Hulk) but could less plausibly build a robot.

Or, as a total wild card, maybe the Scarlet Witch. Fox has all the rights to Marvels X-Men characters so they can’t really do much with her mutant status in Avengers anyway. So why not make her a technological hero ironically called a witch. This allows her to build Ultron and immediately establishes the relationship between the two. In fact how about having Wanda make the Vision as  a husband for herself and then having the Vision create Ultron, who then betrays the two of them. Sure it reverses the family dynamic but it preserves many of the same themes and means you don’t need Ant-Man at all.

Whatever ends up happening I have faith in Marvel Studios, who have yet to make a bad film, and faith in Joss Whedon that they’ll figure something out. But my fear is that Ultron will be relegated to just an angry robot when he has the potential to be so much more interesting than that.

Also this scene needs to be in the film.

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In my review of Cabin in the Woods I mused that the film seems to be asking a question it provides no answer to. Namely why do human beings enjoy watching horror films? Why do we enjoy stories where people die?

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard in Cabin in the Woods seem to have approached this from a cultural and symbolic level, arguing that there is an ingrained need for human beings to see violence and suffering. I don’t entirely disagree with this but I’m not quite as cynical as they are. Nor do I think it has anything to do with an ingrained cultural hatred of the young or the need to see them suffer.

For me it’s kind of basic. Humans are sacks of chemicals, one of those chemicals is adrenaline and we really like it when adrenaline gets fed to our brains. Adrenaline is a chemical associated with the fight or flight response so it is released whenever we are confronted by a scary or dangerous situation to help us deal with it.

The thing is our fight or flight response is an idiot and the rest of our brain is a genius by comparison and so we’ve been able to trick it into releasing adrenaline when we’re not really in danger. Like when we ride a roller coaster, or climb a cliff face, or watch a horror movie.

This is a physical chemical process in our brains, watching a horror film releases a chemical that makes us feel good. There’s no deeper investigations needed into the cultural reasons for this it’s basic science, being scared feels good. What is culturally determined is what makes us scared and why things that are scary in one culture are not in another. Japanese horror films, for example, are obsessed with children and water things not traditionally considered scary in the west.

But why do we need a horror film to do this? Roller coasters scare us without needing to invoke the imagery of death and suffering and on a purely cinematic level a jump cut will scare us even if the context around it isn’t scary at all. Even the laziest hack director can throw a spring loaded cat at the screen and scare the audience through surprise alone. So why not combine jump scares with something innocent like two guys driving a golf cart, won’t that scare us? Why do we need these images of girls suffering, isn’t that just a symptom of a sick society?

It’s because horror fans are like drug addicts addicted to that feeling of being scared. They keep coming back to seek it out again, but like any addict they become numb to the stuff with repeated use and so they have two choices, up the dose or change the drug. These can be thought of in film making terms as intensity and novelty.

Intensity accounts for most of the changes in horror as time has progressed. Just as a heroin addict needs to use more and more heroin to get a fix a horror fan needs more and more horrific images to trigger the same original thrill. You might watch Psycho and flinch when the knife hits the girl but after the 5th or 6th time you’ve seen this you’re numb to the image, de-sensitised. Worse you’ve worked out how it’s done and know the knife never stabbed her, instead the camera cut away. You can no longer trick your brain into producing the adrenaline because it knows it’s a trick now. But then some film maker comes along and shows the knife lingering a little longer and shows some blood! Oh wow! Suddenly this is terrifying again and it’s tricked your brain all over again. Until the 8th, 9th or 10th time you see this done and then, you’re used to it again. But now some guy comes along and shows the open wound! And on and on the cycle goes getting gorier and more explicit.

This operates on both an individual level and across the genre as film makers move to out do each other or push boundaries. That’s why the genre has gotten progressively gorier since the 1950’s.

Then there’s novelty which is much harder to do. A film shows you something you haven’t seen before, a combination of images or sounds that scares your brain in a new way. This doesn’t even have to be intense if it’s original or unexpected enough.

But novelty is hard to do whereas intensity is easy. It takes talent to come up with something new but anybody can just add more gore.

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You can fake novelty though by rehashing the same bag of tricks that always works (discordant music, isolated areas, jump cuts, slow pans, etc) but with different stock elements. So it’s a cabin in the woods with a murderer, in space! Or a cabin in the woods with a murderer, that’s a leprechaun! There’s just enough novelty there to make the audience think they’ve seen something new when really it’s the same stock techniques again and again and again.

Indeed Cabin in the Woods makes fun of this lazy copy paste approach to film making with the signature scene in the room full of monsters.

That’s why you get so many films that work on the same basic premise. It’s not because humanity demands some kind of totemic sacrifice, it’s because lazy film makers know that they can use stock character archetypes so long as they come up with a unique monster or one novel scare. And we watch them, because we’re desperate for a fix and if it provides that fix we’re happy even if the characters, setting and story are incredibly familiar.

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Indeed that familiarity can help. Genre cinema is pretty much defined by a conflict between familiarity and novelty. Audiences enjoy genre cinema because at heart we like to see our expectations confirmed. This is not a new nor a controversial statement, there is a wealth of media theory discussing how audiences essentially like to see the same things over and over again. But they can’t be exactly the same things. Give us exactly the same as we had before and we just get irritated by the repetition. So film makers need to give us the same with just enough new to disguise it.

Sometimes that takes the form of something like Evil Dead, taking the familiar spam in cabin set up and formula but investing it with novelty trough the tone, the way the camera is used, the way the music is used, etc. Sometimes it takes the form of Jason X, taking the familiar spam in a cabin set up…but in space!!! And having the familiar set up helps make the novel elements more distinct which helps from a marketing perspective too.

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But is there any deeper meaning to the particular elements that get re-used. To go back to Cabin in the Woods is there a particular reason that so many horror films use teenagers and use teenage archetypes like the jock, the slut, the fool, the virgin and the brain?

Possibly and many a fine essay has been written on just such a topic. But I can also offer much more prosaic and practical reasons why that might be.

Why are they teenagers? Because your audience is mainly teenagers and so it helps with audience identification. It also gives you a plausible reason for your characters to act rock stupid since teenagers are well known for making mistakes. Why have a brain? To spout expository dialogue. A fool? Comic relief. A slut? Some cheap exploitation (read boobs) that will bump up the potential audience.

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In fact let’s look at the new vogue in horror cinema, found footage films. Although found footage as a concept goes all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust it really first made an impact with the Blair Witch Project and with monster hits like Paranormal Activity and REC has become the new hotness in horror cinema.

Why is this?

Well you could look at it one way and construct an argument around the fact that modern society is increasingly recorded. We all carry a camcorder built into our phones everywhere we go and our own recorded image is now plastered all over social media. This is the society of the recorded image more so than any society that has existed before and horror films reflect the tensions and fears of the society that produces them.

Or you could make an argument that Blair Witch costs peanuts to make and made bonkers amounts of cash. That found footage is cheaper to film, doesn’t require a particularly talented DP or particularly nice cameras and yet the ticket price is just as much as for a big studio production. That they’re a relatively new trick in the tradition of horror cinema and they still have enough novelty to work on the audience for the moment so producers are squeezing as much profit out of the trick as they can before audiences vote with their wallets and reject them or someone creative comes up with a new trick.

And this ultimately comes back to Cabin in the Woods and two possible ways to read the film.

In one interpretation the film seems to be saying that you are a bad person for wanting to watch horror films. This is the interpretation that is focused on the cultural significance of the repeated use of archetypes. It asks you “why do you wan to see the youth of society slaughtered again and again, what does that say about you as a horror fan?”

In another interpretation though the film seems to be saying that you are a bad person for wanting to watch unoriginal horror films. This is the interpretation that is focused on the prosaic and monetary significance of the repeated use of archetypes. It asks you “why do you want to see these stock characters get slaughtered again and again, what does that say about you as a horror fan that you’re prepared to put up with the same recycled plots?”

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Cabin in the Woods (2012)

There has been a lot of critical discussion of Cabin in the Woods that starts by tip toeing around the issue of spoilers, warning you to watch the film before you read anything about it and that having anything spoiled will ruin the film.

I certainly hope those critics don’t actually think that’s the case because Cabin in the Woods spoils it’s oh so secretive premise in the very first scene. If this was supposed to be building up to some incredible twist reveal then the filmmakers botched it massively. However, I have a little more faith in Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon than that.

That said there are some nice reveals in the later part of the film and this review will be spoilerific so I would watch the film before reading further.

Have you watched it? No, you’d still like a plot summary? Well suit yourself.

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Cabin in the Woods is ostensibly your traditional Spam in a Cabin film. 5 young adults, the jock, the stoner, the slutty one, the smart one and the virgin head out to a cabin in the woods to drink too much, have sex with each other and then get murdered by (insert random monster here).

So far so generic but that is exactly what Cabin in the Woods sets out to do and it immediately starts subverting these genre conventions. For starters our characters aren’t quite the archetypes they seem to be. Our dumb blonde is in fact a med student and she’s not even a real blonde. Our alpha male is a sensitive sociology student and our brain is actually a decent football player. As for our virgin, well, she just broke up from a distinctly sexual affair with her professor.

Even stranger the whole set up appears to have been staged by some kind of secret organisation. For reasons that are initially unclear they’re creating the circumstances of a typical Slasher movie. For example; they’ve dyed one characters’ hair blonde and added a chemical to the dye that basically makes her super horny and decreases her intelligence thus creating the horny dumb blonde they need for their horror film.

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These controllers sit in a high tech bunker underneath the titular cabin and manipulate events with chemicals and light cues to, not exactly force, but certainly heavily push our protagonists into doing what they want. And what they want is our heroes to go into the basement where, in one of the film’s better ideas, there is a huge variety of bizarre and creepy objects that will each summon a different monster. In a brilliantly over the top scene the friends are each seconds away from summoning a different evil force while the guys in the bunker bet on what the outcome will be. Eventually it’s selected; pain worshiping redneck zombies will be the order of the day.

Set up completed we move into what for most horror films would be the meat of the plot, the assault by evil forces against our protagonists as they one by one get picked off and killed in gruesome and imaginative ways. But really this is all still set up for what proves to be the best part of the film. Our virgin and our stoner character realise that they are in some kind of staged scenario and through a fluke manage to escape from it and make their way into the underground base that controls everything. Now for the first time the film isn’t parodying horror conventions but instead telling it’s own story of two young adults caught up in a conspiracy fighting for their lives and possibly the fate of the whole world.

Cabin in the Woods is usually described as a horror film but it isn’t one. Certainly the iconic elements of horror films are all there. Stereotypical dumb young adult characters, slashers, isolated cabins, lack of phone reception. Indeed in one of the film’s most inspired gags literally ALL of the iconic elements of horror are there as the two escapees find themselves in a room containing every monster the film makers can think of. This ranges from classics like vampires and werewolves, to versions of existing characters like pinhead to real life monsters like the ku klux klan. Even a unicorn! It’s an inspired joke and it really stands for what the film is saying as whole, that though the icons and monsters may change all horror films are essentially the same thing.

Because Cabin in the Woods is a film about horror films and not a horror film itself. It’s never once scary and it never really tries to be scary, even in the early scenes that seem more like a horror film. Instead its tone veers between pathos, drama and humour. It is basically a black comedy.

And as a comedy it’s brilliant. It has plenty of gags and great one liners. It was written by Joss Whedon and his familiar dialogue sizzles and zips out of every actor’s mouth, but it mostly relies on two main sources of humour.

The first is the incongruous contrast between the horror and murder being committed and the very normal office atmosphere of the control centre. This is most visible during the party scene. The controllers, thinking they’ve killed all our protagonists, open up some drinks and throw an office party. It’s the typical scene you might get after a successful project completion. Guys from different teams interact awkwardly, someone tries to hit on a colleague, the intern brown noses the manager. It’s all very normal boring office stuff. Meanwhile in the background on the monitors a girl is being beaten, presumably to death, by some kind of zombie.

The other is straight up parody of horror conventions. During the scenes in the middle of the film with the secret agency manipulating the kids we get lots of nods to the rules and conventions of horror, how certain characters act in certain (usually stupid) ways to advance the plot. In this way the film kind of resembles Scream but it is much more effective in pointing out the conventions and subverting them. My favourite example being the button one of the controllers presses that electrifies the knife our final girl is holding, causing her to drop it. The dropping of knives has to be one of the most annoying tropes in slasher films and it’s great to see it lampshaded here.

Cabin in the Woods is a very, very well observed parody of the horror genre and there are some deep references in here (there’s a reference The Faculty and another to Leprechaun of all things) but this is not an affectionate parody. In fact it has a surprisingly scathing view of horror from two guys who have worked so extensively in it.

Firstly it puts forward the view that all horror films are essentially the same stock tropes repeated ad nauseum with only the nature of the monster changed. Again the scene with the room full of monsters really hammers this point home but the sub text is made text many times as the controllers have to manipulate the characters to conform to stereotypes. In the climactic end scene Sigourney Weaver (in a largely pointless cameo) outright states words to the effect that they have to make the young adults into cultural archetypes. This is a little harsh on horror but it’s not a sentiment I necessarily disagree with. However I don’t think that repetition in the horror genre is a bug but a feature. Something I’ll discuss more in the companion piece.

Much more controversially though it asks the question why do we watch horror?

Normally our controllers are stand-ins for the artists that make horror films, the writers and directors, etc. People who just have a job to do but unfortunately have a job that requires becoming de-sensitized to the death and the gore that surrounds them. However, at times the controllers stand in as audience surrogates, watching our protagonists and getting a voyeuristic pleasure from it. This is most obvious in the scene where the control room fills with male crew waiting to see our blonde slut take her top off or again in the party scene where everyone cheers as a girl gets beaten to death. The film is obviously condemning this behaviour. Our sympathies have largely been with the final girl and we as the audience want her to live but our stand in audience wants to watch a gruesome death and reminds us that we enjoyed watching the other four kids die. Morally the film positions this as somewhat sick behaviour and tries to answer why on earth horror fans would want to see this stuff and why we as a culture would keep making it.

The answer they come up with is punishment, specifically punishment for being young. Again this is explicitly stated in Weaver’s thunderously clunky expository speech at the end but it’s also subtly indicated throughout the film. Horror films function as a proxy for virgin sacrifice, something cultures all over the world have practised. Be it spam in a cabin films, or Hunger Games or Battle Royale or burning witches or throwing virgins in the volcano; the ritual suffering of the young is something that is key to the human psyche.

This is a profound observation but it opens up another question that the film fails to answer. Why? Why do we need to see the suffering of the young? Is it jealousy; do we see them having a good time and want them to have the problems of adults? Is it some kind of symbolic proxy for how they have to suffer in some fashion to stop being children and become adults?

The film never really explains why the sacrifice is necessary. It does explain within the context of the film. The ritual sacrifice of these five cultural archetypes will pacify an ancient lovecraftian evil and stop it from destroying the world. However it doesn’t explain why this sacrifice is necessary on a metatextual level.

This is probably because the lovecraftian demon (dun dun dun) is us. In the final shot of the film the hand seen emerging is distinctly human, and earlier in the film the demon expressed pleasure at seeing one character die. As much as the controllers are audience stand-ins so too is the dark god demanding it see suffering and sacrifice in order to appease it. This speaks to an often suggested reason why people watch horror films, as a kind of release by proxy of violent desires inherent in the human psyche. That there is something about humans that demands we experience violence and by watching a horror film we can pacify that demand rather than enacting it in the real world.

Again that’s rather profound but still leaves a question unanswered. Why do Whedon and Goddard think we want to experience this violence?

The film doesn’t answer but instead moralises about this desire to view violence. Our two protagonists when presented with the facts, they need to die to save the world, opt not to sacrifice themselves. Instead they’re perfectly happy for the whole world to die whilst they sit there and smoke a spliff. Their reasoning being that human beings are terrible and we deserve to be destroyed so the world can start over.

If we take this at a meta-textual level the film seems to be saying that the existence of horror films proves that human beings on a basic level want to see violence done. We want the young to suffer. And in the absence of a reason given in the film for why this might be the case it seems to posit that this desire is an intrinsic facet of being human. and it will persist as long as human beings do.

That’s a surprisingly cynical view of horror films and human nature. It might be necessary to have them to sublimate a worse evil but the fact that they exist is evidence that the human beings that watch them are fundamentally evil.

Cabin in the Woods is a smart film and a very successful comedy but it has a bad case of multiple personality disorder that will really divide horror fans. On the one hand they’ll love the parody of the genre and recognising the tropes and references. On the other it is very harsh towards both the artistic merit of horror films and their morality and on a meta-textual level really makes a case that horror films are bad and just a symptom of how sick human beings are. That’s going to rub a lot of horror fans the wrong way because nobody likes to be judged or told that what they enjoy is wrong and Cabin in the Woods seems to be saying that.

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On a side note I do want to briefly address the review of Cabin in the Woods by Gooberzilla over at The Greatest Movie Ever podcast. This is an excellent podcast by the way and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in film, particularly genre film. I don’t always share Gooberzilla’s taste in films myself but he is always articulate and logical in his arguments about why he doesn’t like a film I might personally love.

But in his review of Cabin in the Woods he makes a cardinal film criticism sin. He reviews what the film isn’t rather than what it is.

Gooberzilla posits a version of the film that starts with the future dead teenager characters and does not cut away to the controllers until much later in the film. In this version the set up would be played straight until they get to the cabin and the film would slowly reveal hints that what the characters are experiencing is more than it seems. They find the cameras, we in the audience notice the gas or a subtle voice whispering what a character should do and we start to suspect that this is some kind of set-up. Then the third act proceeds much as before with two of our protagonists escaping into the facility and discovering the conspiracy and the fact that they need to die to save the world.

His argument is basically that this would have worked as both a horror film and a comedy and the scenes where we don’t know what’s going on would have genuine tension to them and enigma.

Now I fully agree that this would be a great film and I would happily watch it, but that isn’t the film Cabin in the Woods is, nor is it the film it’s trying to be. Starting the film with the controllers was a very deliberate choice, not a failing and here’s why they did it. To deny the viewer what they want. The very fact that many voices have bemoaned the opening scene and how it ruins the tension and the mystery points out that the audience wants tension and mystery. But the filmmakers don’t want you to have it. This is a film that is a) about subverting conventions and b) has the core thesis that horror cinema is bad and human beings are bad for wanting to watch it. Therefore they’re going to set it up like a horror film and then deny you the pleasures of a horror film. That’s why the film isn’t scary, that’s why our protagonists neither die heroically nor find a way to beat the odds. Those would be satisfying endings. Instead our characters fail because they want to deny you the pleasures of a horror movie. Whatever you want to see this film thinks is bad for you and so denies it. They even make this idea literal with the Merman running gag. One of the controllers wants to see a merman, it’s a running gag throughout the film, and when he sees a Merman, it kills him. What you want is bad for you horror fans.

You may disagree (indeed, I do) but you can’t criticise the films structure when it works towards the films aims.

Gooberzilla’s other complaint I want to respond to is the big hand at the end saying he would have preferred something more lovecraftian like a tentacle. Again I’d argue there is a very good reason for the human hand, it’s because the great ancient one is a human being, or at least symbolic of human beings. The whole reason for the sacrifice in the context of the film is to appease this dark gods but meta-textually there are no dark gods only human beings. Human beings want to see violence and gore and human sacrifice and we can be appeased by what the controllers have created, a horror film, a scenario that conforms to our cultural needs and which prevents “the dark times before” i.e. the violent history of humanity prior to the outlet of violent fiction. Making it a tentacle would make it less obvious that the dark gods are viewer stand-ins.

There is also a companion post to this review that discusses some of my thought about why people enjoy horror films.

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