I stood alone in the half-light of the musty attic, searching. A few more minutes and the book would be mine. A few more minutes. Even though I knew the house was haunted. I shivered as icy tendrils of dread caressed my spine. A mounting sense of unspeakable evil. A few minutes more. Searching …
Then I paused. Even if I survived, the horror of seeing the ghost would never leave me. I’d be altered forever, gutted in my soul.
As I marched out of the front door, I explained: “You know what? I really am just not that curious.”
When I woke, seconds later, I congratulated myself. I’d saved both the life and the sanity of my dream-self, after all, but then I felt a sense of dissatisfaction. Truth be told, I was that curious. That’s the trouble when you f*** with the formula. If Daniel Radcliffe had turned tail and fled before he met the Woman In Black, you’d have a happier ending, but you wouldn’t have a story.
I’ve felt that essential conflict with any video game that tries to f*** with the formula. Oblivion‘s main quest was a great idea – how about you get to be the sidekick for a change? – but in practice it’s disappointing not to be the celebrated hero. When Fallout 3 was in development, I jokingly guessed the ending and turned out to be right – which again was dramatic, but emotionally unsatisfying. The Broken Steel DLC kept that twist in, but extended it and added a new finale, creating a subtle shift in tone and laying the emotional beats in different places. We, as an audience, expect certain things to happen at certain times, and when they don’t, we get very antsy about it. The ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be hilarious, but it’s also disappointing.
The entire point of The Cabin In The Woods is to f*** with the formula, with the entire film a meta-discussion of horror movie tropes. In various ways I’m reminded of Dead Set, The Game, Midnight Meat Train, Cube and Scream, and that tells me that meta-stories and thematic plot twists aren’t as novel as Joss Whedon supposes.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s undeniably a good film, and one that might even appeal to my Whedon-hating husband. It’s just not as deep and clever as it thinks it is, and suffers from jarring lurches in tone and the emotional dissonance of not quite giving the audience what it wants.
It’s not all bad news. There are boobs on cue (I’m indifferent, but I know a lot of people like boobs), and duly the one to flash them is ghoulishly dispatched. The film is light on gore early on, but delivers enough later on to satisfy genre fans without offending the squeamish. It’s not gratuitous (partial nudity aside) or overly sadistic. Culture references abound, with nods to just about every horror flick ever, and a fair few Whedon regulars in the cast. It’s tense and funny with some well-timed scares, but nothing that you’ll lose sleep over.
I think my haunted-attic-library nightmare was inspired by the thought of The Cabin In The Woods meaning that the anticipation of watching a horror film was far more scary than the film itself. Dreams, like all stories, are training scenarios to help us survive. We drill ourselves over and over: don’t go to the cabin in the woods, until it’s so firmly in your subconscious that your dream-self would say “f*** this” and run: maybe that’s why it feels so wrong to stray from the formula. Regardless, it’s an inspired piece of storytelling with much to admire.