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The Cabin in the Woods Postmortem: This Is Not the Slasher Flick You’re Looking For

Fair warning: This post is about Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard from a script by Goddard and Joss Whedon, and about the role that spoilers and spoiler avoidance may have played in its reception, so if you’re still hoping to see Cabin without knowing exactly what it is you’re in for, now would be a good time to click away. To give you the opportunity to do that, here is one more sentence containing no information about the content of the movie itself: Cabin in the Woods made nearly $15 million this weekend, coming in third behind The Hunger Games and The Three Stooges. The reviews were strong — 92 percent on RottenTomatoes at this writing — but audiences surveyed by CinemaScore only gave it a C.

(Okay — spoiler buffer zone ends here. Proceed accordingly.)

Cabin‘s trailer sold the movie as a straight-ahead slasher film of the attractive-archetypes-butchered-by-a-lake variety, and left out one huge element of the plot — the team of scientists led by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, who are orchestrating the carnage from an underground bunker as part of a ritual sacrifice designed to placate ancient, vengeful gods. It’s a tongue-in-cheek horror movie that metacriticizes the heartlessness of modern horror, as well as reality TV’s inhumanity to man; it’s also in no small way a war movie, about old men sending young people off to die. Those exit-poll results suggest that more than a few people showed up primed for a bloodbath and felt a little bait-and-switched by all the severed-hand-wringing. Roger Ebert once said that today’s movie trailers are like supermarket cheese samples, in that they tell you everything there is to know about the cheese except what it’s like to eat a pound of it; this may be a rare case of a movie marketing campaign playing it too close to the vest. Up until the corn-syrupocalyptic finale (which involves the unlocking of a nightmare zoo full of werewolves, proto-Pinheads, robo-scorpions, giant cobras, and killer klowns, and also the smiting of the entire world by a giant Jack Kirby hand), Cabin goes after its satirical targets with a pretty classicist toolbox — the creaky old house, the demented backwoods family-that-slays-together, the doomed Scooby-gang picked off one by screaming one. The trailer only shows the tools and not how deftly they’re deployed; there’s no suggestion in the ads that there’s anything going on here except Shark Night without the sharks.

Then again, an old-fashioned don’t-divulge-the-surprise-ending sales pitch might have done the movie a disservice, too. The twist in Cabin isn’t a surprise Keyser Soze-was-a-sled third-act reveal; the Sorkinesque walk-and-talk in which we meet Whitford and Jenkins’s characters comes before the opening credits. The twist is the plot. (This meant, among other things, that critics who didn’t like the film went out of their way to ruin it for everyone else. “This is where, according to the degraded discourse of the twenty-first century, I’d normally be obliged to mar this paragraph with the all-caps SPOILER ALERT — but, well, forget it,” wrote Nick Pinkerton near the top of his self-righteously spoiler-packed Esquire.com review, in what may be the most passive-aggressive spoiler alert our degraded discourse has thus far produced. Undead film critic Rex Reed, meanwhile, filed a pan whose willful heedlessness of spoiler etiquette was tempered only by Reed’s hazy recall of what actually happens in the movie. Whitford and Jenkins’s characters aren’t actually testing an “elaborate video game that allows paying customers to watch real people slaughtered according to the horror of choice [sic],” but Reed isn’t about to let facts prevent him from muttering about the taste level of a target audience supposedly made up of “electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2.” Darn those “electronics nerds” — too busy ordering crystal-radio kits through the mail to make intelligent filmgoing decisions!

The conclusions people will undoubtedly jump to about why Cabin didn’t beat The Three Stooges this weekend are that (a) only a smallish cadre of Joss Whedon acolytes gives a hoot in hell about how squicky Joss Whedon feels about Hostel or Saw, and (b) going “full meta” never sells. There might be some truth to (a) — either you’re the kind of person who finds it fascinating that Whedon’s purest genre work is coming out just weeks after his most sardonic critique of the limits of genre, or you aren’t — but I’m not buying (b) any more than I buy it as an explanation for why Community somehow deserves to be canceled. Especially since horror may be the most meta-friendly film subgenre around. Fear of deconstruction didn’t keep anybody away from Scream, and present-day horror cinema is all about the formalist exercise — ersatz “found footage,” grave-robbing remakes. The call, most of the time, is coming from way inside the house.

The only criticism that really holds any water for me is that — partly because Cabin sat around for three years after MGM went bankrupt — the baldly sadistic subcategory of 21st-century horror movie it’s holding up for moral scrutiny is sort of in eclipse. So-called “torture porn” has been supplanted at the box office by the shaky-cam creep-vérité of the Paranormal Activity series; the third PA was last year’s highest-grossing horror movie, followed by Insidious, an Omen-ish move away from dismemberment-based cinema on the part of Saw auteur James Wan. The audience for which Jenkins and Whitford serve as stand-ins has mostly moved on; Cabin does a superb job of hanging torture porn from its own meat hooks, but you can’t kill what’s already dead.