Like any city, Cinephile City runs on debate. City Council is our regular feature in which we discuss an issue that one of our writers notices in the world of cinema. Today is the Opening Argument; tomorrow is the Debate. This week’s argument:
Resolved: Cabin in the Woods’ deconstruction of the horror genre is superior to Scream’s.
Of all the things I find interesting about 1996’s Scream, maybe the most subtle one is that the late, great Wes Craven allowed himself to be written out of it. The screenplay by Kevin Williamson goes on and on about “scary movies” but rarely references any films made by its director. Halloween is name-checked, the Jamie Lee Curtis-starring Terror Train plays on a TV, and the name “Jason” is thrown around almost as often as the name of the lead character. Only once do we hear about Freddy Kruger, or the Craven-directed film which revolutionized modern horror, A Nightmare on Elm Street. That film is mentioned by Drew Barrymore during the cold open, mostly so Craven can make a self-referential joke (“The first one was good, but the others sucked”).
For all its talk about scary movies and the rules for surviving them, Scream finds itself limited to a very specific subset of horror films: slasher movies. It’s not only Freddy who is left out; Williamson has nothing to say about why we watch Alien, or Poltergeist, or The Evil Dead. Hellraiser is name-checked once, as a potential movie to be watched during the climactic house party, but a Terror Train is chosen instead. Williamson speaks with crystal-clear recall and great cleverness about one particular sort of film, in which a masked brute stalks and threatens to dismember hapless teenagers for the “crimes” of having sex and using drugs, and precious little to say about the other ways in which the movies can scare us.
This matters because cinema had gotten hip to the limitations of the slasher genre long before Williamson ever put pen to paper. As the Friday the 13th series stumbled through sequel after sequel, and imitators piled up, audiences quickly developed enough cunning to mock horror victims who run upstairs instead of downstairs or who neglect to shoot the killer in the head. By the time Scream came out — three years after Jason Goes To Hell, which had posited itself as the final Friday the 13th picture — horror films were already turning to the supernatural more and more, exactly because the laws of logic don’t apply. No one has to ask how Pinhead catches up to the teenagers sprinting away from him. He’s a demon. Being magical is his thing.
The killers in Scream (and its sequels) are entirely humanoid. It even becomes a running joke after a certain point, when the killer is constantly knocked down or kicked in the crotch by victims who are giving up six inches and upwards of fifty pounds to him. A human killer in a movie like this is a useful way to look at psychopathy and the evils that humans to do one another, but there are more primal fears that are also worth playing on. A force so powerful that it shatters the false sense of security given by guns or the other trappings of modernity. The thing under the bed. The boogeyman.
That’s where Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods comes in.
The titular cabin is a home for everything that could possibly go bump in the night: everything from hillbilly zombies and giant insects to creepy children. The killers from Scream could live here, although it’d be as archetypal representatives of people like them in movies everywhere: as The Psycho Bros. Cabin‘s survey of horror staples is even pan-cultural, too(the film’s references to Japanese horror pictures is, for me, its biggest laugh).
Scream, as well-made as it is, skirts around the question of why we actually want to see these deaths happen. All of those movies which Scream derides as “insulting,” the ones where the kids are punished for sinful behavior and the large-breasted girl runs up the stairs when she should be heading for the front door? People see them. They make money. Why? Scream is not able to answer. It’s decently close to an answer — there’s something telling in the sick fascination that Rose McGowan puts into the line, “her insides were on the outside” — but it’s not able to put a real answer into words or images.
Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, is willing to give an answer. Simply put, the film suggests that the slaughter in horror films satisfies a primal desire in audiences, one as ancient as the gods. It argues that synthesizing suffering is a sacrifice we make to keep our primal natures at bay, and though we would never want to see such things happen to us or to our loved ones, we have no problem watching the happen to strangers from a safely judgmental distance. It’s why, in the movie, supernatural monsters can seamlessly be murdering characters alongside regular old madmen (or mer-men): it’s the slaughter itself that satisfies those deep instincts of ours. In fact, the film suggests we’d even endorse having such a real-life game rigged in favor of the slaughter–that, even knowing the game was rigged and understanding the artificiality of the rigging, we wouldn’t care one bit.
That’s a nihilistic answer; at its heart, the horror game is a nihilistic business. Cabin in the Woods writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard had known this for quite a while, and had even played around in that sandbox back when Goddard worked for Whedon on his Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. But recent trends in horror films, particularly among “torture porn”-flicks like Saw and similar films, seemingly caused them to ask, ‘what if the characters knew that we were watching their agony, and reveling in it? Would they even want to live in a world where that could happen?’
Scream tries to go to that place as well, but with less effective results. Heroine Sydney Prescott is constantly acknowledging that she’s a movie character, and constantly trying to control what kind of movie she’s living in. She wants her relationship with her boyfriend to stay PG-13, for instance, and later puts a close on the proceedings by announcing, “Not in my movie!” It might even be said that Sydney has the same problem as the leading lady in Cabin in the Woods: two dudes are trying to turn her life into a horror movie without her knowledge, too, and are rigging the events of her life in an attempt to justify her murder.
The problem is that we don’t know about the rigging until the end of Scream, allowing us as an audience to deny culpability. We also don’t experience anything supernatural in Scream, something that lets audiences watch Freddy vs. Jason and other moralizing garbage without acknowledging their role in the whole affair. This, finally, is why Cabin in the Woods is the superior film: it leads with the rigging up front. No matter which monster might later be inflicted on the characters, The audience is complicit in the horror from scene one, and, in the end, we get exactly what the characters think we deserve.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City. Follow him on Twitter: @mm_young