#2 Cabin in the Woods vs. Scream: the Debate

City Council is our regular feature in which we discuss an issue that one of our writers notices in the world of cinema. This week’s argument: 

Resolved: Cabin in the Woods’ deconstruction of the horror genre is superior to Scream’s

Zak Santucci: I love both films. However, while Cabin in the Woods is cleverer than it is funny, Scream is funnier than it is clever. The latter has always been more important to me as a viewer.

On first watch, I was slightly disappointed by Cabin because it didn’t work as a horror movie, but merely as a sly critique of horror movies and the audience’s relationship to entertainment in general. By deftly toeing the line between satire and legitimate horror pastiche, Scream pulls off the more difficult task. I’ve grown more fond of Cabin’s enjoyable-as-hell script and perfect pacing upon rewatching; being a genre fan, though, the multi-faceted stimulation of Scream makes it the stronger movie for me.

Michael Mariano: I was impressed with Cabin in the Woods for its willingness to give away its twists before the film proper even begins. To wit: the first scene takes place in the control center, and the credits consist of scenes of human sacrifice throughout history. In short, it isn’t hiding the world it created.

Meanwhile, Scream defines its world in contrast to Principal Himbry, Henry Winkler’s character. Winkler’s speech to two troublemaking students (“Your entire thieving, whoring generation makes me sick!”) cuts through the movie references and kill counts and makes the deaths real. And the next time we see Winkler, he’s a corpse. The film itself rejects his character’s worldview.

Winkler’s death is even motivated by business of horror movies–specifically, mandated by producer Bob Weinstein. In the words of Kevin Williamson: “After [Weinstein] had bought the script, he felt that there was 30 pages where nothing happened. And he called me up and said, ‘You gotta kill somebody, Kevin. Somebody’s gotta die.’” So if there is a supernatural presence in Scream, it’s one of Hollywood’s deepest ones: Bob Weinstein.

Lauren Baggett: Are we allowed to discuss the ending of Cabin In the Woods? Because I really want to discuss the ending.

cabin endingBesides being ballsy as hell, the ending is a pretty bold repudiation of the genre’s status quo. When told that failing to kill her friend will derail the ritual and lead to the immediate destruction of the world, Dana refuses to kill him and the world does, indeed, immediately end. I’ve always read the ending as a big, nihilistic middle finger to global mechanisms that allow suffering “for the greater good,” but it also serves as a critique of horror movies and horror audiences alike.

Like the bureaucratic drones who go through ancient motions to appease ancient demons, movie studios have shamelessly cannibalized once-original ideas in the service of profit. In Cabin, horror fans are made out to be just as culpable as studios are because of their habit of throwing money at inferior offerings. In other words, bad films make money, so studios keep making bad films, and the vicious cycle continues in earnest. The result is a Xerox’ed parade of ideas that were once fresh but have now been beaten to death (pun fully intended).

So, when the world comes crumbling down at the end of Cabin, it’s easy to see this dismantling of the narrative a challenge issued to the makers of future horror movies, urging them to innovate instead of imitate. This challenge goes out to the audience, too: the viewer should, as per Whedon and Goddard, expect and demand better.

Plus, the apocalyptic nature of the ending heads any unfortunate sequels off at the pass (Scream 3, I’m looking at you).

Mark Young: I think it would be hilarious to do a sequel to Cabin in the Woods as a parody of post-apocalyptic films, actually. Zombies, cannibalism, people dressed like the Humungus from The Road Warrior–all the hits.

Scott Goldfarb: There are rumblings from Lionsgate about wanting to do a sequel. However, there’s been no firm commitment from Goddard or Whedon about it happening. Although that post-apocalyptic idea sounds like it’d be pretty fun, if perhaps even more niche than the first film.

I haven’t seen Scream, only Cabin in the Woods, so I can’t really compare the films’ successes. However, in terms of impact, it’s pretty undeniable that Scream has had a much larger one on our culture than Cabin has and, likely, ever will. I don’t just mean the larger financial success of Scream, but also the fact that it managed to revive a subgenre that had been dormant for a while, and even made it hip again.

It did this by being postmodern and yet, simultaneously, just as tethered to tradition as the slasher films before it. It pats audiences on the back for being able to recognize that the slasher genre has certains conventions while also serving up those conventions to audiences as much as any traditional slasher film ever did. That gave the makers of future slasher films a new model to adapt to their own stories.

By contrast, Cabin tilts way more toward postmodern goals, and, as elaborated nicely by both Mark and Lauren, is very much concerned with the critique of the genre but not so much with satisfying base desires. A primary example of this is that fact that nearly every kill in the film is deliberately filmed in such a way as to foil audience expectations. But while Cabin is satisfying on a creative level, it doesn’t really offer a straightforward way for future horror filmmakers to adapt (or, if you wanted to be less kind, rip off) for their own films.

With my remaining space, I’ll summon the spirit of Dylan Sands, noted Cabin in the Woods hater, to express his hatred and give me something to try and rebut.

Dylan Sands: I think I have overstated my dislike of Cabin in the Woods a bit. I don’t hate it, necessarily, but I am a bit irritated by its “genius” reputation or when it is heralded as one of the greatest modern horror movies of all time. It’s clever at best, not genius, and at the risk of opening a whole other can of worms or hydras or whatever the hell else was in that movie, I don’t really consider it a horror movie. At least, it doesn’t satisfy my personal needs and expectations when entering the theater for a “horror” film. I will also note that all of this is purely my fault. I shouldn’t be judging it on its reputation or what I thought it should be, but its ubiquity makes those bits impossible for me to ignore. Rather than whine about it though, I will address the excellent point Mark made in his post, and which sort of revealed some of my own distaste:

“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 skirts around 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.”

scream knifeThat’s the crux of why Cabin rubs me the wrong way: Scream is terrific because it doesn’t need to answer that question. Rose McGowan’s snotty party girl + masked, knife-wielding killer + (Spoiler!) death via automatic garage door = WHADDYA NEED, A ROADMAP?! I know there is a sick, primal pleasure in watching bad things happen to dumb people. I don’t feel the need to spoil it by examining whether there is a deeper need to the lizard brain’s joy. I’m reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous comparing The Guess Who to The Doors. “The Doors? Jim Morrison? He’s a drunken buffoon posing as a poet. Give me The Guess Who. They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic.”

Now, comparing Cabin to The Doors is crueller than the film warrants, but the vibe of that message gets to the heart of why I think Scream is better: the movie just goes for it in all the right ways. It’s funny, has a terrific cold open that is actually scary, has great set pieces and is self-referential in a way that was revolutionary and exciting at the time, but without rubbing your nose in it like I feel Cabin does (remember, most of the “meta” commentary comes from Jamie Kennedy, one of the most loathsome characters in the entire Scream series). Cabin does have a clever conceit, but I got the sense watching it that the filmmakers were patting themselves on the back for thinking of it and and the last third or so is one tedious victory lap.

cabin japanZak also nailed it when he said, “Cabin is cleverer than it is funny, Scream is funnier than it is clever.” That’s really it for me. I know what Cabin is doing, and that kind of thing definitely has its place. It’s just a classic case of  “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” Cabin rips apart the frog with extreme prejudice, but Scream is happy to just let it mindlessly hop along. That’s all I need in a horror film, which likely says way more about me than it does about either film, but there you have it.

Scott Goldfarb: I actually agree with you (and thanks for a well-reasoned argument): I, too, wouldn’t define Cabin in the Woods as much of a horror film, because while it contains a few horrific moments, the primary intent is less about trying to draw out an audience’s fears and more to examine audience’s fears and how modern horror treats its audiences. I just don’t see it as much of a huge problem, because I like this type of analysis and self-reflection.

I also feel it’s a bit too far to call the ending a victory lap, since I think the massive bloodbath is not just meant as commentary on horror icons but is also thrilling and fun in its own right. Once the lights flicker and it becomes apparent to the cannon-fodder guards that some bad stuff is about to go down, the movie’s ending never fails to put a smile on my face.

John Hanlon: I can’t imagine I’m the only one who saw the list of horrors written on the blackboard in Cabin in the Woods and thought, “I’ve got to get a screenshot of that.” I had the same reaction to the CGI shot of all the monsters in their holding pens. So, in addition to appreciating its cleverness (note that scares and humor can fade once the element of surprise is gone, but smart ideas remain), I prefer Cabin because it is the richer film visually: think of the cellar with all those great props, each one calling forth a different monster. Apart from the ghost mask in Scream (wittily based on Munch’s iconic painting and thereafter ubiquitous every Halloween), there’s not much that’s visually interesting in Craven’s film. The groundbreaking self-reflexivity is mainly expressed through dialogue.

Critic Pauline Kael differentiates between violence in movies that makes you identify with the victims versus that which makes you identify with the perpetrators. Scream is a film in which the audience is always on the side of the victim despite the viewer accepting the basic rule of horror films: that people are going to be slaughtered. Cabin pulls off the trickier feat of making you switch your identification between victims and perpetrators until you realize how corrupt such divisions are and you just want to see the whole system come crashing down. When it does, it’s anarchic and mean, funny and exciting, and somehow moral in its embrace of negation.

One thought on “#2 Cabin in the Woods vs. Scream: the Debate”

  1. To some extent I think Scream works as a slasher movie that simply takes place in a universe where people have seen slasher movies. I was thinking about this recently when rewatching the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. That movie makes a point of having the characters take a long time to understand the basic mechanism of how the zombie virus/curse/whatever it is spreads- they tend to their fellow survivors’ bite wounds, not realizing the threat they pose until they’ve seen a bitten woman die and turn zombie in front of their eyes. To anyone who’s seen a zombie movie, this seems like something approaching an idiot plot, and a decade of zombie saturation later, I’m not sure an audience would readily buy it. (I haven’t seen The Walking Dead so I don’t know how they deal with this issue.) But if you accept that the people in the movie live in a world without zombie movies, it (maybe) makes passable sense.

    Books and movies about vampires, by contrast, tend to acknowledge that their characters know what a vampire is, and know a fair amount about the lore around them (spreading through bites, repelled by crosses, stakes through the heart, invitations needed to enter homes etc.). Scream is just acknowledging that slasher-killers exist as a part of modern mythology, and on that particular level isn’t necessarily any more self-referencing or parodying of slasher movies than Salem’s Lot is of vampire novels.

    On another level, of course, Scream IS self-referential: a tossed-off comment about big-breasted blondes in horror movies running up the stairs instead of out the door, then a later scene where a big-breasted blonde makes the questionable decision to flee a killer by trying to climb through a too-small window in a garage door; a line about how anyone who has sex in a horror movie dies, followed soon after by Sidney upstairs having sex with her boyfriend. But the interesting thing about these scenes is that they feel like things the characters might actually do–a person trapped in a garage with a masked maniac might make an unwise decision in an attempt to get away, or two people in a sexless relationship might change that at a time of heightened emotion and anxiety. They aren’t pure movie plot devices, in other words, so while they’re clever and funny they don’t pull us entirely out of the realism of the movie, however comically entertaining said realism might be. (And their are other little moments of realism throughout the film, like the killer showing some bumbling vulnerability or the neglected popcorn burning on the stove in the opening scene.) In Cabin, on the other hand, the horror movie conventions being pure plot devices is pretty much the point–the underground control room is a literal deux ex machina.


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