Lovecraft in the Woods

CabinintheWoodsYou know the basic plot: five college students—always an uneven mix of genders—travel to a remote cabin in the woods during a break. Extreme bloodshed ensues. The Evil Dead? Cabin Fever? Blair Witch Project 2? This time it was The Cabin in the Woods. With the exception of Cabin Fever, all of these films have a religious origin for the horror unleashed on our protagonists, with varying degrees of seriousness. The premise of getting away into the woods is overtly sexual in nature, often with the added vice of drinking or drug use far from the eyes of watchful society. Something inevitably goes terribly wrong. Were they a tad less graphic, most of these movies could pass for morality plays in their adherence to the convention, made obvious in The Cabin in the Woods, that the virgin is the sole survivor. Of course, this is done with tongue deeply embedded in cheek. Joss Whedon, who brought us Thor and The Avengers, knows all about gods, and they are the driving motivation behind the evil lurking in this contrived cabin in an artificial wood.

In this parody of the splatter film, the blood of the archetypal teens is collected to appease a Lovecraftian pantheon of unseen “ancient ones.” These are the gods of old, hidden deep beneath the earth in a slumber, placated by the ritual sacrifice of the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin. The sacrifice is orchestrated by techie priests who wear white shirts and lab coats, in a hermetically sealed laboratory under the cabin where they are set to unleash any variety of monsters on the kids, leading to their gruesome demise. First the protagonists must “sin”—not a difficult prospect, given the arrangements—and be punished. If the ritual fails, the world ends when the “evil, giant gods” are released; echoes of Cthulhu are rife.

Horror movies offer more than scares. If done well, they provide catharsis as well—a kind of celluloid redemption. Writers and directors, however, have moved toward self-parody to distort the horror film into a kind of comedy. Even as early as The Evil Dead, the humor is evident. Joss Whedon, however, effectively wields the evil gods, just as in The Avengers. Deities are revered less for their goodness than for their sheer power. H. P. Lovecraft, an atheist, gave us the old gods. Hollywood has run with them. Instead of catharsis, viewers are left with an undefined unease—something is not quite right with this universe that has been created. Gods, whether holy or horribly profane, demand much of humanity. The response may be abject devotion or laughter. The sins remain the same as human vices of old. It is the gods that have been transformed.

Cabin Fervor

It’s a sure sign that work is growing overwhelming when I’m too tired to watch my weekend horror movies. Well, I decided to fight back the yawns and pull out Cabin Fever this past Saturday night. I’d seen the movie before, and I’m not really a fan of excessive gore. The acting isn’t great and the characters aren’t sympathetic, yet something about the story keeps me coming back. In short, a group of five teenagers (it always seems to be five) are renting a cabin for a week when they get exposed to a flesh-eating virus. They end up infecting just about everyone in the unnamed southern town before they all end up dead. It doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, but that hasn’t stopped one from being made. One of the unfortunate victims of the virus is torn apart by a mad dog. The locals, fearing their safety, decide to hunt down the surviving youths.

On the way to the now gore-smattered cabin, one of the locals mutters that they’ve been sacrificing someone—a natural enough conclusion when body-parts are scattered around, I suppose. He says, “it ain’t Christian.” Well, yes and no. Sacrifice is at the putative heart of Christianity, although human sacrifice (beyond infidels and women) was never part of the picture. As is often the case with horror film tropes, the victim who has been dismembered is a woman. The guys whose deaths are shown are all shot. Now, I have no wish to attribute profundity where it clearly is not intended, but there does seem to be a metaphor here. Our society and its staid religion tolerate the victimization of some over others.

One of the hidden treasures of the best of horror movies is the social commentary. George Romero made an art form of it in Night of the Living Dead and its follow up Dawn of the Dead. Many other writer/directors have managed to do it quite effectively. We can critique our world when hidden behind the mask of the improbable. While the commentary for Cabin Fever may be entirely accidental, I still find a little redemptive value in it. That, I suppose, is the ultimate benefit of social commentary—it is true whether intentional or not. Is there a larger message here? I wonder if the fact that when women are victimized no one survives is pushing the metaphor a little too far. It’s hard to say; I’ve been working a little too much lately.