Cabin in the Woods

Finally, I managed to see this yesterday, after a lot of interesting comments and reviews from others.  There are going to be SPOILERS so be warned.  First off: I really enjoyed it.  It’s always a pleasure watching Sigourney Weaver beating the cr*p out of somebody.  It was a good mix of horror with a twist, and there were some fun concepts based around the idea of a corporate sacrifice factory designed to prevent/delay the end of the world.

Joss Whedon’s touch was evident in the camp larger than life gratuitousness of some of the characters and scenes.  A squad of troops being slaughtered in a nightmarish lift-foyer massacre.  An office party with a silent and ignored backdrop of a brutal undead assault.  Person catching a friend’s severed head.

The points I found thought-provoking were these:

1. Given the need to appease the BBG (Big Bad God) with the sacrifices, where is the moral compass on this one? I’ll refer to the sacrifices as the ‘victims’

2. How realistic was the portrayal of the corporation employees?

Starting with 1 – We are given proof of the BBG threat at the end when it actually wakes up. We know that the need for the sacrifice is genuine, and that apparently the rules of the sacrifice require extreme nastiness to be inflicted upon the victims.  There is the point that other sacrifice factories around the world are also attempting a similar enterprise just-in-case of failure, but in the film they do fail so no reprieve there.  So, during the film as we watch the victims struggling to survive, where should our loyalties lie?  Instinctively we root for the oppressed,  but by doing so we are inviting the end of the world which also happens to involve the victims dying anyway – possibly in just as nasty a way – along with everyone else.  Given this moral inversion I can understand a lot of the difficulty that some people had appreciating the film, as it steps outside the familiar comforting moral conduit that the Hollywood machine is so fond of.  The utilitarian sum would seem to pretty much follow the victims as needing to die to save the rest – a real sacrifice – and part of the fun of the film is seeing and feeling the fact of this inversion sink in.  Also, the virgin character apparently need not die as long as she outlives the other victims, although we might question what would realistically happen to a person whose  right-to-life has already been so casually placed in jeopardy when they outlive their usefulness.  Desert island retirement?  Bullet in the head?  Monster feeding time?  The other 4 sacrifices are dead right from the beginning as they must die painfully else all die painfully:  Only the virgin might live.  But we still root for the victims even though we know that technically it makes no sense.  Then again, we are used to films offering us and the characters no-win situations which are then resolved by human ingenuity, a stroke of timely intervention or a demonstration of the capacity of <insert moral virtue here> to conquer all.  For a change, there is no ‘Get out of Jail free’ card – so no such salvation is forthcoming.

Point 2 was about how realistic the corporation employees were portrayed.  This caused some intense discussion concerning whether this was a grotesque exaggeration a la Whedon, or a more realistic scenario than we might be comfortable acknowledging.  The film introduces the workers alongside the victims with deliberate ambiguity at the start, leaving the viewer wondering what the hell is going on.  We can appreciate the casual white-collar office environment of these people – maybe they are working at a power station or an animal testing lab.  They play pranks on each other and make small-talk.  It’s when the sacrifice factory starts up that we see the horror of these apparently average people facilitating the gruesome deaths of the victims.  They place bets on how the victims are going to die.  They ogle the young lovers on secret camera and casually hope the ‘dumb blonde’ gets killed first.  They orchestrate and execute the suffering and slaughter required by the rules of the ritual. Finally, when they manage to kill the victims off and beat the ‘perfect-record’ Japanese branch, they have a raucous office party with the virgin being beaten to death on the large video screen backdrop.

So, are these people grotesque monsters themselves, or humans doing their job?  Well, do they need to act so inhumanly?  Can’t they do their jobs with more dignity and respect for the victims they are brutally killing?  Certainly the director – Sigourney – gives a more dignified appearance as the top level executive, when she isn’t trying to beat a victim to death.  Should we not expect the rest to act more like this?

I expect exaggeration, from Whedon and from any film which is deliberately provoking and revelling in moral inversion.  But to what degree?  I personally liked what I felt was quite realistic once the ?slight? exaggeration was taken into account for a few reasons:  Gallows humour and schadenfreude are pretty normal coping methods for people in nasty situations.  Scientists in labs need to emotionally distance themselves from animals due to be tested upon, in order to be able to do their jobs.  Soldiers use multiple techniques to reduce the moral significance of their enemies so they do not hesitate to drive the bayonet into the sandbag/person.  If your job was to murder people in a horrific manner for the greater good, you’d have to either be quite a strange person anyway from an emotional perspective or find some other ways to cope.  Perhaps the gladatorial arena model is helpful here:  The fighters are going to all die unless some of them are killed in a brutal manner for the crowd’s pleasure.  The fighters could all decide to die together in a touching and futile show of solidarity by refusing to participate in the charade, but in Cabin in the Woods the stakes are much higher with all humanity becoming BBG chow.

When I see the corporation acting so inhumanly, I don’t find it so hard to see their behaviour as good examples of humans coping in psychological extremis. i.e. They pretty much have to stop considering the victims as people, and start to see them as something else.  Actors in a black comedy show or snuff-film maybe?  Bad people who somehow deserve their punishments for their transgressions?  Test subjects?  To treat the victims with greater respect and dignity is actually quite dangerous – that invites consideration that what is being done is bad.

Given the moral stake of humanity vs a handful of people, for most of us we would go with the majority survival.  To do otherwise would be a rejection of the moral situation posed – a pretty emotive toys-out-of-pram response to a nasty decision that cannot be avoided otherwise.  Perhaps it would be a verdict that humanity should not live under the yoke of a BBG and would be better off dead, although the relatively small sacrifice demanded does not seem so unusual after all.

There is a sense in which the people of the corporation are actually sacrifices as well – just as soldiers become social outcasts when they are trained to kill.  We can see this problem arise when they try to reintegrate after time in service.  The corporation is run by people who necessarily live in a kind of moral/psychological limbo for the sake of humanity to survive in blissful ignorance.  Then again, if this mirror of humanity is so monstrous, perhaps the viewer would be so disgusted as to damn the lot of us.

How reasonable is it to think that the more diabolical the task, the more monstrously our methods of coping might seem to others?  The film does give us a nice human touchstone in the form of a black security-guard who has recently joined the corporation.  He is suitably restrained and disapproving of his colleagues antics – perhaps a more acceptable model of human behaviour in extremis, although I am not convinced how long this would remain the case.  He’d have been left out of office parties as the ‘odd-guy’ and effectively be left to shoulder his misgivings alone – a difficult cross to bear.  But why couldn’t all the workers have been more like him?  Frankly, at this point, speculation on the intrinsic nature of humanity becomes pretty difficult, over-generalised or effectively demoralising!  I find it hard to imagine the entire corporation having his work ethic, any more than most people don’t drink, smoke, binge, gamble or perve in general.

The corporation are people working on the edge of madness in a very real sense:  BBG is real. The corp hierarchy presumably tries to shield different areas from the whole truth much as the human mind compartmentalises and represses nasty facts, but the nature of the job suggests that maintaining the deceit is more tricky when the janitor is sweeping up blood and guts each day.  ‘The BBG is real’ is already a pretty massive mental upheaval.  Throwing into the mix the routine slaughter of human beings to placate it and you have a pretty clear mental extremis.  Either people are going to be paragons of psychological stability, rocks of zenlike calm in chaos who treat their job with an almost religious sense of decorum and dignity, or they are going to be a examples of a communal coping strategy.  By all buying into the same techniques they all support each other.  They use the routine, the video distancing, the black humour, the small talk, the focussing on minutiae, the utilitarian moral high ground, dehumanising the victims – all of this and more in an attempt to deal.  And after we pass it through the filter of film, I find the latter far more realistic than the former.  At the very least, it offers a bit more light relief!