So after a few years languishing in post-production limbo, is it any coincidence that Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods has finally found a release at the same time as the Hunger Games? At first glance they are very different films, but they have a surprising amount in common.
Both feature a collection of young people thrust into an arena and made to fight for their lives for the entertainment of a baying crowd. Only one can/might survive. The young people behave as expected: fighting and dying – until one begins to question quite what is going on, and why.
Both feature virtually omniscient surveillance in an ostensibly wild environment, as well as climate control and other invasive ways to mess with the emperilled kids.
Both question the voyeuristic nature of entertainment and make sly digs at the culture of image-obsession. One of the things I really liked in Hunger Games was the utterly cynical approach to image and media manipulation. Having led a very poor and rough life so far, one of the first things to happen to Katniss upon her arrival in the capital is to be thoroughly waxed in order to make her presentable to the audience. In Cabin in the Woods, Jules is encouraged in her role of dumb blonde by the addition of behaviour altering chemicals to her hair bleach.
What zeitgeisty nuggets can we glean from this? I remember having paranoid fantasies about such levels of sinister observation when I was a kid back in the late 70s/early 80s. Back then it really was the stuff of sci-fi, but advances in technology mean that it is becoming increasingly plausible. This primal fear of being secretly watched, of being judged, of being manipulated in ways we can’t percieve – isn’t this simply the religious imperative at work? Isn’t this the same impulse that makes us imagine gods and angels and demons?
*** mild spoilers from this point on ***
Ultimately the survivors of the arena reject their allotted fate, and take the fight to the puppet masters (okay, I think you have to wait for the HG sequels for some of that, but the point stands). There is a lot to like about this scenario: defying fate, questioning those in power, railing at the gods.
Many people I know were underwhelmed by Cabin in the Woods, mostly I think because it wasn’t enough like a proper horror film. Fair enough, but I believe it’s something far more interesting: the slasher genre tortured to death and stuffed up its own fundament.* Plus, the nightmare creatures running wild finale was the most deliriously nutso thing I’ve seen on the big screen in years.
* of course, like any horror film villain, it will somehow make its return…