Wednesday, 10 June 2015 12:32 pm[personal profile] mokie
mokie: Red-haired punk Vyvyan makes rude gestures at the viewer (childish)
Warning: I'm talking horror movies and poking plots, including that of The Cabin in the Woods. If you're twitchy about spoilers or just don't like my long-winded horror movie chatter, turn back now.

A writer is taking Joss Whedon (et al.) to court, saying that The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a rip-off of his original novel. The book was written in 2006, self-published* and hawked on the streets of Los Angeles, where the writer and Whedon (and about 4 million other people) live and work. You can check out the lawsuit online, including the similarities it points out between the two works, such as:
#1. The story centers on a band of five teens/young adults: a bubbly blonde, a sweet brunette, a handsome jock, a sensitive guy, and a stoner.
#2. The group travels in a vehicle to a remote cabin in the woods.
#3. A creepy local tries to warn the group away from the cabin.
#4. The previous inhabitants of the cabin were all murdered.
#5. The group stumbles on the previous inhabitants' belongings in a storage area.
#6. The group enjoys themselves.
#7. The group separates, with the couples pairing off and leaving the stoner as the odd man out.
#8. The group is terrorized by the undead murderer.
#9. In a twist, it is revealed that the group has been manipulated all along by a third party for their own agenda.
#10. It turns out that the group has become unwitting participants in other people's entertainment.
#11. Both book and film have a "self-referential awareness of classic horror movie tropes and insert third-party puppeteers to manipulate the characters for the fulfilmment of narrative requirements".
#12. "Both films have a similar mood in that they are horror films that begin with the enthusiasm of a group of friends going on a trip, followed by the excitement of a night of drinking and romance at a cabin in the woods. The mood then shifts to a series of frightening murders which culminates in a surprise reveal that the lead characters are being manipulated for the enjoyment of third parties."
A group's fun segues into drinking and romance but is derailed by a deranged killer? That's the slasher genre in a nutshell.

Self-referential awareness of tropes? That's damn near every horror movie since 1985, and more than a few before that.

Given that a twist is "a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot" and the group discovering that they've been played all along by a third party is pretty much the most expected plot point in the horror, suspense and thriller genres, is it really fair to label that a twist?

Let's break it down.

- Keep the third party interference but cut the third party entertainment? Friday the 13th (1980):
A young woman hitches a ride in a vehicle (sigh) to a remote summer camp - a bunch of cabins in the woods! - despite being warned by a creepy local that its previous inhabitants were murdered. The rest of the group is there, going through old stuff, but they soon loosen up and start enjoying themselves, and pair off to get laid, which leaves them vulnerable to an unseen murderer. The killer's identity is a genuinely shocking twist that has held up pretty well, which reveals a hitherto unknown agenda.

The film isn't a perfect fit, but it gets a pass because it is more than an example - Friday the 13th is the grandpappy of the slasher genre and its franchise the very mold that both Whedon's film and his accuser's book lean on. It may not be the first creepy murder cabin movie, but it is the Platonic ideal.

- Make the already undead murderer noncorporeal? The Evil Dead (1981):
Five friends travel in a vehicle (sigh) to a remote cabin in the woods where the previous inhabitants were murdered, root through their old stuff and accidentally unleash demonic forces that manipulate, murder and terrify the group for their own entertainment and agenda. The agenda and the twist are more relevant and visible in the sequels, but it's still a classic.

Cut the explicit romance, lighten the tone, and have the group split in half instead of pairing off into two couples and a stoner? Scooby Doo, Where Are You! (1969):
Five friends travel in a vehicle (seriously, this was a point to be made?) to a variety of locations, including remote cabins, from which they are warned to skedaddle by creepy locals, but instead they poke around in old stuff, enjoy themselves, and are terrorized by an assortment of undead baddies. In a twist that is not at all shocking, it is always revealed to have all been manipulation by a third party for their own agenda - and they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids.

Gosh, it's almost as if intentionally using a standardized genre template and played-out tropes in a concerted effort to produce a clichéd and formulaic story specifically for the purpose of skewering that formula and those cliches can easily result in end products that have a ridiculous amount of elements in common.

"But mokie! The twist! And not just a twist, but an ironic postmodern twist that flips what we thought we knew about the narrative and characters - yea, verily, even the world we live in - upside down!"

Which is where I stop you, because that sentence was all kinds of redundant.

Let's clarify: by 'postmodern', we're talking about media that's self-aware, self-referential and self-critical to the point of navelgazing, ostensibly for the purposes of deconstruction - so not just movies with something to say, but movies with something to say about the way we say that something, and what that says about us. Ostensibly, but not really: it's more often a reflection of the creator's lack of confidence and awkward self-consciousness, which they have slathered in irony, chosen armor of the uncomfortable Gen-Xer. So that's how we're using it here, but others might disagree with that definition, and that's fine, because it's a hopelessly vague and stupid buzzword that needs to be put on an ice floe and forgotten already.

So, backtracking: "But mokie! The twist! And not just a twist, but an ironic postmodern twist that flips what we thought we knew about the narrative and characters - yea, verily, even the world we live in - upside down!"

Oh, mokie. The postmodern twist is itself a horror cliché these days, and so rarely done well. Nobody tells a straightforward story anymore - it's all winking at the camera and tongues in cheeks and look how clever I am demonstrations of how familiar the head coconuts are with the genre, followed by them skipping merrily down a well-worn path labeled "Unexpected Plot Twist" because that's what's expected nowadays, logic and narrative be damned.

"But mokie! It's the same postmodern twist! It's all a ploy, and they're really unwilling participants in murderous reality TV programming!"

Heard of The Hunger Games (2008), in which teens fight to the death for the amusement of the viewers? How about The Running Man (1982), in which contestants evade government hitmen for the chance to win big on a reality show? Maybe "Bad Wolf," the 2005 Doctor Who episode in which humans are drafted into awful and deadly game shows for the amusement of viewers and the chance to win fantastic prizes (like survival)?

Hey, heard of gladiators?

This twist isn't, "OMG! Reality TV!" That's just the modern paint job. No, the twist is, "We are the true monsters, because we enjoy the spectacle of someone else's suffering," and it ostensibly (there's that word again) pushes the audience to question what we get out of that kind of entertainment and what that says about us, individually and as a species. But really, for modern horror, it's a crutch - a tired toy to be pulled out from under the bed when one wants to feel clever and literary.

Not only is it older than the pyramids (despite what modern horror and rave reviews of The Cabin in the Woods would have you believe**), it's also a very '90s cliché, as pretty much all media in the decade was A Commentary On The Evils of Media Glorification of Violence: Are We Not Entertained (And Terrible for Being Entertained)?, e.g. Natural Born Killers (1994) and any of the many, many, many movies in which a serial killer kills serially specifically to become famous.

Where does that leave us, in regards to Whedon and his accuser?

A dude who wrote a slasher story that uses every cliché in the book is mad at a dude who made a movie that satirizes slasher stories and lampshades every cliché in the book. It's muggles all over again.

* The downside of self-publishing: every time a story like this makes the news, it's a self-published author who doesn't understand zeitgeist, intellectual property or plagiarism.

Meanwhile, I'm still sighing and wishing a certain author would go ahead and self-publish their fantastic novella that agents love but turn down as a difficult sell, because how else am I going to chatter about it at people?

** Don't worry, I've mellowed out about The Cabin in the Woods since complaining that it presented lampshading of antique tropes as commentary on modern horror. I swear, I have! I can take a stroll through TV Tropes' section on the film, for example, and appreciate how it works on paper if you're the kind of person who likes to dissect things and see how they're supposed to function.

Alas, as a film, it still makes me want to throw burritos full of broken glass at people who praise it as a brilliant deconstruction of anything, but, y'know, opinions and all.
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