The English words "rhythm" and "ritual" share the same common ancestor, which makes sense when you stop to think about it. They both go back to an Indo-European root that meant "to count," or "to number," which also shows up in "arithmetic" and suggests the idea of imposing order or pattern on the universe. Our rituals are a rhythm as sure as any heartbeat; they bring a sense of structure to our lives.
Which brings me to the teenage slasher movie.
If that segue just gave you whiplash, then you probably haven't seen The Cabin in the Woods yet, and you probably should stop reading now if you have any intention to see it, because there are spoilers ahead. I think I wanted to love this movie; it was written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (directed by Goddard as well), whose work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel constituted some of the best television ever. And on one level I did love it, but on another it all seems to crash and burn because like Icarus it just got too clever for itself.
The teenage slasher movie is just the modern incarnation of "The Tale of the Hook," its immediate ancestor. You know the one I am talking about. It goes something like this; a young couple drives out to lover's lane and parks the car, hears on the radio that an escaped psychopath with a hook for a hand is roaming about, but unwisely stays to make out anyway. They hear a noise, and in some versions he goes out to investigate and gets killed and in others they speed off just in time, only to find a hook hanging on the passenger side door. This Hook Man is horror's dead beat dad, having fathered Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers and Leatherface only to then abandon them to follow their own murderous careers.
The point is we all know the story the moment it begins. We've all experienced it at some point in our adolescence because the Teenage Slasher Film is a ritual just as sure and familiar as getting your driver's license, graduation, or losing your virginity. In ancient times societies would have called it an ordeal, a ritual you must undergo to test you before you pass into adulthood.
If you are a fan of the genre, or far worse a lunatic like me who happens to believe horror is important and worthy of study, then you know all the rules as surely as the characters in Scream. Rule One requires a group of teenagers...but not just any teenagers, they must conform to certain archetypes, like trumps in a Tarot Hand. You need the Jock, the Bad Girl, the Good Girl, the Nice Guy, and the Joker (or Nerd). Rule Two is that you must isolate them. Rule Three is that there must be some sort of Transgression...the kids must do something to bring it all on themselves. Rule Four is that the Hook shows up and starts killing them (the Bad Girl always goes first and usually right after having premarital sex, the naughty whore). Rule Five is that someone--probably the Good Girl--survives to tell the tale. Make no mistake, all of this is a ritual as surely as Mass on Sundays.
But a ritual to appease what gods?
*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
Goddard and Whedon have that answer for you, in this film. Like any slasher film our five teens leave school behind to go off for the weekend to a cabin in the woods...but almost we are made aware that some massive government secret agency is tracking them and manipulating them. Beneath this cabin is a high tech spy complex from which they watch the teens' every move and play with them like chess pieces, forcing them to conform to the ritual of the teenage slasher film. They watch as teen after teen is horribly murdered on hidden camera and cheer them on. The punchline of course is that their are Lovecraftian dark gods sleeping in the Earth, and this annual ritual sacrifice of young people is required to keep them from waking and destroying the Earth.
It's clever. Very clever. And that's the problem.
See, the message is that the Teenage Slasher Film is a sacrifice performed for our benefit, the audience. We are the dark gods that must be appeased and there is the subtle implication that somehow things like horror films are releases valves that let off some of the pressure inside of us so we don't explode and start rampaging. There may be some truth to this...after all horror is a form of exorcism. But it all came off as too self-aware, too proud of itself, to really please me. I am one of those people who firmly believes that horror is this sort of ritual offering, but the suspension of disbelief is a key element of that working, and the film lost me in the final act.
As I said, I love Whedon and I like Goddard, but both have done this kind of post-modern deconstruction of the horror film far better before. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the textbook case, with most of the same archetypes but this time the teens killed the monsters. The Cabin in the Woods, despite moments of brilliance, doesn't live up to its own potential.
But don't let this get you down. Just as there will be Christmas next year or the Fourth of July, there will be fresh horror films where the ritual is repeated and the black gods appeased.
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