Perhaps the most influential single sentence in my life came from a music theory professor in my first year of college. We simultaneously studied symphonic form and the great symphonic composers, who developed the form over time. At one point, a classmate pointed out a legitimate puzzler: “Why is it that we’re studying these rigid rules all symphonies are supposed to follow, but every time we learn about a great composer, what makes them great is all the ways they broke the rules?” The professor, without a second thought, simply said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
I’ve tried to determine if he was quoting someone or simply had this bon mot teed up for a question he got every semester. The jury’s still out (the internet attributes similar quotes to Picasso and the Dalai Lama, both debunked), but it’s sort of irrelevant. I heard it first from this professor, and the single mission statement kinda snapped my creative thinking into laser focus.
I try to let new artworks wash over me, to experience them in the moment. When something truly affects me, I try to puzzle out after the fact why. When you watch enough movies, read enough books, listen to enough music—well, maybe I’m just tough on art, but it takes something special to fully entrance me. In my quest to know everything, I’ve always tried to understand why some things work so well, some things don’t work at all, and some things hit a few sweet spots but don’t really do it for me. This has led to a pretty strong interest in different aspects of art (especially narrative art), including genre conventions, semiotics, and just figuring out why some types of stories keep getting retold (not to mention the relationship of a genre’s popularity in the sociopolitical context of its times).
Some people find this stuff extremely boring, uncreative, mechanical… To me, these are the rules, and I want to learn them. I tend to gravitate toward movies that break them, so I think I find the rules themselves interesting so I can understand why one form of “rule-breaking” works so well for me while others don’t. More often than not, it comes down to rules broken by someone who understands them (like David Lynch, who has the tools of a master storyteller combined with a total disinterest in conventional storytelling), versus someone who doesn’t (I guess I’ll use human punching bag Troy Duffy as an example; his Boondock Saints is arguably the most popular of the vast ocean of shitty crime movies that tried to imitate Tarantino without understanding how he both used and broke “the rules”).
I’d say horror films have fallen under the microscope of analysis moreso than perhaps any other genre. I can see a number of reasons why. Cinéastes have to wonder about the perverse pleasures of horror, which more or less take conventional tropes (a damsel in distress and a formidable villain, for instance) and take them to depraved extremes. Even when they use common narrative conventions, why do audiences flock to stories designed to scare and shock? From a sociological and psychological perspective, it’s worth exploring.
More importantly, horror (especially in film) provides innumerable knockoffs and cash grabs of a successful formula, and so analysts and scholars ask, “How did the elements of past horrors lead to this one successful formula? Why did that formula endure? What are the conventions that make up the formula, as distinct from other horror films and other films in general?” Fucking nerd shit, right? But asking and answering so many questions about horror films has led to a surprisingly detailed cataloging of subgenres, character archetypes, and peculiar tropes. So much analysis has led to a wave of metafictional horror comedies, distinct from earlier horror comedies that mainly mine laughs from absurdly horrific situations. Examples include Ash fighting his own hand in Evil Dead II (1987), or possibly my favorite line in any horror movie (from 1985’s Re-Animator: “What would a note, Dan? ‘Dead cat, details later’?”
Some of these “meta” horror comedies are quite effective with both scares and laughs, but few attempt what screenwriters Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon do in The Cabin in the Woods: they mine most of their laughs by seeking to provide an explanation for the least plausible aspects of an archetypal slasher movie. Why is there always an obnoxious frat dude hooking up with a slutty bimbo? Why is there always a comic-relief stone and a “virgin”? The answer, in this film, is that some god or other demands a “voluntary” sacrifice. A secret government installation nudges our heroes/victims in the right directions, secretly supplying them with drugs to make them dumber or hornier, turning up heat to ensure the nudity that will leads to sex. The choices are volitional only in the most superficial sense, just enough to appease these ancient gods.
In 90 minutes, Goddard and Whedon made a film that manages to push so goddamn many of my buttons, it’s like they made a movie just for me. Elaborate-to-the-point-of-absurd government conspiracies? Sure! Funny genre deconstruction? Yup. Legitimate scares despite the knowing winks to the genre? Check. An unexpected exploration of free will? Yeah, it even has that! It finally builds to a third act so demented, chaotic, and gory, I’d challenge any horror fan not to fall in love. Of the wave of meta horror over the past 10 years, I’d call The Cabin in the Woods a high-water mark not likely to be surpassed.
As we push through 150 Films, it will become clear that many of the comedies I enjoy feature a heady dose of genre deconstruction. The reason, I think, is clear: when a filmmaker knows the rules and deliberately breaks them to get a laugh, I giggle and clap my hands like a small child.
Keep or Sell? Keep
Up Next: The Castle (1997)