Archive for April 17th, 2012
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended. Audiences, it seems, would rather see a bad movie that meets their expectations than a great one that subverts them. And whenever there’s a sharp discrepancy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, as measured by CinemaScore, it’s often for a challenging film—think Drive or The American—that has been cut together in its commercials to look like safe, brainless genre fare, or one like Vanilla Sky or Solaris that, whatever its flaws, is trying valiantly to break out of the box. (Or The Box.)
I found myself mulling over this yesterday after seeing The Cabin in the Woods, an uneven but often terrific movie, in both senses of the word, that seems designed to frustrate the kinds of audience members that CinemaScore so diligently tracks. All the danger signs were there: this is ostensibly a horror movie, after all, a genre that tends to get positive responses from audience members only if it gives them precisely what they want. It’s also comedy-horror, a notoriously tricky genre. And most of all, writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take a seemingly conventional story—five familiar slasher-movie types menaced in, well, a cabin in the woods—and deconstruct it so savagely that no one, not even the filmmakers or the audience, can escape. Despite all this, The Cabin in the Woods escaped with a C rating on CinemaScore, which is more than I would have expected, but still implies that a lot of people aren’t happy—anything less than a B+ or so is seen as a sign of trouble ahead. As a commenter on the A.V. Club says of the early reaction: “There was quite a lot of love and stunnedness, sure, but there was also a healthy amount of ‘waste of money’ and ‘dumbest movie ever.’”
And in a sense, The Cabin in the Woods is a stupid movie, if you define stupidity as an obstinate refusal to meet your expectations. Clearly, it’s more than capable of delivering the kind of horror that the audience wants: it cheerfully provides plenty of jump scares, shadowy basements, and bucketfuls of gore. The fact that it then turns into something much different can strike a lot of people as simple incompetence. The logic goes something like this: if they could give us a straightforward horror film, but didn’t, they must have no clue as to what we really want. The idea that a movie may know what we want and refuse to provide it, in the classic Joss Whedon style, doesn’t entirely compute—and rightly so, since most of the movies we see have trouble just delivering on their most basic promises. The Cabin in the Woods has it both ways as much as a movie possibly can—it never stops being scary, funny, and entertaining even as it changes the rules of its own game—but it still seems to have left a lot of people feeling cheated. Box Office Mojo sums up the situation nicely:
By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.
So what’s a director, or a movie studio, to do? The easiest response, obviously, is either to give away every twist in the trailer, as the director Robert Zemeckis has famously advocated, or to only make movies that deliver blandly on an audience’s expectations while flattering them otherwise. In the latter case, this results in movies and marketing campaigns like those for Super 8 and Cloverfield (also written, interestingly, by Drew Goddard), which are essentially elaborate simulations of movies with a twist or secret premise, when in fact the film itself is utterly conventional. The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, has a real secret, not a winking simulacrum of one: the trailer hints at it, but the movie goes much further than most moviegoers would expect. Not surprisingly, it’s getting punished for it. Because unlike movies that appeal squarely to the art house or the solid mainstream, Cabin occupies that risky space where the expectations of a mass audience collide with something rich and strange. And that’s the scariest place for any movie to be.