DOUBLE FEATURE: "And Then There Were None" dir. Rene Clair (1945) + "The Cabin in the Woods" dir. Drew Goddard (2012)

"Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad."
          -Emily Brent

To spoil, or not to spoil?  Although the idea of "Spoiling" itself certainly has deeper roots, we mostly associate the term with the increasing number of online critics of film and television that has been growing since the birth of the medium.  Of course, the idea of Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet is alternately derided as the death of standards in criticism, and praised as the democratizing of the true critical voice.  The term "Spoiler," popularized as a term of "Netiquette," has now been satirized, challenged, and reconstituted, and is, in one sense, essential to the discussion about the value of criticism, whether online or off.  As mentioned recently on ECSTATIC, sometimes a film is so bad it almost deserves to be spoiled (as with James McTeigue's The Raven), or more accurately, the surprise is so banal that it hardly even matters. And for those rare films that truly do have a twist worth preserving, it is often the case that the surprise is accompanied by a great film. Rene Clair's And Then There Were None, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's iconic murder mystery Ten Little Indians, is a film whose resolution is worth preserving, though not nearly the most interesting aspect of the film.  In this case, getting there is way more fun than the actual arrival.

And Then There Were None
With that said, I'm glad that And Then There Were None wasn't spoiled for me, although it may surprise some that I had a truly "pure" viewing of the film, since it is from 1945, adapted from a book first published in 1939, and therefore not quite as high a priority on the "Do Not Spoil" list as something like The Cabin in The Woods.  But, truly, I had no experience with the Christie novel, or the very popular stage version (which the film is based on), or any of the other film versions.  And, perhaps it's true what Jonah Lehrer proposes in his article from Wired last year, where he debunks the idea of the spoiler, admitting that he reads the end of cheap mystery novels first, concluding:  "Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience."  When Jonah Lehrer has time to read mystery novels I have no idea.  I generally can't find time to read fiction I want to read, let alone mystery novels, all while not being a famous neuroscientist who publishes books that draw broad conclusions about creativity and bathroom placement.  No, I'm not much of a  mystery guy, but that's probably because the "mystery" itself tends to be the only resident element of revelation in most of the genres incarnations.  As far as "spoilers" go, I have little concern for them on ECSTATIC in general, although I have pulled myself back from the brink of spoilage from time to time, but usually only when the "endangered element" of a film is bound to some essential idea within, which is perhaps not the case with And Then There Were None...which (SPOILER ALERT!) I'm not going to spoil.  The film is not without its moral considerations, but is perhaps more a film of exceptional craft than ideas.

It was his sled.
Rene Clair's roots as a director of silent films are on display from the very beginning of And Then There Were None, as we join a cast of potential murder suspects aboard a claustrophobic ferry to an unknown destination.  Sans dialogue, Clair establishes each character through a series of gestures, as each one is crowded out by the scoundrel next to them, creating a round of frustration that is the perfect comedic precursor to the increasingly frantic build of revolving suspicion to come.  Clair's silent era feature A nous la liberte (1931) is a great example of the kind of adeptness with physical and spatial humor that Clair carried over to sound films like ATTWN.  Somewhat sadly,  A nous la liberte is most often remembered as the film that launched a lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin for copping from Clair the idea for Modern Times (1936). Chaplin claimed not to have seen Clair's film, and by all accounts Clair was embarrassed by the claim of plagiarism, and a huge fan of Chaplin.  Both A nous la liberte and Modern Times play today as uncontroversial works of separate genius with a few interesting similarities, particularly in their commentaries on the working class and the problem of adapting to new technologies and industry. Though ATTWN is not as overtly political as Chaplin's first foray into talking pictures, The Great Dictator (1940), Clair's take on the murder mystery is probably more successful in its more modest, contained goals.

Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkle in The Great Dictator
Judith Anderson as Emily Brent in And Then There Were None
In And Then There Were None Clair is mostly subservient to the needs of the rather complicated logistics of telling Christie's story, though his artful mis-en-scene is never absent.  Remember, clarity of narrative is not exactly in line with Clair's beginnings, since even before his more commercial silent era work he came to film through the collaborative efforts of the French Dada-ists in the early 20's.  Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray appeared in Clair's first film, one of the seminal expressions of visual anarchy, Entr'acte, scored by Erik Satie and designed as the visual intermission for the Dada Opera Relache by Francis Picabia.  ATTWN is a far cry from those early films born of the anti-art movement, but in contrast shows just how expansive Clair's journey was as a director.  If Entr'acte threw all narrative rules to the wayside, ATTWN shows a director embracing the rules of storytelling, but still infusing it with a visual playfulness carried over from the Dada days.  In one of the film's best sequences, Clair cleverly engages us with the voyeuristic tropes of the film, as we spy along with the men in the house in a round of keyhole voyeurism that eventually eats its own tail.  The act of looking, spying, becomes a motif of increasing paranoia, as the characters track each other not only through keyholes, but also telescopes and binoculars.

June Duprez and Louis Hayward in And Then There Were None
Rene Clair
Although And Then There Were None might be considered dated by some, a mere template for the murder mystery genre, it remains quite unparalleled in its class, particularly because it offers a somewhat complex sense of itself.  As the characters progressively eye each other, there's another "eye" that is always present, shared by Clair and Christie, who are not exactly playing it straight.  The plot of the film revolves around discovering the identity of the man who has gathered this collection of unpunished murderers to a remote island, a man we know only as "U.N. Owen."  We first here the voice of the "U.N. Owen" character on a recording, cued up by the butler (a hilarious Richard Hayden...who didn't do it) as a way to announce the crimes of this house full of "Indians" (or "Niggers," as per the original title of the book), but is also cuing us to the "disembodied" influence on the story:  the author and auteur. And, embedded within this narrative is a constant reminder that the story has already been written, so to speak, as the entire murderous dance happens to the tune of "Ten Little Indians," even further framed in another external form by the sculptural centerpiece of the film that mysteriously marks the death of each guest.

And Then There Were None
"U.N. Owen" is, in one sense, what became "Jigsaw" from the Saw franchise. The thrill of witnessing the methodical punishment of the guilty is at the heart of both narratives. On the other hand, ATTWN is the inverse of the "money shot" mentality of torture porn in that nearly all of the moments of violence happen off screen, creating a sense of excitement around what the script withholds, as well as a unique balance of humor and sinister intent, and (perhaps the most absent claim made of the Saw films) a host of great performances--particularly Barry Fitzgerald as Judge Quinncannon, Walter Huston as Dr. Armstrong, and Judith Anderson as the ice cold Emily Brent ("Very Stupid to kill the only servant in the house.  Now we don't even know where to find the marmalade").  Is ATTWN a partial progenitor of the slasher film of the late 70's/early 80's, which then experienced an unsettling amplification in the age of increasing surveillance and You Tube remove?  Perhaps, but one of the significant differences is that ATTWN is not experiencing popularity in the age of the crimes of Guantanamo and the media proliferation of a particular brand of uneducated Christian extremism, which transforms the Saw franchise into a sort of accompanying right wing religious parable (the marketers of Saw III even clipped a few words from a verse of Ezekial for the trailer, as if it were Entertainment Weekly), with the true terror being that there is undoubtedly some "good Christian kid" out there right now with a box-set, a bear trap, and a plan to carry out some righteous, Jigsaw-style justice.  (After all, at the end of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ we didn't even get to see him strap on the bandeleros and kick some ass!)  But, of course, movies don't kill people.  People kill movies.  And, I would never suggest that the relationship between films and real world violence is one of simple Cause and Effect, but rather a cumulative effect that naturalizes us toward thinking about violence and justice in ways that, in this case, reflect too accurately the dangerously uncritical conservatism that is the bed that actual violence lies in.  As with Emily Brent, though the exterior presentation is clearly a posture, there is a weakness, a true fear, living in the heart of that audience, as they collectively echoed her words over the last eight years through ticket and T-shirt purchases:  "I see nothing wrong with his notion of punishing the guilty."

Saw III (2003)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Any genre will no doubt have its purists and its separatists, but no matter what the form, it is bound to experience changes over time. Mostly what we see is an ebb and flow between genres attempting to evolve by entering into the realm of self awareness, usually followed by a return to behaving "as they should" (commercially, that is). When the term "porn" is applied to the Saw franchise, many of its fans get defensive (at least, those who don't want to admit to liking porn), even though the term is accurate in that it is a nearly infallible commercial product, not to mention what is keeping most hometown video stores in business these days. (Actually, porn may ultimately have more cultural value than a Saw film, if only in regards to those who need basic instruction). The term was also applied by critics to John Carpenter's The Thing in the early eighties, but it's hard to make the case that there is anything as weighty in the Saw series as what supports the excesses of Carpenter's masterpiece, which is in some ways a sci-fi version of And Then There Were None.  Unfortunately, the Saw franchise was seen by many of its viewers to be a fresh evolution of the horror genre; the answer to what was next after Wes Craven's Scream franchise had produced three entries, when in actuality it was a return to treating the production of horror films like the production of hamburgers.  In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's new film The Cabin in the Woods, the genre seems to be flowing back toward the meta-horror mode.  Hitting theaters alongside the resounding flop of Scream 4, Cabin is both more successful as a critique of the horror industry, and as pure entertainment.

Scream (1996)
Richard Jenkins - Cabin in the Woods
Whedon fans will be able to unpack all of the "Whedon-isms" that The Cabin in the Woods is surely rife with (no, I still haven't gotten around to Buffy), but what strikes me as more interesting about the picture, as with And Then There Were None, is the level of craft.  Inspiring the loudest public cry of "DO NOT SPOIL" in recent memory, the film has already inspired a companion reader to assist fans in geeking out on its plethora of references.  But, the true accomplishment of the film is how it avoids the trap of simply becoming a collage of meaningless references, or a film that can be simply boiled down to its ultimate reveal.  Cabin ultimately emerges as a singularly inspired work that pushes audiences past the act of simply recognizing a pop culture reference, and toward engaging what the tropes of the genre suggest about the cultural uses of Horror.  And, frankly, the jokes work.  Cabin is one of the funniest movies I've seen in the theater in a long time, particularly when it comes to the inspired casting and performances of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.  The actors who play the characters in the "Cabin in the Woods" film-within-the-film score some nice moments as well, but if there's a problem with the film its in their particular arc.  As they slowly find themselves embroiled in the ludicrous conspiracy of the film, their manipulated transformation into the iconic stereotypes of Horror required to appease the "Gods" seems a muddled aspect of the film.  But, the idea of aligning the very real notion of sacrificial ritual with our desire to collectively gather beneath the bloody flicker of constructed horror narratives is where the film reaches a bit farther, and with a bit more cleverness, than other attempts at genre deconstruction.  If what the audience sees reflected in the mirror of the films opening scene between Jenkins and Whitford is not quite what they expected, then there may be a chance they're not going to be on board for a film whose enjoyment lies in the interplay of a dual narrative, and a recognition that the genre itself has grown a bit tired.  As for the "twist" of Cabin, it's one that is woven throughout, measured in its reveal, and one that happens on a few different levels (one of which lies in the most brilliantly alienating and hilarious title cards in recent memory).  To say that "the cabin is not what it seems" is not really spoiling anything, and something that was already present in the great promotional design for the film.  But (to rephrase Edward Albee), if a movie can be summed up in a single sentence, then that should be its length.  

Kristen Connolly and Jesse Williams - Cabin in the Woods 
For a film whose initial impulse most certainly comes from a childhood fetish I share without embarrassment with Whedon--namely, the "Battle Royale" comics of our youth, as in Marvel's "Secret Wars," which were only an excuse to get all of the super heroes and villains together to see what would happen without the worries of crafting a terribly convincing overarching plot--The Cabin in the Woods doesn't make the common mistake of stopping at that juvenile impulse, but actually builds a movie around that "What if...?" idea, and delivers what the recent spate of super hero or horror films failed to do.  Curiously, The Cabin in the Woods sat on the shelf for quite some time, reportedly over the production companies attempt to apply a post-production 3D process to the film, which it fortunately didn't receive.  The fact that the 3D dispute put Cabin's release date right before Whedon's The Avengers, another movie that would have been just fine minus the post-3D processing, only accentuates the production companies disregard for good product when it comes to the temptation to take in a few extra bucks by over-charging for the magic shades.  But the subsequent close release of the two films reveals something else about the way Whedon's particular skills fit into the industry, as Cabin comes off as an all-to-rare wide release product that is intelligent and well crafted, whereas The Avengers barely survives being another overpriced CGI display by virtue of having Whedon on board.  In both cases, Whedon comes out looking pretty good.  In The Avengers he pulls off a juggling act that barely holds together, a feat of comic book adaptation too often fumbled entirely by directors who don't seem to realize that comic books and movies require, by their very nature, two fairly different levels of engagement.  Obviously, Whedon shows an expert level grasp of structure, and where he thrives as the puppet master of those structural elements in Cabin, in The Avengers he is clearly subservient to the impossible demands of the franchise, though still manages to triumph, albeit in a way that seems minor in comparison.  In Cabin Whedon may not be able to take his impulse to frustrate genre expectations to the artistic heights reached by the Coen Brothers, but even though he's not too likely to achieve a cinematic vision of that proportion (at least until he gets himself a Roger Deakins), he is at least striving for something more than a mere knock off (see: the recent Thin Ice, featuring Greg Kinnear; or, one of Brando's last, Free Money).

The Coen Brothers - Blood Simple (1984)
Whedon and Goddard - Cabin in the Woods
In the end, The Cabin in the Woods earns its indulgences, and although the surprise appearance by Sigourney Weaver as "The Director" at the end is less effective than most of the films other meta-moments, the denoument homage to Carpenter's The Thing is well played.  And, once again, how we get there is the most enjoyable aspect.  The very final image is a questionable one though, as we actually see the demon arm of destruction rise from the cabin, obliterating the perspective of the audience, and the world.  My initial reaction was that the more effective ending would be one more akin to the original ending of The Thing, leaving us in a quiet moment with the final two survivors, and an air of ambiguity.  But, in retrospect, it seems essential that the film take its supernatural conceit to that final extreme, and essential to the survival of the films more covert riches that it not take itself too seriously.  After all, as Miss Brent would put it:  "You can't lock out the Devil."




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