Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dan Abnett - Ravenor: The Omnibus

The Ravenor trilogy, collected in this Omnibus, takes place in the bleak setting of Warhammer 40,000, where there is only war. Oddly enough for a 40k story, however, Ravenor has no war in it (though that's not to say no action). This is not a frontline tale of the Space Marines holding back the Tyrannid swarm but rather a story set in the heart of the Imperium most of the setting's novels are working so hard to protect. We follow the crippled but psychic Inquisitor Ravenor and his band of heroes and killers as they work to investigate, expose, and destroy heresies and foes. As a result, Ravenor shows us a great deal of the Imperium's fascinating internal workings, and it also reveals the consequences – both small and galactic – of the setting's reality-altering (and smashing) events and players. But for all its successes, Ravenor is badly crippled by plot.

When reading at the pulpier end of the Science Fiction spectrum, it's generally fair to expect mediocre prose glossed over by a rip-roaring plot. Abnett thwarts both expectations. The prose, I'll come back to. Right now, though, let's look at the series' chief failing: Dan Abnett cannot plot. The plots of all three books are simply a string of setpieces. Each one exists solely to get us to the next setpiece. As soon as that next setpiece is reached, the previous one becomes irrelevant, its purpose served. Though its cast might be considered detectives of a sort, these are totally linear narratives, moving ahead (albeit in an oblique fashion) and never looking back.

Sometimes, it gets to the point where it feels like all the reaction shots were simply edited out. A character is grievously injured at the end of the first novel, Ravenor, and on the point of death. Come the start of the second (Ravenor Returned), he's just fine. A recovery is understandable, but it would have been nice to have at least a single line mentioning it, and it's not the only case. A character's death in Ravenor Returned is felt until that novel's climax, but, by the third novel (Ravenor Rogue), he might as well never have been. After part of the crew is sent an unimaginable distance in Ravenor Rogue and somehow manages to return, we get a single instance of a reunion scene, and then everyone moves on as if the rules of space and even time had not just been proved worthless. The sense that the characters not only do not feel the wonder of their situation but seem clinically deprived of any sort of emotional response at all serves to dampen those responses in the audience as well.

These narratives of disjoined pieces are tied together by the goals of Ravenor's investigation, with each novel, at least in theory, broadening the scope and investigation and further testing Ravenor's resolve and integrity. This works well at first. Ravenor, my favorite of the trilogy by far, focuses on the investigation of flects, a deadly drug that looks just like a shard of glass. Since the reader is as in the dark as the investigators, the piece by piece nature of the storytelling doesn't jar much, and there is a sense of progress as we learn more of the flects' nature and origins. The story's scale is here one of its greatest parts. The Imperium is vast, and, while the flects are dangerous, they are a localized problem. The climax is gritty, brutal, and restrained. It's devastating for a few and irrelevant to most.

The overall goal, however, is not nearly so successful at tying together the parts of the later two novels. In large part, this is because the scale is expanded massively. Things are, in those two, properly and regrettably apocalyptic. Ravenor Returned features a dastardly plot to seize ultimate power through a secret language that can make and unmake reality, and it ends with all the hooded ritual and bombast that one might expect. Here we get viewpoints from the evil characters as well as the good and, while that does broaden the story, it also removes its mystery. The protagonist's ignorance, then, just feels like killing time.

At the novel's end, we discover that Molotch, a villain who died in the prologue, is behind everything. Oh. Uh, that's nice. The conflict with Molotch is also the heart of the final volume. Molotch, you see, is Ravenor's nemesis (p. 656). The two are twined in destiny (ibid). Now, here I'm going to have to plead ignorance a bit. Dan Abnett wrote a prior trilogy about Inquisitors, Eisenhorn, which I have not read, and many of the characters overlap. Maybe Molotch is established and developed there. I hope so, because he isn't here. There are constant references to his brilliance and cruelty and skills and all that, but he's offstage for the entirety of the second book and cooped up for most of the third, save for a single scene where he does get to shine a bit. The rest of the time, however, we simply have to take everyone's word that he's so great and, worse still, take everybody's word that he and Ravenor have some kind of special relationship. All we've seen them do, after all, is shoot at one another a bit.

Ravenor Rogue's problems don't, alas, end with its vague but extreme villain. The first book was driven by the protagonist's investigation, the second by the villain's plan. But, in the third, both sides are reeling, and neither is doing a great deal of great planning. Save for a clever trap or two, everyone basically stumbles around until the climax, at which point what might be supposed to be the trilogy's central arc comes to a climax. Throughout, the characters see and hear ominous hints of the demon Slyte 's birth, which is prophesied to involve both Ravenor and Molotch. The reader, however, need not rely on such hints. We are shown the demon's rather undramatic birth in Ravenor and then get to sit through hundreds of pages of characters poorly ruminating as to who it might be. The pre-revealed reveal, when it comes, does not have, needless to say, the power of a twist.

Abnett's piecemeal and disconnected plotting also serves to hamper Ravenor's themes. One of the main ones surrounding Slyte's birth is how we do not notice evil when it is close to us, how we are blind to darkness amidst our friends and home. Aspects of this succeed, particularly a scene where the infected manipulates a companion to near the point of suicide and wreaks havoc on the streets while speaking to Ravenor, and the good inquisitor remains blind. This also does explain why Ravenor's suspicions never settle on the demon's true identity. Then again, those suspicions are never shown to do much. It would be powerful if he launched a detailed search for the infected and missed it because of his relationship with the guilty party, but having him never think much about the question leaves it just as much at the door of lazy investigation as at the feet of closeness. Finally, what should be the theme's knockout blow falls flat due to passing in between books. One crewmember discovers the demon's identity but, unable to injure her close friend, can't bring herself to reveal it. This should have been a powerful moment, but we don't see a second of her struggle, just vaguely hear about it from a distance.

The novel's other key theme is how far one may go to combat evil. Though weakened by Molotch's flaws, Ravenor's growing obsession with his nemesis' arrest is powerful, as he moves farther and farther from the bounds of procedure and maybe even right with the passing volumes. When, in Ravenor Rogue, he declares: I am no longer an Inquisitor. Perhaps I'll be damned, but I'll surely be damned if I don't know (p. 725), the reader feels his pain and his boundless determination. His counterpoint, the crewmember infected with the demon, is not nearly as effective. Despite its heretical presence within them, they remain loyal, but they don't reveal the demon. They seek to master it, to bind its powers to the Imperium's cause. Needless to say, this doesn't end so well, but that's not where the arc's weakness comes from. No, it's weakness comes from the fact that we never see it at all. There is no witnessed struggle to stay in control, no growing realization of failure. We just hear him mention it in conversation, calm and removed from the battle of will that is raging inside of him. Not exactly a visceral living of theme, that.

Despite these myriad flaws, I read the three books of Ravenor straight through over just four days. Ravenor has three main successes. First, its characters. None of the cast here is spectacularly deep, but they are all well defined, and their interactions with one another are believable and often a joy to watch, a mixture of killing edge and care. There are a great number of players here, but Abnett quickly differentiates each with central characteristics before, as they act and proceed, delving deeper into their psyche and actions. Little quirks give them life and the book warmth. The teenaged Zael refers to the crippled Ravenor, who lives encased in support systems and mechanisms, as "the chair." When Ravenor goes gunning for one of his foes, Zael says: "I think someone's about to have a really bad chair day," (p. 205, Ravenor) a line that got both a groan and a genuine laugh from me. While on the subject of characters, I should point out that Abnett seems to have developed something of a crush for the acrobat-cum-killer Kara Swole. Since I started counting just after the first volume's end, he describes her as "voluptuous" no less than five times (pp. 278/322/357/578/649).

Second, there is the matter of the trilogy's setpieces. I know, earlier I criticized the plot for being nothing but. I stand by that criticism. But that's not to say that the setpieces themselves are not amazing. Whatever his faults over the course of the novel, Abnett is downright excellent at plotting out a thrilling scene. As he does with the carnival Carnivora setting, Abnett can evoke the vibrancy and character of a setting in just a few pages. In just as few, he can then set a dozen pieces in motion. And then he can tear through the stage he's just created, a cascade of well written action, clever planning, unanticipated consequences, and an absurd amount of fun. The aforementioned Carnivora, the mechanical and soul-crushing Administratum in Ravenor Returned, the quickly coming and passing displacements of time and place in the final volume, and a dozen others are all simply awesome.

Finally, we come to Abnett's prose and diction and, coming forth from those, the atmosphere he can create. Abnett writes relatively short scenes with frequent changes in perspective, which serves to not only speed up the pace but provide frequent and well done contrast. The most striking of these perspectives by far is Ravenor's own. In stark contrast to the traditional (past, limited 3rd) point of view of everyone else, his part of the story is told in present tense and first person. His tone is educated and powerful, longing from the restraint his ruined body forces upon him, menacing, and powerful. His every utterance feels memorable; he is a monolithic figure in his own world portrayed well enough for the reader to feel that he, without question, deserves his status there as not only a strong man but a wise one as well.

40k novels have by now developed a fair amount of jargon to cement the setting's feel, and I, a relative newcomer to the setting, can't say how much is common ground here, but setting-specific phrases like "dehyd," "cogitator," "kitbag," and "tintglass" combine with expertly odd uses of general language like "decruited" to give everything an inescapable, strange, blunt, and oppressive feel. Moving above the level of individual words, Abnett has a gift for powerful phrases, such as when Ravenor says a madman is illuminated beyond the remit of sanity (p. 103) or that Hindsight is a worthless toy (p. 577).

The story arcs and themes of Ravenor meander about and fall apart over its length. Nonetheless, the individual scenes and prose are fantastic. Though not perfect, Ravenor sheds light on a seldom seen part of the Imperium, does so with style and strength, and is well worth reading for any fan of the setting. The first novel, in particular, is a great example of dark and gothic Science Fiction.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Larry D. Sweazy - The Rattlesnake Season

I am not an expert on the Western genre. In fact, this is the second Western I've read in my life, and the first was read so long ago that I couldn't quite understand what all the prostitutes were up to. My interest in the genre was sparked, though, by a conversation with someone who likely could be called an expert in it, who compared the Western to Crime fiction and argued that Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest could be said to be an archetypical Western. In that conversation, The Rattlesnake Season earned mention, and its cover does boast that it "Ris[es] to the level of a classic." Having read the novel, I can confirm that the fellow was certainly onto something; the Western does seem a brother to historical Crime fiction. Alas, The Rattlesnake Season is not good Crime fiction.

Reeling from the loss of his wife and daughters to disease, former soldier and determined lawman Josiah Wolfe briefly leaves behind his young son to take his place in the newly reascended Texas Rangers. His first assignment with them brings him right back to the heart of his past. Once, Josiah and Charlie Langdon were not only brothers in arms but friends, and, after the war, Josiah trusted Langdon enough to deputize him before Charlie's fall into lawlessness. Now it's up to Josiah, Captain Hiram Fikes, and a group of other Rangers to bring Langdon to justice against the best efforts of his gang. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose, and Langdon is soon on the run with the rest struggling to not only catch him but also to deal with the traitor in their midst.

The relationship between Josiah and Langdon, however, is problematic – by which I mean that it's nonexistent. Though we're told that Josiah knows Langdon better than anyone, the two never meaningfully converse. Worse, in his desire to demonize Langdon and raise the stakes, Sweazy falls back on memories of the Civil War, in which he paints Langdon as a psychopath, someone who enjoys slaughter and the killing of children, someone who loves to "torture" his victims with "slow cutting," a method of gaining information through the inflicting of "shallow slits in the skin from a sharp knife" (p. 275). We're told that "Josiah was convinced that Charlie Langdon was born with a deep and abiding hate in the pit of his stomach and had never known a moment of love or tenderness." (p. 52) So why, then, did Josiah not only consider Langdon a friend but deputize him? How can he act surprised, now, by Langdon's viciousness when he explicitly tells us at great length that he was aware of that viciousness from the start?

An easy solution to all this would have been simply to remove the element of their prior friendship, which never plays a role in their interaction when they're together. But then, of course, we couldn't have our utterly nonsensical climax, in which Langdon – having already escaped his pursuers – doubles back to take Josiah's son hostage. There is absolutely no reason for him to do this. None.  At all. It would be like if a criminal, after escaping the FBI and crossing the border, decided he had nothing better to do than go back, take the Bureau's chief prisoner, and hole himself up in a building to be shot by a sniper. Then again, Sweazy doesn't even give us that last part, as it's a rattlesnake that brings Langdon down, rather than something boring like, say, any action on the part of the main character we just spent the book following.

Sweazy is at his best when invoking setting; he is fully capable of building hot, crowded streets to life and filling them with voices, smells, and characters. Unfortunately, his skills at setting often come at the expensive of narrative. Certain details – like how Rangers don't wear badges – are repeated ad nauseum until the reader's sick beyond belief of hearing them and groans aloud at the next mention of how Josiah wants the new model Winchester or how he leaves one chamber in his gun empty for the gun's health. The worst of all of these repetitions comes after a cliff hanger. After a chapter ending with Josiah finding his own pistol pointed in his face, Sweazy spends a paragraph short of two interminable pages info dumping the gun's entire history. Then there's Sweazy's bizarre tendency to explain clichés as if we had all never heard of figurative language before: Scrap Elliot looked like he had just been scolded by his father – even though Feders wasn't old enough for such a thing to be considered, his being Scrap's father, that is. (p. 98) It's a good thing he pointed it out; as someone capable of reading a three hundred page novel, I never would have known that the word "like" implied a break from the literal.

As a novel starring the Texas Rangers, it's not surprising that The Rattlesnake Season's main theme is justice. What is surprising, though, it how ineptly and contradictorily that theme is explored. Josiah is one of the least self aware characters I've ever read about, and his ideas of justice seem to be nothing but a high minded excuse to do as he pleases and flip flop faster than can be believed. Towards the top of page 158, he says "McClure's guilt or innocence was not for him [Josiah] to decide." (p. 158) Less than five paragraphs later, towards the bottom of the page, we get:  "If there was the slightest chance that Vi McClure was innocent, then it was Josiah's duty to find out, his duty to bring the truth to the surface." (pp. 158-9)

But maybe there is something in the middle of all these seeming contradictions. Justice isn't easy, it's a tough concept. Let's try to piece together what Josiah does and says and see if anything coherent emerges. Early on, Josiah wonders how a person could come to disregard life so much that he would try to kill a man he did not know, for a reason that was not his own, as if it were a job, just another task to be fulfilled. (p. 31) In the course of the novel, Josiah does kill, and we know that he killed in the war, making that a rather strange thought to have. Maybe you could argue that, for Josiah, it was personal, though. After all, he was fighting to avenge his captain, Hiram Fikes. Only… isn't that what the enemy's doing, fighting for their own captain, Charlie Langdon?

Okay, so personal loyalty alone can't make justice. Maybe it's a question of self preservation? In the early parts of the novel, that seems to make sense. Josiah fights back when attacked, but he says that, if he and his fellow rangers watch a helpless criminal die, they would be "no better men than he is." (p. 30) Alas, this explanation of justice comes to a screeching halt when Josiah squares off against the traitor towards the novel's end. Now, the traitor did shoot first, so Josiah's first shot to the fellow's stomach makes sense. Maybe even his shot to the chest, "just under the heart." But, after that one, as his foe "bounced on the muddy ground, a combination of convulsions caused by being shot and his body finishing the motion of shooting at Josiah," Josiah still fires again, a coup de grace, a blow to just under the fellow's "right eye." (p. 283) Something makes me think the fellow wasn't getting up after the bouncing and convulsing stage, so, if preservation is our idea of justice, then Josiah just violated it.

Then, of course, there's the most obvious kind of justice of all, especially to a lawman. Maybe Josiah considers justice a matter of following the law? Nope, as it turns out. To return to one of the earlier quotations, and to go just before it, Josiah is standing over a badly wounded outlaw, and he says that: "Justice is not ours to dole out, my friend." (p. 30) So simply being an outlaw isn't a death sentence, but we know that Josiah has no compunctions about killing when justice calls for it, and we also know that justice does not come from self preservation.

As it happens, law and justice are again held apart in the quotation that finally gives us our answer: Even if Vi McClure did turn out to be an outlaw, Josiah didn't want the world passing judgment before justice got its own chance to make the truth known. (p. 123) So, survival, personal loyalty, and law alone are not enough to make up justice. What is? Well, in the above quote, you might notice that justice is strangely active. It's coming on its own, independent of the character's actions, to make the truth known. In fact, in The Rattlesnake Season, justice is none other than plot, the author's hand reaching down from above to show the truth, to remove all incriminating doubts, to make sure that the traitor monologues his guilt just before we must face the hard job of shooting him.

The Rattlesnake Season is thematically incoherent, unexciting in its action, and bewildering in its plot twists. It's not offensively bad, but it's not good, and it lacks a single true strength to balance out its flaws. If this is, truly, a "classic," as the aforementioned cover quote would have us believe, I fear for the Western genre.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

George R.R. Martin - Nightflyers

Nightflyers was George R.R. Martin's fifth collection, but, save the title story, its contents seem to have first appeared a few years before those in Sandkings. Unlike the stories in that other collection, only "Override" and "Nightflyers" are genre benders here, the rest being straight up Science Fiction. Furthermore, despite Martin's (well deserved) reputation as a writer of characters, most of these stories are not hugely character based, zeroing in instead on the forces that drive and overpower the characters in the tales. It may be too easy to split the collection into two halves, but the four stories we'll be looking at lend themselves to it rather easily. The first pairing, "Weekend in a Warzone" and "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," focus on the irrationality and violence that lurk beneath our society; the second, "Nightflyers" and "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring," don't look as closely at men but rather at the immensity of the cosmic backdrop behind them. Of course, that's leaving two stories out, but I'll be doing that throughout this piece; "Overdrive" and "A Song for Lya" appeared in A Song for Lya before this, and I'll be covering them when I review that collection. And as I've also covered "Nightflyers" the novella separately here, that means this is going to be a rather fractured review, but hopefully it'll get its insights in as well.

The future we see in "Weekend in a Warzone" is a nice one, prosperous and with war safely a thing in the past. Only, the lack of struggle hasn't changed man, and the lack of strife hasn't taken away our need for discord and to prove ourselves. Our need for violence. That's where Maneuver, Inc. and its various foes come in. In exchange for a hefty sum, you get to walk through the forest with your buddies and an assault rifle, to kill or be killed. As they put it, "a man hasn't lived until he's seen death" (p. 139).The narrator – and, no doubt, the reader – is horrified at this bizarre custom and can't wait to get back to the civilized world. According to those he meet, though, it may not be that simple, the worst parts of ourselves that isolatable:

"It's war […] here in the zone, yeah, but out there too. We just don't call it war, but it still is. There are guys after you every minute, after your woman, after your job, pushing shit on your kids, trying to stick it to you. You have to fight back, and this is one way." (p. 143)

It's not long until walks between the tree trunks turn into deadly encounters, and it doesn't take long for the narrator to realize that he's a coward. But, when the danger's passed, he realizes something else…he enjoyed it. More, watching as a man "screams and dies and clutches at the air […] dies hard" leaves our narrator with a "hard-on" (p. 154). He is, he realizes, "as bad as they are" (ibid). All of this is written in a friendly and terrified conversational style, the narrator rambling on about the cold and his misery right up until the end. Some phrases get repeated a bit too much, the premise is a tad hard to swallow, and the turn's not wholly surprising, but the piece is still hard hitting and effective, if not one of Martin's best.

With "And Seven Times Never Kill Man" we return to Martin's regular Thousand Worlds universe, and society's not nearly as cozy as it seems in "Weekend in a Warzone." No, here the universe is a hard, unforgiving, and uncaring place, and the "stars will break those of softer flesh," (p. 162) as the Steel Angels preach. Their religion has removed their doubts and fears, driven them to power, and left their morality as nothing but the "right of the strong" (p. 168). These warriors of faith, with their "roman collar" (p. 160), are spreading across the world of the Jaenshi. The Jaenshi, too, are creatures of faith, no more focused on curiosity or reason than the Steel Angels that advance upon them.

The story is told from a trader's viewpoint. He's grown to know, if not quite understand, the Jaenshi culture, and he loves their beautiful statuary. No matter how stark the circumstances, he cannot convince them to fight. It's only those the Steel Angels have already exiled, the "godless" (p. 174), who understand. But they lack the strength and the fervor of the Steel Angels, and they can do nothing to stop them. The tale's end is not, though, the climactic tragedy that seems inevitable, but rather a crumbling away of both sides. When the trader's ship returns for him, the Jaenshi culture has melted entirely from sight, and the Steel Angels are now charging towards their own starvation and annihilation, their fanaticism rendering their ability worthless. As a final, punishing twist, the crew that's come for the trader doesn't understand what's transpired and never well, and they know that the Jaenshi statuary is, to the galaxy at large, "worthless" (p. 195).

Judging by the story's inclusion in Dreamsongs, Martin is evidently quite proud of "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," and it does have a melancholy and hopeless dignity about it, but I can't help but feel that it's the skeleton of a much stronger piece. Though hardly long at forty-two pages, the contest is so mismatched that even the relative surprises at the end can't inject too much excitement into it, and repeated scenes with the Steel Angels fail to deepen them beyond the (admittedly badass) role of stock space crusaders.

"Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" takes place in the same universe as "The Second Kind of Loneliness" and could, I think, be seen as a fulfillment of that story's isolation. In "The Second Kind of Loneliness," we learned of the first kind of loneliness, that of a man cut off from his fellow man by distance, and we learned of the second kind, that of a man surrounded by his fellows that was, nonetheless, unable to reach any of them. In "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring," we learn of the final kind of loneliness, the ultimate one, the isolation that weighs heavy on the entirety of the human race.

The story takes place at the far end of a Star Ring, a wormhole of sorts, but this Star Ring has taken them to a place where they see nothing, not even the faintest glimmer of a star. No light races across this void; no matter mars its perfection, (p. 204) Martin writes. This is a future filled with technology and promise, and all that promise has run up against its edge, against the untamable and incomprehensible infinite. This is a Science Fiction Weird Tale as only Martin can write it, a view from such a high vantage point that shows Whatever we have, whatever we believe in, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters, except the void out there. That's real, that's forever. We're just for a brief meaningless little time, and nothing makes sense. And the time will come when we'll be out there, wailing, in a sea of never-ending night. (p. 212) Faced with that infinite, we can do nothing but "make noises" (p. 217).

Despite the story's grandeur, it's got heart and what is likely the most immediate, emotionally powerful narration of any of Nightflyers' stories (not counting, at least, "A Song for Lya," here only as a reprint). The scientists aboard the Star Ring work with this infinite, but it's Kerin who feels its presence, who must convey it to the rest; Kerin, "the displaced poet who fought the primal dark," (p. 205) whose role blends with Martin's as he strives to "make someone else feel what I feel when I'm out there" (p. 209). All of this is done without interpersonal melodrama or needless action, and here Martin pens some of his most evocative lines, such as: "For years, we've been falling through space, and the only light and sound and sanity is far behind, lost in the void" (pp. 211-2).

At its close, "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" makes it clear that, though we are unable to grasp the immensity of what's around us, those noises that we make can have tremendous effects. The ending here is hard to believe even while reading and yet jaw dropping, audacious beyond belief. A habit of endings like this could look like Martin was fleeing his conclusions into sentiment and cliché. Just one, right here? Perfect.

It seems to me (an impression perhaps bolstered by my own preferences and obsessions) that "Nightflyers" and "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" are both noticeably stronger than the interesting but flawed other pieces, and the latter of those is really the only essential story here that's not reprinted in Dreamsongs or elsewhere. Still, while I wouldn't start a foray into Martin's backlist with Nightflyers, every story in it is still interesting and more than competently executed. Not to mention that the price of a used-copy-admission are no doubt worth it for "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" alone…

Standouts: Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring, Nightflyers

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods starts with two layers. On the first, we have a group of five students heading out to a distant relative’s cabin in the woods for a vacation; they ignore the absurdly obvious and ominous warning signs on the way and soon find themselves ruthlessly hunted down by what the second layer refers to as a family of Redneck Torture Zombies. That second layer’s composed of men in suites, watching everything that happens in the cabin on innumerable screens, twisting the vacationers into horror movie archetypes, and triggering the various beasties at their disposal, of which the Rednecks were just one. The scientists, in short, are running a real live torture film where the blades actually cut and the dead stay down (or rise back up to tear out your throat), and the vacationers are trapped in the hell that the scientists create.

It’s a damn intriguing premise, one ripe for subversion, and Whedon and Goddard don’t let it off lightly. Being five relatively normal human beings, the vacationers don’t conform immediately to the stupidities expected of them by horror clichés. So the scientists force them to conform, manipulating them with chemicals to force them into their roles. One scene has a character proposing that they split up, a suggestion that’s roundly shot down by his fellows – until gas rises from the floorboards, and they all see the great merits of cowering alone in their rooms until the beasties come for them. The writers’ targets aren’t confined to those present at the filming. Scenes of the scientists laughing and being delighted by the vacationers’ plight and slaughter disgust us, yet we are watching in the same way as they are, just at one more remove. The delightfully referential stew of dozens and dozens of horror clichés that the writers’ have created allows them to go wild towards the end, culminating in one particularly spectacular scene where a hallway full of armed soldiers is decimated by an endless swarm of different creatures.

The fact that there was a handy button or two in the scientists’ installation for the main characters to push in order to unleash hell on earth, however, leads us to my first big problem with The Cabin in the Woods: it is an idiot plot through and through. Without exception, every one of the movie’s developments, twists, and turns relies entirely on the characters being too stupid to properly get out of bed in the morning or tie their shoes. For the vacationers being slaughtered by Rednecks, this makes sense. They’ve been shoved into that role, after all, and the silliness of it all is part of the charm.

But the scientists are just as stupid. Hell, so far as we can tell, the entire planet’s on that infantile level of intelligence. Why is there no real protocol for a beastie breakout in the scientists’ installation? In fact, why do the beasties’ elevators lead to the installation itself at all? Why are the unused beasties kept perfectly ready to go, while we are on the subject? Why can’t any of the scientists properly lock a door? And so on and so forth. The incompetence of every single character makes the first layer’s intentional predictability hold true for the entire movie. When you know that everyone’s a fool, there’s no question of their survival, and you are just sitting back and waiting for their grisly death. Not that it’s unpleasant waiting, mind you; the spectacle’s still there. But the tension has all gone out of it.

The scientists aren’t playing sadists just for kicks; they’re in it to save the world. The Old Gods or Ancient Ones beneath the earth demand these sacrifices. If the blood ever stops, and if the game fails to be played out exactly as these eldritch deities command, they will rise and end the earth. Interestingly enough, therefore, the scientists might even be the good guys. And the vacationers, or at least the two that survive the cabin and are determined to do whatever they must to stay alive, might even be called the villains.

It’s an interesting inversion, and it’s also one that is less examined than an extra’s shirt buttons. The movie seems to simply go along with their decision to stay alive at the cost of the entire human race. To be fair, the pothead does mumble generic crap about how we need to tear down the system and so on. But there’s no argument for why presented. You might be able to make a very interesting movie that argues you don’t have an obligation to give your life to a system that oppresses you (by, say, living out horror movie clichés upon your flesh), but Whedon and Goddard don’t argue the point; they simply assume that everyone will go along with them. Well, uh, no. Why would the world be a better place, again, if it ceased to exist? You're going to have to spell that one out for me.

The Cabin in the Woods plays an interesting game with our expectations of horror movies, and it uses those expectations and clichés to create a fair few great scenes. Ultimately, however, it falls for one of the genre’s worst clichés – the abject stupidity of every character. Furthermore, the film’s thematic heart and ending are both left utterly unsubstantiated and unexplored. In the end, I felt rather like a master comedian had started to tell a joke, proceeded through an extremely obvious but nonetheless elaborate set up, and then had wandered off stage before finishing up the punch line.