November 7, 2014

Too Many Cooks and the horror of the box

Capture

If you haven’t watched the fascinating, hilarious, and disturbing video Too Many Cooks yet, do so now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

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Done? If you’re like me, you’ve got a bewildered giddiness of having seen something surreal and confusing and also exciting, like you’ve managed to peek behind the scenes – in some instances, literally – and see the weirdness of how something so familiar and trite is made.

The idea is simple enough. Take the title credits of an 80’s sitcom introduction, and just don’t stop. Keep introducing characters, all of them familiar, all of them hoary and overdone and recognizable to the point of being insulting. But then, change shows. Keep the same tune, but make it a cop show, or an EMT show, or an workplace comedy, or a soap opera. They’re all instantly recognizable… except, who’s that weird guy who keeps showing up in the background? Does he have a machete?

The reason why Too Many Cooks works so well is the same reason, I think, that The Cabin in the Woods works so well. Both of these works understand that genre is a box: it’s a rigid form whose contents are not allowed to stray beyond the boundaries.

But what they also realize is that horror stories are also a box: they’re a contained environment which is invaded by a lethal threat. What the two do is overlay these separate ideas: the genre is a box, and there’s this invasive, malicious force that knows that, and thus knows how to break the genre rules to its advantage, torturing and hunting the people who are forced to haplessly play along to convention against their own will. The characters can’t break out of the box. They can’t even avoid being in front of the camera, behind their floating names.

Though, eventually, both these works feature a moment in which one character gets free and punches through the walls of the box, in both occasions due to a technical glitch. What follows is an Alice-in-Wonderland behind-the-scenes moment where you see absurd realizations of how a story is made. In The Cabin in the Woods, it’s the giant underground warehouse of monsters. In Too Many Cooks, it’s the dark, strange backlot where figures stand with their name titles hanging from their chests.

This willingness to penetrate into the infrastructure of story and entertainment, the unthought of interstitial places, makes the product – the TV show, or the horror story – feel all the more fabricated and arbitrary. And, thus, even more disturbing.

Even without the serial killer or the vast government conspiracy – what a horrifying life it must be, inside the box.