Five years later, The Cabin in the Woods is looking more and more like a horror classic that is singular in its mission to revitalize the genre that we know and love.
Five years ago, the trajectory of the horror genre was forever changed with the release of the Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard film The Cabin in the Woods. Well, maybe not forever changed, but it certainly sent a statement to the horror community that has certainly been heard. The only way to describe Cabin is a loving hate letter to the horror genre. It simultaneously emulates — specifically the genre post-Evil Dead — and criticizes its new tropes by explaining its most outlandish aspects in a ridiculous way. The last movie to attempt this to success is Scream, which set off yet another wave of copycat movies. However, The Cabin in the Woods is one that won’t be easily copied, which is why it is and will stand as a new horror classic.
Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon wrote The Cabin in the Woods in essentially a weekend as a response to a couple of failed projects and a glut of “torture porn” horror movies — popularized by the Saw series. In the Blu-ray commentary, they called the movie “something for us.” However, that “us” can also describe fans of the genre. This movie could only be born out of horror movie fanatics that are so well-versed in its history and tropes that it would take another horror movie fanatic to truly catch all the references. In that sense, The Cabin in the Woods is a gift to horror fans.
The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t just subvert the genre tropes, it challenges the very fabric of the horror movie industry. The movie opens on Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) speaking to Wendy Lin (Amy Acker) about several failed rituals around the globe. Goddard and Whedon’s decision to open with this scene was surprising but completely necessary to the success of the movie. Without it, we’d open to the next scene which shows the girl next door type Dana (Kristen Connolly) packing for a weekend at the eponymous cabin in the woods with her newly blonde friend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth). Goddard creates the opening of almost every 2000s horror slasher so perfectly — right down to the score — that the audience would immediately be turned off by it. However, the opening scene in the facility coupled with the fact that the characters don’t exactly meet their stereotypical horror counterparts — Dana had an affair with a professor, Jules is pre-med, and Curt is at school on full academic scholarship — makes you realize that this is a horror movie like no other.
Goddard was careful to actually recreate the horror movie setup that he is looking to tear down — the other two friends joining them on the trip fill the roles of the comedic stoner Marty (Fran Kranz, who gives one of the best performances of 2012 in the film) and love interest Holden (Jesse Williams). The group even encounters a creepy old man at a seemingly abandoned gas station warning them of their impending doom. However, Goddard and Whedon use the scenes at the facility to explain those occurrences. It’s a subtle jab as to why every horror movie plays out the same.
By the time the film comes together — which is refreshingly gradual compared to the sudden “twist ending” that has also plagued the genre — you’ve already pieced together the clues and have come to an understanding about it. Simply put, The Cabin in the Woods is one of the sharpest satires of our generation. It’s a meta-horror movie that simply laughs at the very movies it’s trying to perpetuate. More than that, there’s a clear sense of recognition. Any horror fan watching the movie can pick out the cliches and stereotypes. However, the movie quickly subverts those and replaces them with reference after reference to classic horror movies — some direct and some you have to dig through your brain to unlock. There are so many that you have to pause the movie several times to catch them all. But that’s why Cabin is so good. As much of a sharp criticism it is, it’s also a playground for horror fans to play in. After watching this movie a dozen or so times I am still discovering new references.
But what does it mean? Satires often have a message to whatever they’re satirizing. So, what is the message to the horror genre? Well, the last few minutes of the movie quite efficiently lay that out there. The genre and its fans need a hard reset. We need to stop asking for more blood, more gore, and more sex when it comes to the genre. Instead, the movie begs for smarter characters, more interesting rules, and new stories to be told. Instead of the 33rd Halloween movie, Goddard and Whedon send out a plea for the next Scream or 28 Days Later. The genre needed a reinvention and, in my opinion, The Cabin in the Woods started one.
Following Cabin we’ve seen an influx of original horror. Some can’t be attributed to the movie. The Conjuring is another movie that was on the forefront of the horror renaissance and part could be attributed to the fact that people that grew up with 80s horror now have the chance to make movies that they want to see. However, I also think that Cabin gave filmmakers the confidence to tackle more interesting stories. Between The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, and Get Out, this decade has had its lion’s share of great horror. However, I’m always going to look fondly on The Cabin in the Woods for encapsulating the mood of the times and acting as a transition into the golden age of horror.