Horror critic Jenn Adams looks back over the past ten years and asks “Why do we still have a husband’s bulge for The Cabin in the Woods?”
No film celebrates the horror genre quite like The Cabin in the Woods. Part slasher, part supernatural, part, well, cabin in the woods movie, this 2011 horror mashup from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard defies categorization while simultaneously redefining its own genre. Duel stories about a group of five friends vacationing in the woods and the office drones who attempt to control them collide in an explosive final act that gleefully turns the entire genre on its head. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid spoilers for the film’s conclusion, do yourself a favour and stop reading this until you’ve watched the movie. Trust me. The ultimate meta-film, The Cabin in the Woods manages to accomplish the rare feat of combining biting satire with loving homage whilst functioning as a terrifying film in its own right. It honours everything that came before it, while challenging the horror genre to push itself forward.
The film kicks off unconventionally with a rather banal scene in which two bureaucrats, Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), complain about childproofing cabinets and the pesky chem department. A jump scare title card is the harbinger, a term the script will later coin, for the ways Whedon and Goddard will subvert aspects of the genre at every opportunity.
The structure of the film is complex as we follow a group of five college friends on a weekend trip to the titular forest retreat. A Horror Breakfast Club of sorts, they each fit a mould we’ve come to expect from our slasher fare. The now A-list cast includes Jules (Anna Hutchison) the newly blond beauty; Curt (Chris Hemsworth) her football player boyfriend; Marty (Fran Kranz) the loveable stoner; Holden (Jesse Williams) the new student whose glasses earn him the nickname “egghead”; and Dana (Kristen Connolly) our de-facto virginal final girl. They arrive at the cabin, mysteriously lent to them by Curt’s cousin, and soon find it hides ominous secrets.
However, as Hadley notes, we’re not the only ones watching. A parallel story plays out below ground as Hadley and Sitterson lead a team of departments monitoring “the scenario,” a highly orchestrated re-enactment of a horror movie narrative starring the teens and designed to please The Ancient Ones. These mysterious monster gods live within the earth and demand a yearly ritual sacrifice dressed up as grisly entertainment. The directors have designed this scenario to manoeuvre the group into the cabin’s basement, a treasure trove of horror memorabilia (haunted necklaces, conch shells, puzzle boxes, diaries… to name a few) each one destined to unleash a different monster on the unsuspecting teens. In the eyes of the directors, by picking up the object and activating it’s monster, the teens have transgressed and are thus deserving of their fateful punishment.
Who are the Ancient Ones? Are they avatars for studio heads calling for higher body counts, brand name actors, and mindless sequels? Are they fanatics demanding slavish devotion to source material while threatening relentless social media campaigns? Or are they us; genre fans who live to deconstruct every frame, throwing around terms like “harbinger” and “final girl” as we second guess each character’s moves and savour every moment? I like to think the Ancient Ones and the drones who deliver their bounty represent the best and worst of horror fandom. We love our heroes even when we root for the villains. We tattoo classic characters on our bodies, and adopt beloved monsters as our talismen. We love the genre even though we sometimes hate it and we use its lessons to define the way we see the world. But most of all, we demand that the films we watch make us feel something.
Horror is, by definition, horrifying and most films include bodily injury if not outright death. We accept this as part of the story and empathize with the victims, but we find entertainment in their bloody ends. The Cabin in the Woods calls out this celebration of death by asking us why we need it. We know that horror can be cathartic and often helps us quiet the beasts within us, but at what cost? Why do we watch these films and what do we lose by recycling the same tired narratives? What do we gain? The characters in The Cabin in the Woods transcend their stereotypical fates by demanding to be more. With their self-awareness and humanity, they are able to defeat the reality constructed by the directors. They reject the idea that their natural curiosities are transgressions and that they deserve to be punished for simply existing in a world designed to destroy them. They demand more from their lives and survive long enough to make their way to the sub-basement where the true monsters reside.
The third act suddenly explodes into some of the most delightfully chaotic and bloody monster mashups in genre history. Kept in revolving cells, monstrous villains lurk below waiting to be summoned by the ill-fated teens as they explore the cabin’s basement treasures. In defence, the remaining survivors, Dana and Marty, purge the system, unleashing literal hell on the office workers. One by one, elevator doors open and flood the lobby with approximations of iconic horror villains; demonic ballerinas, murderous clowns, zombie hordes, bloodthirsty doctors, unicorns, ghosts, mermen (“Oh come on!”) and many more. The screens fill with blood as our office staff are decimated by these walking nightmares. Words hardly do justice to this gleeful trip through the halls of horror history, but Whedon and Goddard manage to top themselves with a surprise cameo from horror royalty and a warning that maybe it’s time for someone else to take the reins.
Ten years ago, The Cabin in the Woods threw down a gauntlet and challenged the horror genre to move past the tired clichés of preceding decades. Perhaps now it’s time to ask whether the challenge has been accepted. The answer is both yes and no. While we do still occasionally see the same paint by numbers films and recycled tropes hit our screens, we’ve also entered into a more enlightened and inclusive stage of the genre. We’ve begun to see films that are as much about life as they are about death, that examine the human condition and horrify us as much with the terrors of our minds as the destruction of our bodies. But perhaps the biggest achievement in the last decade is the new lens we find ourselves viewing stories through. More than ever before, women and non-white filmmakers, queer and non-binary directors, writers, cinematographers, and performers are getting the chance to finally tell their own stories from their point of view. Horror has long been a genre of misfits, but it’s never felt so inclusive.
The Cabin in the Woods then honours the genre by celebrating what we love about it, then asking for more. The film doesn’t judge us as fans, but simply asks that we grow. The classic tales we grew up frightening ourselves with will always be there for us, but it’s time we try something new. Undoing decades of one-sided stories is a challenging task, but feels like we’ve begun to break a long-held grip over the genre and expanded the lens through which we view our horrors. Marty notes that maybe it is time for someone else to have a turn, and while we still have a long way to go on the winding road towards full inclusivity, we’ve gone a lot further than ever before. No longer beholden to the Ancient Ones, it feels like we’re finally creating horror to please ourselves.