The Cabin in the Woods

Dir. Drew Goddard

Five friends go to stay in a creepy cabin in the woods. Sinister occurrences, bloodshed and something called ‘game changing’ ensure. However as the tagline suggests, if you think you know the rules, think again; The Cabin in the Woods has more than a few surprises and twists to reinvigorate even the most jaded horror fan. A word of warning though; if you’re in any way interested in seeing this film, don’t read anymore of this review. As much I begrudge adding to the hype of anything, I simply believe that films such as this really benefit from the audience not knowing anything about them. Having said that, I think that even if you do spoil the surprise, The Cabin in the Woods should still serve as a highly enjoyable and playful ride in the way it addresses the conventions of horror cinema and turns them on their head.

The narrative follows a typical slasher scenario with teens being menaced and murderlised in an isolated cabin. So far, so Evil Dead. From the beginning though we know that there is something more going on than just the initial slasher narrative in the cabin scenes. I’m not giving too much away here; the trailer revealed that someone or something is fucking with the teens on a very grand scale and in a very controlled environment (that sprawling invisible fence?). The opening scene reveals that the actions of the teens, and even their personalities, are being manipulated to closer resemble those of horror film types by various white collar scientist types in a vast CCTV monitor-filled lab. Indeed, the creepiest aspects of the film often involve the lengths these people have gone to in order to get the teens in certain situations and act in certain ways. So the fact that these scientists are manipulating events, much in the same way as directors and writers of horror films do, we’re left dangling as to why. And therein the brilliance of the films lies. As the story unfurls and seemingly familiar scenarios are played out, and clichéd lines uttered (“I think we should split up”, “Hey guys, did you hear that?” etc etc) we’re constantly straining to figure out why. And perhaps even more tantalizingly, we’re prompted to ask why the conventions of horror films are so important in this experiment. Aside from addressing notions of freewill, this is also a sly commentary on how filmmakers are slaves to genre conventions and expectations.

Throughout the first act various scenarios play out that, if seen in other, less reflexive and playful films, would seem utterly clichéd and boring. In The Cabin in the Woods though, they become tense and unsettling because we’re constantly made aware that they are being manipulated and actually need to happen for a specific reason. One scene that exudes an overwhelmingly strange, almost sexualised menace comes when the friends are playing truth or dare. Jules (Anna Hutchison) is dared to kiss the head of a wolf mounted on the cabin wall. She advances seductively towards it while her astounded friends look on and we’re treated to a close up of her passionately kissing these beastly, snarling jaws. Because of the creepy uncanniness of the head, and only seeing it close up as Jules moves towards it, and being aware that nothing in this film can be taken for granted, that at any moment it will lurch down an unexpected route, one half expects the wolf head to come alive and rip her head off. The strange mix of animal savagery and sexuality creates a palpable and very unsettling tension.

As the film hurtles towards its climax, and people start dying and gradually realising that they're not alone; that something sinister is afoot and they're not yet glimpsing the bigger picture, things begin to resemble writer Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with all manner of beasties and monsters revealed. The idea that horror stems from reality suggests that in the reality of this film, the typical narratives of all horror cinema germinate from some kind of subconscious suspicion that these situations and stereotypes have existed for centuries and for very specific purposes. The notion that horror movie archetypes and scenarios have gradually fed into popular culture because of something very ancient and ominous is an irresistible one, and one that fuels this film. When we finally get to the denouement and the big reveal, courtesy of a fantastic cameo by someone who shall remain nameless, things get very Lovecraftian indeed. It's revealed that audiences of horror films, much like the characters in horror films, and indeed humanity at large, are all just playthings to be sacrificed to an incomprehensible, evil, and for now anyway, slumbering force. Things become very existential indeed. Slasher archetypes are elevated to strangely iconic status and take centre stage, revealed to be part of an ancient custom and the reason why the teens are being manipulated to do things that only characters in slasher films do. Indeed there are a number of scenes that depict other groups of people around the world being monitored and manipulated in a similar way; and the kinds of horrors they face depends on the traditional horror lore of their culture. 

The Cabin in the Woods is vaguely akin to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in that it also contemplates the function, and arguable importance of horror stories as a way of somehow addressing and helping viewers comprehend genuine evils throughout the world, while safely engaging our primitive instincts and blood-lust. In Craven’s film, the Nightmare on Elm Street series acted as a way of containing some form of ancient, nameless evil that was condensed and given articulated form in the shape of Freddy Krueger. When the films stopped, the evil was released and free to roam the collective consciousness of the wider world. Horror cinema has long been discussed in terms of its ability to help viewers deal with complex emotions and anxieties in a safe environment, where we know no harm can come to us. Like the traditional function of fairytales, horror helps form a means with which we can subconsciously figure out the dangers inherent in our world. They are stories filled with cautionary morality; warning and preparing us for the trials and tribulations we will face (and ultimately strive to overcome) in the wider world. They form a sort of code of conduct that promotes a very conservative morality. At the risk of sounding like Crazy Ralph - sex, drugs and straying from the path will lead to certain doom. With that in mind, the reveal at the climax of The Cabin in the Woods suggests that for centuries humanity has been drip-fed horror stories as a way of not only distracting us and somehow preparing us (on a subconscious level anyway), but in the context of this film, also protecting us from something else entirely. In the words of psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, “As children, we need monsters to instruct us in the ways of the world.” Bettelheim believed that by hearing about life-threatening problems and potential menaces at a young age through fairytales and scary stories, we are given vital information that operates on a subconscious level, educating us about the struggles of life, and that these struggles are actually an intrinsic part of our existence. This might seem like a tangent, but it all feeds into the mythology that lurks beneath the story of The Cabin in the Woods. The thought that an ancient evil, and the measures a secret faction of society take to protect the rest of us from it, is the crux of Whedon’s story. How the conventions of horror feed into this and ultimately sprung from it, is exhilarating.

The Cabin in the Woods is very ambitious in its scope, and while it’s certainly not perfect, it is still an invigorating and fresh approach to a genre currently littered with redundant sequels, remakes, reboots and cash-ins. The most frustrating aspect of this film doesn’t actually concern the film itself, but rather its production and subsequent distribution. It was filmed in 2009 and left on the shelf to gather dust; its studio unsure of how to ‘market it.’ That’s right. The concept of how to market something so fresh, original and playful mystified these people. You could argue that perhaps they planned to let it sit for so long in order for it to gather a kind of cult status and mystique the longer they left it. I doubt that though. While I can’t see it reinventing the genre, what it certainly does do is raise the bar a hell of a lot higher for other horror filmmakers. Horror cinema needs more people like Joss Whedon, who creates not only entertaining and thrilling stories, but also makes us think, if we want to, about the nature of horror and its vital place in the world.


Liam Underwood said…
Great post! I certainly think this is a refreshing take on the horror genre, and it's nice to see films such as this and Behind the Mask approaching the genre from different angles.

The optimist in me would hope that this film could wipe the slate clean, throwing down a challenge to aspiring filmmakers to re-write the rules. Of course, it won't be long before we're back in the cycle of cliché. Here's hoping that every few years we get at least one blast of originality such as this.
Wes said…
James this is the best piece of writing I've seen on this film and I must admit, against my better judgement you have me intrigued. When I first saw the trailer for this, I dismissed it - not because it looked like another teens 'n screams film, rather the opposite - I'm always deeply suspicious of high-concept horror films - I'm thinking of something like Pontypool which I truly hated. Your review has pulled me into this one and dammit I might even make a rare excursion to the mulitplex...
James Gracey said…
Cheers Liam. Yes, it would be most welcome if this helped other filmmakers and studios be more risky in their approach to horror. I thought this was a breath of fresh air.

Thanks very much, Wes. I probably came across rather 'gushily', but like I said, I really, REALLY enjoyed this. It's just a lot of fun and genuinely surprising. Might not reinvent horror as we know it, but one can hope it'll usher in some more daring films. Good luck in your multiplex excursion. Mine was accompanied by a little rum to help numb the annoyance of watching this in a cinema full of teenagers who were all too loud in professing how much they 'didn't get it.' Ingrates. ;)
psynno said…
It's a great review James and some pretty strong points but I was annoyed by the film. I couldn't help thinking it was written by a committee. With DEAD AND BURIED, EVIL DEAD 2, NEW NIGHTMARE, HELLRAISER all referenced (or copied), but the original sources so much more frightening and imaginative. I felt it was not effective as a horror film. Maybe I had higher expectations than usual with this. I think I'm just tired of horror films being about other horror films... the wolf's head scene was the best, I agree.
James Gracey said…
I didn't find it particularly scary either, Paul - but that didn't hinder my enjoyment! I quite like horror films about other horror films; especially good ones like Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Like I said, I don't think Cabin is perfect, but at least it tries to be different - and for the most part, I think it does so successfully.
psynno said…
I'm a great fan of New Nightmare, a really threatening piece... I'd probably appreciate Cabin a bit more if I hadn't heard so much about it. I thought the Cenobite creature was effective. Maybe it will help Clive Barker get his own remake going!
James Gracey said…
Me too, Paul. It's my favourite film in the series (not that there's much competition after Part I!). I also enjoyed the Ceneobite creature. The Hellraiser franchise, eh? I recently picked up a VERY cheap boxset consisting of parts III - VI. After Part II they really do decline in quality, but I remain interested in the series somehow.

I also loved the scenes in Cabin with the Japanese school girls battling a typical J-horror wraith.
Anonymous said…
Awesome review, James.
I'm glad you enjoyed the film. I think we felt very much the same about this one.
Although, I didn't make the New Nightmare connection. Now I really want to watch it again. (New Nightmare is my favorite of the series.)
I also loved the J-horror scenes. I longed for more stuff like that as it showed a deep understanding of the genre.
Alex Jowski said…
Terrific review of a great movie! Not a particularly scary movie but a great commentary on horror in general.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for commenting guys. Christine, New Nightmare is my favourite of the series, too! I’m really interested to check out Cabin again to see if I still feel as enthusiastic about it. I reckon it's one of those films that reveals more with every viewing.

Alex, I didn’t find it particularly scary either, but it was VERY suspenseful in places. Mainly because the teens don’t (or shouldn’t) have a chance. There’s so much going on though, it doesn’t matter that it’s not particularly scary. Maybe that’s the point? We’ve seen all this before? I guess that’s another post right there.

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