Horror loves a shared universe, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing how characters from separate worlds come together and interact. There are universes that interweave multiple stories, like Stephen King’s towns of Derry and Castle Rock, and showdown films which pit big name villains against each other, like Freddy v Jason (2003) and Alien v Predator (2004). Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) takes this to the next (underground) level, creating a world in which every single horror story exists in the same world, for the same purpose, making it perhaps the ultimate monster mash-up.
On the surface, The Cabin in the Woods is a straightforward college-students-in-peril hicksploitation slasher. We’re introduced to friends Dana and Jules as they prepare for a trip to a remote cabin belonging to a cousin of Jules‘ boyfriend Curt, who soon joins the group, along with Holden (a set-up for Dana), and stoner Marty. The gang encounter some scenarios familiar to the slasher fan – a gas-station complete with creepy, doom-mongering owner; the run-down, eerie cabin itself, and some sinister artefacts in the cellar. An unwise decision to read out a Latin incantation in an old book summons a zombie family who proceed to pick off the characters one by one, until our final girl Dana is left as the sole survivor.
If you took just these scenes on their own, it would make for a perfectly serviceable, popcorn slasher flick. But The Cabin in the Woods has another story to tell, just below the surface. In the very first scene we meet Hadley and Sitterson, workers in some kind of industrial plant. While it’s not clear at first what their connection to the main plot might be, we soon find out that they have Dana and co under surveillance, and are very invested in ensuring that the trip to the cabin plays out exactly as a slasher film should. The two worlds eventually collide as Dana and Marty make their way into the underground lab and discover the true meaning behind their ordeal.
While the slasher elements of the film follow convention, the scenes in the lab are a neat, comedic take on horror movies that involve sinister forces manipulating events behind the scenes. In films of this type, such as Cube (1997), My Little Eye (2002), and Hostel (2005), the machinations are generally kept from the viewer until the big reveal at the end. The Cabin in the Woods puts the day-to-day business of orchestrating a horrific situation front and centre – showing us the office politics, betting pools and tequila parties that go alongside being part of a global effort to prevent the end of the world via enactments of horror. As we learn more about the operation in the lab, it becomes clear that these characters are in their own horror story – and trying to avoid an apocalypse.
As one character observes, they are “humanity’s last hope,” and while the staff’s callous attitude marks them at first as villains of the piece, the viewer’s loyalties become divided as their nobler aims emerge. Much like Marty‘s combination bong and coffee mug, the film works perfectly on both levels – the two stories mirroring each other as events go from bad to worse for both groups, the students being picked off by the zombies, and the lab workers realising that operations across the globe are failing, and the world is headed for a cataclysmic end.
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The Cabin in the Woods can also be viewed metaphorically, as a horror film about horror films. In one way, it can be seen as a defense of the genre – the multi-layered structure suggesting that there is more to horror than first meets the eye. The main action in the film takes place literally on top of an underlying scenario which gives deeper meaning to the events taking place on the surface. This suggests that even a basic slasher of the type often dismissed as formulaic or exploitative, could have more complicated meaning and depth to it. The fact that the students don’t easily fit into their allotted stereotypes (at least until they come under the influence of pheromone mist or mind-altering hair dye), also leads us to consider whether other horror characters seen as two-dimensional might too have hidden depths and nuance to them.
The way the lab operates also reflects the film-making process itself. Hadley and Sitterson function as producers, and we meet various departments that would be equally at home on a film set – Sigourney Weaver’s character is even named The Director. It even seems at one point that the whole set up may be staged – just after the scene in the cellar where Dana reads from the diary and the Buckners emerge, the action cuts back to the lab, where Sitterson stands in front of a whiteboard listing various types of monsters, almost like a brainstorming session in a writers’ room.
Like horror movies, the rituals being performed are all tailored for their specific markets – while we follow the American slasher-flick version, there are glimpses of a the Japanese scenario, which resembles J-horror films such as Ringu (1998) or Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). Representing the audience are the old gods themselves, for whose benefit all the horrors are being played out – as Sitterson remarks, “you’ve got to keep the customer satisfied.” Although it might not be a very flattering comparison (the “ancient ones” shown to be rather fixated on suffering, gore and partial nudity), the viewer does at least get the satisfaction of seeing their proxy rise up and destroy the entire world at the end.
“The Cabin in the Woods can also be viewed metaphorically, as a horror film about horror films.”
Released in 2012, The Cabin in the Woods was part of a mini resurgence of the self-referential horror flick, along with the more broadly comedic Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) and Scream 4 (2011). Kicked off by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), in the late 90s and early 2000s there were a slew of smart, postmodern horror such as Urban Legend (1998), Cherry Falls (2000) and the Scream (1997) franchise, mainly featuring teen protagonists wise to the fact that they’re in situations that are playing out a lot like the horror films that they themselves know and love. The TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), which ran throughout this era and featured a wealth of horror and pop culture references, was created by The Cabin in the Woods co-writer Joss Whedon.
As the new millennium went on the postmodern slasher fell by the wayside, replaced by more serious, violent fare like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) and their sequels. Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes made a number of remakes classic slashers over this decade, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm St (2010). Rather than featuring wisecracking teens discussing these classics, Platinum Dunes rebooted them for the next generation, stripping the genre back to basics.
In its main narrative, The Cabin in the Woods feels like a continuation of these more straightforward, gory movies, and in its setting and aesthetic directly references two cabin-based horrors of the 2000s – Cabin Fever (2002) and Wrong Turn (2003). The scenes in the lab, however, hark back to the earlier cycle of postmodern horror, with the knowing dialogue and references to genre tropes. Interestingly, this time around it’s not teenagers who are the wisecracking, cynical characters, but the adult office workers. This is perhaps a nod to those audience members who were Scream-age teenagers, who in 2011 would be entering their 30s, and so might have more in common with the harried lab staff and their worries about interdepartmental feuds and overtime than with the vacationing students. (Although hopefully not they don’t also have to deal with the threat of being set upon by a merman). While most of the self-referential horror movies of the 90s / 2000s confined themselves to the slasher subgenre, in The Cabin in the Woods Goddard and Whedon create a world inhabited by every monster under the sun (or moon) – the ultimate self-referential horror, an audacious final act in the postmodern horror cycle.
Above all else, The Cabin in the Woods is a joyful, over-the -top celebration of horror – as Drew Goddard has said, the film “came from a very pure place, a very simple place of ‘Oh we love horror movies and we want to make one.'” The final scenes serve up a huge smorgasbord of monsters – when Dana releases the “army of nightmares”, literally all hell breaks loose. There is a wealth of Easter eggs for the seasoned horror fan: creatures like the off-brand Pinhead (Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain), horror legend Sigourney Weaver’s cameo as The Director, and some subgenre-related bickering familiar to anyone who regularly discusses horror (is redneck torture zombie really a distinct category from plain old zombie?) The film doesn’t rely on these in-jokes though, and it’s still a hugely entertaining watch even for viewers who’ve never encountered a Jason or a Freddy. As a smart, funny, scary horror with more monsters than you can shake a trowel at, The Cabin in the Woods is hard to beat.
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