The Cabin in the Woods (2012): A loving hate letter to horror
On the recommendation of others, I watched The Cabin in the Woods without any prior knowledge of what the film was about. Now I recommend you do the same. I know, I know—why would anyone want to blindly spend two hours of their time on a film they know nothing about?
Well, here’s all you need to know: the film is co-written by Buffy creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon, and since its 2012 release, the film has already become something of a cult classic. If you’re on this website, chances are you’ll appreciate it on some level. To have the best possible experience, I suggest watching it without any idea of where it’s going. Part of the fun is seeing the plot unravel, and while the movie is still enjoyable with spoilers, I think revealing too much would take away a lot of its charm. And so, without further ado…
If you’ve seen the film, or still want to know all about it anyway, here’s the rundown. The movie is directed by first-timer Drew Goddard. Thor’s Chris Hemsworth stars alongside Kristen Connolly, Anna Huttchison, Jesse Williams, and Fran Kranz. The film also stars Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, and has a cameo appearance by Sigourney Weaver.
The film doesn’t begin in a cabin, or in the woods, and for those unclear of the plot, you might be wondering if you put in the right movie. Two technicians (Jenkins and Whitford) make their way through an underground facility, and their conversation is decidedly bland. What is this film, we may be wondering? Through their dialogue, we learn that a project similar to the one they’re currently working on has just failed, but we learn nothing of the nature of the project itself. In the middle of a bland sentence, the screen freezes and the title appears in startling red along with blaring music.
The next sequence now seems more familiar. It’s a typical slasher film setup where college kids meet up, talk about their lives, and plan their totally awesome and sure-to-be-safe weekend. Each of the five friends has a dominant characteristic you’ll recognize from other slashers; in short order, we meet the virgin (Connolly), the slut (Hutchison), the stoner (Kranz), the jock (Hemsworth), and the nerd (Williams), but they still seem more fleshed-out than similar characters you’d find in other horror films.
The kids get in an RV and drive to a weekend getaway in the woods, and they soon stop at a gas station with a creepy attendant. While this goes on, we’re shown various glimpses of hidden cameras and mechanisms, and people watching back at the underground facility. As it turns out, the two technicians are working hard to set up a typical slasher film scenario involving our five main characters for as yet unknown purposes. Their project involves hiring the gas station’s creepy attendant to be creepy, and they also control the roads to ensure that the group goes the right way.
When they get to the titular cabin, our five protagonists are subjected to scenes straight out of, well, a horror film. Creaking doors, creepy paintings, and cellar doors that suddenly swing open. Of course, they have to go down and investigate, and once inside the dark cellar, they find various items that all portend the presence of evil. And by reading aloud an old diary they find, the group awakens a zombified family ready to kill.
Back in the underground facility, the employees have been watching and taking bets on which artifact the group will pick up and use to set evil in motion, and there’s much disappointment at the zombie family outcome. Back at the cabin, the group slowly gets picked off one by one by zombies, and little do they know that white-coated technicians are orchestrating all the carnage in such a way that it’s obvious they want the “virgin”—in typical horror movie fashion—to live the longest.
But then the last few survivors discover the hidden cameras and manipulation, and begin looking for a way out of the woods. Eventually, they climb into a grave that leads to an elevator that takes them directly to the underground facility. They soon encounter holding pens full of all kinds of maniacs and monsters, and realize that this facility is responsible for all the ghastly scenarios ever seen in horror movies.
In an insanely violent finale, our main characters set all the monsters free, which then proceed to kill and devour every living thing in sight. Eventually, our “Final Girl” character meets the “director” of the facility (Sigourney Weaver, one of the more famous Final Girls in cinema history), who explains that all horror movies are really ritual sacrifices set up to appease ancient deities. And if this particular scenario doesn’t end with our Final Girl facing the killer alone, the angry gods will destroy all of humanity.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan, and the last shot is of a giant hand bursting up through the cabin in the woods, evidently signaling the end of the world.
This film is a lot of fun from beginning to end. As the creators stated, Cabin in the Woods is a “loving hate letter to the horror genre”, and you can feel that passion in every scene. The absurdly bland intro leading to the shocking title card, the traditional horror film setup, and the deterioration of the film’s characters into stereotypes (through the use of various chemicals) are all great pieces of satire.
That last part is probably my favorite aspect of the film. As I mentioned in the summary, when the film starts out, our characters have far more personality and humanity than you’d expect for the dead-teen genre. But then the technicians slowly release more and more mind-altering chemicals into the air, causing each one to become even more of a dumb, horny stereotype.
In one scene, the jock wisely suggests that everyone stay together. After breathing in the gas, he quickly changes his tune and recommends splitting up. Not only is this joke delivered perfectly, but it’s really amusing to watch each character get slowly dumbed down before our eyes. It’s like watching the history of slasher films itself, as each sequel becomes stupider, more clichéd, and less human and enjoyable.
Drastic changes in tone and style are often detriments, but they work fairly well here as the film frequently shifts between the cabin and the facility. Some of the scenes with the zombies are frightening enough that it’s easy to forget this is also a comedy, but we’re quickly pulled out of the terror when we switch over to champagne bottles popping at the facility whenever someone is killed. With so many formulaic films in theaters these days, it’s refreshing to find a movie that completely defies the usual story structure.
Once the audience is aware that these worldwide events are only happening to please Lovecraftian gods, the film becomes even more insane. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that we in the audience are the gods demanding entertainment, and the technicians are working tirelessly to please us. They’ve got a cabin in the woods, a ghost in Japan, and a warehouse full of grotesque creatures including a merman, a giant cobra, a werewolf, and (for some strange reason) a unicorn. All for the fans! When the world ends in the final scene, we can only futilely hope for a similar end to crap horror films.
The only real problem with this movie, which is a problem common to meta-films like this that satirize themselves, is that even though the clichés are intentional, we’re still ultimately watching a film full of clichés. A story that means to be predictable still feels predictable, which can be frustrating at times. There were many points during the typical horror film situations when I wished it would be over and we could get back to the facility, where the truly interesting and unexpected events were taking place. And even with all of the cool monsters, I have to say the ending still kind of drags.
With that being said, The Cabin in the Woods is quality entertainment. I must admit I’ve kind of drifted away from the horror genre in recent years, but this film was both a reminder of why I loved those movies in the first place, and why I eventually left them behind. It’s a celebration and desecration of the genre, and it’s hard to imagine a straightforward, non-ironic slasher film being made after this (though, I’m sure many such films are in the works as I write this). Anyone watching The Cabin in the Woods will have their perception of the genre changed, and likely for the better.