Shiny Shelf


The Cabin in the Woods

By Alex Fitch on 13 April 2012

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

An enormously entertaining horror / comedy; The Cabin in the Woods updates the fantasy horror genre as seen in films like the Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992) and the Hellraiser franchise (1987-present) for knowing modern audiences who like their horror films to be self-referential and critical of the genre they belong to. As the Evil Dead films progressed, the film-makers increasingly moved the horror / comedy combination more towards comedy, and achieving an equilibrium between these two elements has always been a delicate balancing act. Ever since the very first horror sequel appeared in cinemas – 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein – the return of a monster in a subsequent film necessitated a degree of self-reference and humour as audience familiarity dilutes the potential scare factor.
As The Cabin in the Woods postulates that it is a sequel to all horror films to a certain degree – see below for discussion of this – then it relies on audience familiarity with some if not all of the other films it’s referencing, in order for the plot and visual gags to work. Luckily as the film has been made by two horror / comedy experts – director / co-writer Drew Goddard and producer / co-writer Joss Whedon – who have honed their skills in this genre via the TV series Buffy the Vampire slayer (1997-2003) and spin-off Angel (1999-2004), they manage to balance the two elements well for the majority of the film. Indeed for fans of Whedon’s TV franchise, the film could almost be seen as existing within the Angel ‘universe’ as the unnamed company that Amy Acker and Tom Lenk (themselves former stars of Angel) work for in the movie could easily be the series’ demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart…
As well as being an update of the Evil Dead films, The Cabin in the Woods also mixes that franchise’s elements with another strand of film-making, but even though there have been other attempts at combining the two before, it does so in far more successful and unexpected ways, which work better for the viewer if they come as a complete surprise. Having seen the film, I’m disappointed that I even watched the trailer before going to the cinema, as the addition to the narrative would have worked better for me if it had been unexpected. So, if you want to watch the film ‘cold’, then I suggest you leave the review here – with a “highly recommended” précis with a few caveats on my behalf, particularly regarding the somewhat disappointing ending – and only read further if you’ve seen it already or want it completely spoiled…

[Spoiler warning]

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…as The Cabin in the Woods can be summed up as The Evil Dead mixed with The Truman Show (1998); a description that is apt on a number of levels but completely spoils the nature of the film.
Regarding the plot, five teenagers go to the titular location, summon a group of blood-thirsty zombies by reading an incantation from an old book and then get slaughtered one by one. This aspect of the film is Sam Raimi by the numbers, but right from the start of the plot we are shown a parallel narrative where an international corporation with an underground lair (as hi-tech as any Bond villain’s) is spying on the teenagers via surveillance devices and once they arrive at the cabin, trap them in the location via an invisible forcefield that fries anything that touches it. Much of the humour of the film not only comes from our familiarity with the horror tropes the plot comprehensively works its way through, but also from the callous and dispassionate way the controllers of this environment watch the kids being killed, taking bets on the nature of their demise et al.
As mentioned above, the film not only refers to Raimi’s undead but also Hellraiser – a Clive Barker-esque puzzle box and Pinhead analogue appear in the film – and also dozens of other other horror icons, from werewolves to vampire bats, Japanese vengeful ghosts and giant serpents. All of these monsters are kept by the company below the cabin in glass cages that owe a debt to both Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and the Cube trilogy (1997-2004), and they can be sent to the surface at will according to which horror cliché the inhabitants have unwittingly chosen – mysterious book, Lament Configuration, conch horn, music box etc. – to realise the curse within.
Compared to the trailer which shows the forcefield within seconds, at least the film’s eye-catching poster is more oblique, using the Cube and Hellraiser puzzle box references visually in a rendering of the cabin as potentially redesigned by Ernő Rubik.
In the film’s scenario, where these malevolent office workers can deliver any monster or demon to devour the kids in the cabin they desire – one of the leads complains that they never summon the merman – this suggests the film is a sequel to hundreds of other horror films, as if this corporation was behind the events of all the other fictions the narrative references. Occasionally this means the film is a little too clever for its own good; snide allusions to Japanese horror tropes, while amusing, are a little too mean spirited (no pun intended). The deconstruction of every aspect of horror films, such as the characters being drugged to make them act stupider than they should be and woodland mist being an aphrodisiac released to manipulate those nearby, sometimes tip over from being smart plot devises into grating on the audience’s expectations.
However, the film’s sour notes are confidently exceeded by its many intelligent and delightful visual gags, plus a smart script that generally stays one step ahead of the audience. While the numerous references to other films are necessary for the plot to work, some entire sequences seem lifted from other movies, and the film strays a little towards plagiarism rather than homage with not only the third act of the film being lifted generously from Westworld (1973) and Blade (1998) but even the last scene between the final girl and boy being a visual copy of the end of Heathers (1989). This scene plus the deus ex mechina which follows would have perhaps been bettered by a conclusion more unsettling and disturbing, such as the final girl acquiescing to the evil company’s boss (another welcome cameo) after all. However that might have set up a sequel, something the more definitive conclusion here pretty much excludes.
While The Cabin in the Woods does have a degree of familiarity to it, regarding the basic premise, other films have attempted to tackle some of the above elements and failed dismally. Previous attempts to mix the horror and reality TV genre, such as Halloween: Resurrection and FeardotCom (both 2002) were pedestrian to say the least, while the execrable Scary Movie franchise (2000-present) which also uses numerous references to other movies sees its familiarity with the horror genre matched only by its misogyny, homophobia and general lack of imagination. While one could argue these are also common themes in other horror films, they aren’t elements that should be lauded.
Another critic summed up The Cabin in the Woods as Scream (1996) for the current generation, and this is an apt description as Goddard’s film deconstructs horror fantasy films as cleverly and knowingly as Wes Craven did the slasher genre. However as part of a chain with each generation referencing the last, Scream doesn’t work as a final word on the subject as not only did it usher in its own trio of disappointing sequels, but also the dreadful Scary Movie sequence. Like the original Scream, Cabin also never patronises the viewer, but if anything the film might expect a little too much from the audience in accepting all of the movie’s obscure twists and cameos.
Compared to other modern horror movies, the film is thankfully a hard act to follow, as it uses up and comments on nearly every horror plot that preceded it and does so with great affection and intelligence. The only question is: could the film-makers make an genuinely innovative and scary film that doesn’t rely on familiarity with the genre and meta-textuality to work? Rather than being a remix of The Evil Dead for the mash-up generation, it would be great to see Goddard and Whedon make a film that stands on its own two feet and looks forward as an influence on future film-makers rather than back.


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By Alex Fitch




One Response

  1. SK says:

    I was amused by the film, but ultimately disappointed as while it deconstructs the surface of the horror films it refers to, it does so in what is itself an entirely superficial way: I was expecting it to have something to say about the horror genre: perhaps some comment on how the audience, by watching the horrors, is in in some way complicit in them (we are Josh and the other guys, so inured to the horrors depicted in the films that we laugh at and gamble on what might happen to the characters, an obvious parallel that the film completely ignores).

    So while there was a chance to tie the ‘ritual to sate the dark gods’ into, perhaps, some commentary on horror films as being modern fictional sacrifices to the dark side of the audiences’ natures, that simultaneously keep those dark sides in check while turning us into dehumanised observers who can party in front of a huge screen showing scenes of degraded torture, that’s ignored by externalising the threat into the Lovecraftian ending.

    All in all, it’s funny and entertaining, but it feels like a chance to actually say something was passed up in order to have a bit of ‘fun’ between real projects. Like those involved were not bothering to bring all their talents to bear, but were content to produce a mere entertainment that hits the right notes, and has a lot of good jokes, but is ultimately horror-movie navel-gazing, not about anything other than itself and its own genre.