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How “The Cabin in the Woods” Pulls a Refreshing Twist on Horror
The following is not a traditional review of the 2012 horror film “The Cabin in the Woods” but merely a discussion of the film and its reflection of the horror movie genre. Major spoilers will be discussed and it is best to have already seen the film before reading on. If you have not seen “The Cabin in the Woods” but are interested in seeing it, I recommend that you know as little about the film beforehand.
On the surface, “The Cabin in the Woods” is supposed to look like your typical fright-a-minute slasher film populated with dumb teenagers and scary monsters. The title alone conjures up the premise for the horror-comedy cult favorite “Evil Dead” trilogy. This is what writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (who also served as director) want you to believe as you walk into the movie theater. But “The Cabin in the Woods” goes much deeper than traditional horror. Full of unconventional twists and turns, this film is for horror fans made by horror fans.
The five college-aged protagonists represent the five typical characters who would happened to take a trip into the secluded woods just for an excuse to party. The muscular jock (Curt Vaughan, played by a pre-“Thor” Chris Hemsworth), his ditsy horny girlfriend (Jules Louden, played by Anna Hutchison), the sensitive smart student (Holden McCrea, played by Jesse Williams), the perpetual stoner (Marty Mikalski, played by Fran Kranz), and Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly), the virgin of the group who is affectionately known as the “last girl” heroine in the horror genre. The fivesome head off to a remote cabin, which happens to be owned by Curt’s cousin. On their way, they stop off at an ominous gas station to fill up but become a little spooked by the attendant named Mordecai (Tim de Zarn) who knows of their fate but does not issue a direct warning. As they arrive to the cabin, they unpack, take a dip in the lake, and proceed to play “truth or dare” while imbibing on spirits.
It’s a typical, clichéd set-up for sure. But the opening scene isn’t on the kids but instead focused on two technicians on break from work (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) having a mundane conversation about their lives at an undisclosed high-tech organization. As the film unravels, we soon learn that these technicians are keeping a close eye on the group of students. When the students drive their RV en route to the cabin, they go through a tunnel within a mountain while a free-flying bird crashes into an invisible force field. Thus sets up the scene that these teens’ impending doom is part of something much more elaborate than a traditional slasher film.
Once the teens discover a cellar, they make their way down there and come across a bevy of artifacts. Each of these artifacts has a particular trigger point that lets loose a very menacing monster set out to kill every one of students. But from early on in the film, it becomes known that this secret organization of technicians is not only watching them with the ability to manipulate the closed environment, but they are taking bets on which monster will be summoned. Ultimately, the family of redneck zombies make their way out of the earth and start killing the students one by one. These teens are supposed to die and the technicians treat their work as another day at the office by finishing off another round of promiscuous teens. But for what purpose? Could this be a survival of the fittest competition being watched by television audiences in the sense of “The Running Man” and the “Hunger Games” trilogy? It won’t be until the end of the film that will reveal the truth. What is interesting to note that despite all of the environmental manipulations by the technicians, it is the victims’ free will that can determine their fate. They chose to ignore the omen set fourth by the creepy gas station attendant. When the cellar door opened up on its own, they chose to go down there. When they found all of the artifacts inside, they chose to inspect them. Unfortunately, they had no idea what laid ahead for them.
When it appears that Dana the virgin will become the last survivor, the technicians erupt in celebration as they claim victory since the virgin is deemed ‘optional’ to kill off as long as she is the last one remaining. However, this is short lived as they soon learn that Marty the stoner is still alive and appears to be suspicious of his surroundings thanks to his strain of pot that made him immune to external manipulations. Once Marty saves Dana, he shows her a secret underground barrack and they find themselves in a moving compartment and come face to face with multiple monsters. They realized that they were intended targets and meant to die.
As the two survivors make their way through the underground facility, the audience is treated to the organization’s catalog of nasty monsters as homages to everything that goes bump in the night: classic horror monsters like werewolves (“The Wolf Man”), mummies (“The Mummy”), Merman (“Creature from the Black Lagoon”), and zombies (“Night of the Living Dead”). There are also references to modern horror films like Kiko, the Japanese floating girl (“The Grudge” & “The Ring”), the doll faces (“The Strangers”), the killer clown (Pennywise from “It”), and Fornicus (references the Cenobites in the “Hellraiser” films). Dana and Marty escape capture but are hunted down by an elite SWAT team. The two make their way to the control room and initiate a system purge, which unleashes all of the monsters onto the SWAT team in a jaw-dropping orgy of blood. Dana and Marty have now turned the tables but will soon realize the true reason as to why they were forced to undergo this test.
At one point when Dana and Marty are in the facility, a woman’s voice comes on the P.A. system in a pre-recorded message aired when there are intruders on the premises. Immediately, I recognized it to be that of Sigourney Weaver, who remains a horror/science-fiction legend for her portrayal of alien hunter Ellen Ripley. Sure enough, she shows up as “The Director,” who informs the two survivors that they are being sacrificed in an annual ritual to appease “the Ancient Gods” who once ruled over the Earth. In each ritual, the same five personalities are sacrificed: The Whore (Jules), The Hunter (Curt), the Fool (Marty), the Scholar (Holden), and the Pure Virgin (Dana). If the sacrifice is not complete by sunrise, then humanity, as we know it will end. That is unless Marty’s death goes as planned by which Dana decides to betray her friend by putting her faith in The Director’s assertion. During a standoff, the Wolfman bites Dana and Marty throws the Director over the edge into the netherworld. With a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, they share a joint and embrace the end of the world. The last shot is that of an ancient deity’s hand reaching up from the Earth, destroying the facility and the cabin and thus singling the end of the world. Bummer. But from the mind of Joss Whedon, what do you expect? Within his work, it’s not always a happy ending. In a profile on PopMatters.com, Erin Casey writes, “of all the themes Joss Whedon presents in his work, and there are many, the contemplation of a future worse off than the present is perhaps the most important for our race, and the scariest. Each of Joss Whedon’s works portraying the future shows the future in a different way, but each shows us something we probably don’t want to see.”
“The Cabin in the Woods” is a genuinely frightening and entertaining tribute to horror, science fiction and fantasy. There remains an even balance between the scares that occur at the cabin and more light-hearted scenes with the technicians. If you think about it, the technicians were just doing their jobs in order to protect all of humanity by sacrificing five young students. It’s an interesting twist but doesn’t wait until the end to reveal itself. The technicians’ intentions are slowly revealed over the course of the film. However, unlike the 1998 film “The Truman Show” where the audience goes in knowing that a man’s life is secretly being manipulated in a control room, “The Cabin in the Woods” is being marketed as a traditional horror film but leaves the audience with a sense of curiosity based on the theatrical trailer. Thus, the less you know about this film before you watch it, the better.
Every now and then, the horror genre has seen a particular film that tends to bend the rules. In the aforementioned “Alien” film, director Ridley Scott blended horror with futuristic science fiction. In the 1980s, director Sam Raimi blended horror and slapstick comedy with “Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead II.” In 1996, director Wes Craven made “Scream,” which was a both a genuine thriller and a satire of clichéd slasher films which included a jab at the legacy of Craven’s Freddy Krueger villain. “Scream” is credited for revitalizing the horror movie genre in the 1990s, particularly films aimed towards young audiences. Throughout the latter half of the 2000-decade, films dubbed “torture porn” (“Saw” & “Hostel”) were initially box office hits but audiences’ stomachs could only take so much. In an interview with Total Film prior to the release of “The Cabin in the Woods,” Whedon expressed his disdain for certain modern horror films: “The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew [Goddard] and I both felt that the pendulum had sung a little too far in that direction.”
With that said, “The Cabin in the Woods” is a fresh take on the horror genre. These protagonists, as clichéd as they are, represent the appeal of scary movies while the filmmakers delve deeper with an original outcome.