Screenwriter extraordinaire Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, World War Z, The Martian) is back with his second feature as a director, Bad Times at the El Royale. His latest finds a group of strangers unravelling a mystery in a remote hotel, so it’s a good time to revisit Goddard’s ingenious debut The Cabin in the Woods, which found a group of teenagers unravelling a mystery in a remote, well, cabin.
Co-written with Joss Whedon and released in 2012, this blood-soaked, batshit critique of the horror genre revelled in trotting out as many clichés and conventions as possible before twisting them into something unique. Both writers (previously collaborators on TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel) set out to create something that harked back to the days of a “fun horror”, feeling that many recent entries had made “a horrible death an end in itself” where characters “are all tortured for 90 minutes”. Cabin also aimed a satirical swing at slasher flicks where “kids have gotten stupider and stupider”. The result? A hilarious yet scary film where even the protagonists’ most questionable decisions have plot-driven explanations. Here’s how some of horror’s most infamous tropes are upended:
Most obviously of all, there’s the titular cabin itself: it’s old, it’s miles away from civilisation and there’s no phone reception. In short, it’s one huge red flag that something bad is bound to happen. The setup is as textbook as it comes: a group of college kids are heading away for a weekend away to blow off some steam; the cabin belongs to Curt’s (Chris Hemsworth) cousin; there’s even a romantic subplot. Then, as they stop for petrol, they come across a creepy attendant who warns them about their destination.
Classic examples of the “harbinger” role, serving to offer a warning to the main protagonists early on, include Crazy Ralph in Friday the 13th, and minor players in The Invisible Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Commonly, these characters are played so that they appear insane or hysterical, and therefore tend to be dismissed out of hand. The Cabin in the Woods is no exception, and though the character is played straight in the gas station scene, his role is unceremoniously undercut later as Bradley Whitford’s control room operator makes him the butt of the joke by keeping him on speaker phone.
The spooky basement is a horror trope as old as the genre itself, with some of the most memorable featuring in Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, and The Evil Dead. It’s not hard to see why: they’re dark, only have one way out, and are underground, perhaps subconsciously linked with the very idea of death.
In Cabin, Goddard and Whedon decide to cram their cellar with every creepy item you could think up: dolls, a music box, some kind of occult orb, an ancient journal. It seems over-the-top and eye-rollingly ridiculous – or that the writers were too lazy to create a more specific origin for the evil about to befall the group – but of course it’s all deliberate. The reason for the smorgasbord of scary stuff is revealed in a very funny scene in which the control room places bets on which of their monsters the hapless teens are going to summon.
Getting frisky in the cold and damp of the great outdoors often seems oddly alluring for young characters in these types of films, and it rarely ends well. That’s just another chance for Goddard to take some pot shots at the genre, though. Here, Hemsworth’s Curt and girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) wander outside after getting tipsy, and things start getting… you know. But Jules stops him, saying she’s chilly; cue a rise in temperature. She’s not quite feeling it; time for the “pheromone mist”. It’s too dark; bring up the lights a little. The puppeteers in the control room do whatever needs to be done to get Jules (“The Whore”) killed off first.
One of the stand-out gags comes soon after, following the first attack by the zombified Buckner family. Curt, the de facto leader, tells the others that they should stick together “no matter what” as they face this newly unleashed terror. It’s the logical decision that audiences so often find themselves wanting to scream at characters who do the exact opposite (much like those infuriating types whose first thought isn’t to turn all the lights on). However, it doesn’t help Whitford and Richard Jenkins’ pair of operators, who need them to split up so they can be picked off one by one, and in the order designated by the ritual. Some brain-fuddling gas pumped into the cabin quickly makes Curt change his mind and suggest they split up. The rest of the group agrees, apart from Marty, who solidly sticks to his trope: the Only Sane Man. At every turn he’s the only one who sees the dangers or suspects something is wrong, but as a raging pothead, he’s never believed.
Take your pick for great examples of the unlikely female who survives the longest and has to confront the antagonist: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Alien, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Know What You Did Last Summer, [REC]. It’s become such a widely used convention that the phrase “Final Girl” is one of the best-known terms in film analysis. In Cabin, it’s Kristen Connolly’s Dana. Actually billed first, above Thor himself, Connolly has the tricky task of anchoring proceedings with an essentially straight role while in the context of a broadly comedic movie. She’s introduced as a shy girl, inexperienced with boys compared to her confident friend Jules, and attempts are made at match-making with Holden. As usual with the Final Girl, Dana is forced out of her comfort zone as things go south and survives against the odds while all her friends are killed.
We learn that the sacrifice to the Elder Gods requires her, “the Virgin”, to make it to the end and her death is actually optional. The twist: as she’s being throttled by a Buckner zombie, leading to celebrations in the operations room, Marty comes to the rescue. He didn’t die earlier after all, and if Dana pops her clogs before him the Gods will not be pleased. In the end (after a knowing cameo from legendary Final Girl Sigourney Weaver), Dana and Marty have a choice to make: kill him and save the world, or let the Gods destroy it. In keeping with the irreverent style, they of course choose the latter, going out while getting stoned.
An interesting experiment after watching The Cabin in the Woods: take the rules outlined within its internal logic and apply them to other horror movies. Imagine all of their plots are being secretly manipulated by unseen operators in high-tech bunkers. How many of them fit the designated order of deaths? How many character motivations could be explained by it?
The success of the film lies in Goddard and Whedon’s clear knowledge and love of the horror genre. It’s often said you can’t parody something you really dislike; you have to have a soft spot for it so that the mickey-taking keeps everyone in on the joke rather than becoming cruel. For all the digs at the genre, ultimately The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter – and it’s all the better for it.