“An army of nightmares, huh? Let’s get this party started.”
It’s easy to criticize the horror genre. The recycled plots, cheap scare techniques, and desensitized violence are a serious turn-off for many fans of cinema. Yet we see the same stuff pumped out every year. Even worse, perhaps, is the constant rebooting and endless stream of sequels that sucks the creativity out of any successful franchise. They’re even making a sequel to 2014’s Ouija, a film so abysmal that the horror came from having to sit through all 90 minutes of it. The future may look bleak for horror fans, but all hope is not lost. As we all know, every year brings just a handful of fantastic horror films that break these conventional restraints and remind audiences what it means to be afraid.
The Cabin in the Woods is a 2012 horror-comedy film that everyone was talking about. I remember people claiming you had to go into the movie knowing nothing about it. Some called it a parody; others said it was a truly frightful horror film. I would say that both statements are correct. The Cabin in the Woods plays on boring genre tropes with a witty script constantly referencing other horror films and exaggerating their style. As much as I love Toy Story and the Avengers, I can say with confidence that The Cabin in the Woods is Joss Whedon’s strongest work.
The coolest thing about the film is this constant commentary on the horror genre. Director Drew Goddard directs the piece in a jarring, over-the-top style indicative of classic slasher films, but there is also so much humor. The camerawork, the editing, it all boils down to one big, scary joke. One of my favorite bits is right at the beginning when the two lead facilitators are walking through the office, discussing mundane details of the events to come, when the title text suddenly jumps out in big red letters with a shriek. It’s this constant contrast between the terrifying events of the cabin and the silly bureaucracy of the control room that make this movie so clever. While the terror in most horror films comes from the protagonists being all alone, The Cabin in the Woods twists this on its head. Our heroes do have an audience, one that is working towards their demise.
Another fun element is how the film plays on the “torture porn” aspect of modern horror. It has become common in the genre to rely on gore and shocking violence to keep the viewer’s attention. Yet again, the film spins this trope for the purpose of a greater commentary. In one scene towards the end, the last girl alive is being attacked by the redneck zombie in what appears to be the climactic moment of the film. However, we only see this happen in the background of the control room on TV monitors. The focus is on the people celebrating and having mindless chatter while you can only catch glimpses of the bloody mess happening. The real horror is simply background noise.
The performances in the film are fantastic all around. The five lead actors commit entirely to the clichés of the genre. They never seem in on the joke as in a spoof film like Scary Movie, which is a mistake that a less talented team might have fallen into. Rather, the audience is in on the joke, and it makes for strong satire. There are even small details that pop up all the time in modern horror that find their way into the commentary. Lines like “Hey guys, come take a look at this.” or “Where is she? … She’s gone!” come off as a joke in this kind of film, poking fun at the lack of originality in horror screenwriting.
While the movie does tend to break its own rules a lot (particularly the guidelines of this demonic ritual which always just sort of pop up for plot convenience), this is a film where all is forgiven. It’s a fun, fascinating story that really puts the horror genre itself under the lens. The greatest success is that the film proves its own point. You can still have original ideas and make a great scary movie. It just takes some good ideas. This is the real lesson from The Cabin in the Woods, and for teaching us this lesson, it has secured its spot in greatness.
Films Left to Watch: 978