Five teenagers set out for a wild weekend away at a remote woodland cabin. As horror movie set-ups go, it’s hardly the most original. But as you may have guessed already, there’s a little more to The Cabin in the Woods than meets the eye. The movie poster tagline reads “You think you know the story. Think again.” and critics have already been describing the film as a “game-changer” for the genre. So what is it about this film, penned by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, that makes it worthy of all this attention? And is it really as unpredictable as it’s supposed to be? Although I have done my best to avoid spoilers where I can help it, if you don’t want to ruin this film for yourself I suggest you read no further.
The Cabin in the Woods uses a postmodern approach to the genre, which plays on popular conventions of horror films, seeming to simultaneously criticise and celebrate them. Horror buffs will delight in recognising the clichés as they arise and as they are torn apart. The victims themselves appear to fit neatly within frequently seen stereotypes, particularly those of the “sexually promiscuous” girl (who, of course, is the first to be killed) and the more “virginal” final girl who typically survives till the very end. Quintessential horror locations like the cabin, the lake, the basement (filled with the usual creepy horror movie props: old dolls, photographs, a music box, a diary), and a disused gas station are all seen. Yep, it all sounds like the kind of situation which is going to end in a lot of bloodshed. And of course it does, but still manages to surprise along the way.
Early on in the film we realise that something is amiss. Goddard continually cuts to a large control centre in which white-collar technicians discuss and observe what the teenagers are up to. It gradually becomes evident that these technicians have some degree of control over what happens in and around the cabin. The juxtaposition created by cutting between these two locations creates humour, but also negates some of the horror. As a result, The Cabin in the Woods is more witty and clever than scary, although there are a few shocks throughout, as well as a lot of gore in the culminating scenes. The film features every classic movie monster under the sun (and a few rarely seen ones for good measure), but it also represents real modern fears – surveillance, voyeurism and the loss of control over our own lives.
The Cabin in the Woods comes so close to serving as an amazing metaphor for the nature of cinema and spectatorship. The white-collar ‘puppeteers’ represent the film director; they select and shape their characters (victims) according to stereotypes, they decide what will happen to them and orchestrate it with a surprising degree of detachment. The cabin and the surrounding area acts as one giant movie set – the technicians can even control aspects like lighting. So in that case: who is the cinema audience? What is the purpose of this event, and who is it being carried out for? Finally, it is revealed that a number of Gods exist beneath the surface of the Earth, who require these strangely orchestrated sacrificial rituals to be carried out in order to placate them from rising up and destroying the planet. It’s at this point that the metaphor becomes less effective. We can still choose to see the Gods as a representation of cinema audiences – we’re all blood-thirsty individuals who take great pleasure in films that pander to stereotypes – but personally, I feel that the film’s impact would have been greater if the higher purpose to this event was for some sort of corporate gain, or at least for the pleasure of something human, rather than something which can be dismissed as a power too great to argue with.
Having studied horror cinema for the past year of my life, I tend to feel that it’s pretty difficult for a horror film to truly defy my expectations. However, The Cabin in the Woods succeeded in doing so, keeping me guessing right up until the very end. Expecting either a final adherence to the typical final girl scenario, or else a twist on it where the virginal girl is killed and instead we are left with a ‘final boy’, it turned out that I was wrong on both counts (although not entirely). The film doesn’t manage to completely demolish all the conventions of horror cinema (the stereotype of rural folk as dirty and uncivilised, which Carol Clover discusses in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, is perpetuated in the brief appearance of a creepy man at the gas station who is literally covered in dirt and keeps spitting), but gives it a good go. Overall, The Cabin in the Woods is a must-watch for any horror fan. Whether in the future it will be considered to be a game-changer in the same way that Scream (1996) was, only time will tell. But for now, it makes for extremely entertaining viewing.