The Cabin in the Woods is sly and self-aware in its commentary. At first, it seems obvious what it’s about, a bunch of teenagers going out to a cabin in the woods to party amongst themselves, but things quickly go wrong. If you, like I did upon my first watch go in thinking it’s that simple the intricacy of what is being said can easily get lost. I hated this movie when I first saw it. I thought that the weird comedy mixed with horror wasn’t cohesive. Looking back now after having watched it twice since then, it’s not that the movie was bad, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t see enough horror to understand what was trying to be said.
The Cabin in the Woods draws on various horror films, from Evil Dead to Friday the 13th. Those films and several others shaped a lot of what we consider tropes and clichés nowadays. The Cabin in the Woods uses those tropes to introduce their characters: Dana (Kristen Connolly) as the reserved girl, Curt (Chris Hemsworth) as the jock, Jules (Anna Hutchison) as the party girl , Marty (Fran Kranz) as the comic relief/pothead, and Holden (Jesse Williams) as the intelligent book smart guy. They end up in scenes with a creepy dark basement, playing ancient artifacts containing creepy Latin. People go outside to have sex and someone ends up dead. We’ve seen these characters and scenes time and time again so what makes this movie any different?
The film brings to the foreground the question of what is the deeper meaning behind the clichés, what makes horror work, and ultimately poking a bit of fun at the “horror formula” many movies reuse. The formula is usually includes something along the lines of a family or group of friends encountering something abnormal (typically supernatural or a murderous person). They realize they’re in trouble yet the group gets slowly picked off because they make clearly illogical decisions saying lines such as “we should split up”. Add some jump scares that usually have nothing to do with the scary person/thing. Finally, there is a showdown with the survivor(s) and the scary thing. The storyline and characters easily become convenient. They’re quick, uncomplicated, and relatively cheap films to produce making the formula simple to replicate again and again with little to no variation. We go see it because even when we know it’ll be bad we watch it hoping for something more allowing for the films to bring in money resulting in more replication.
If the genre has become formulated, is there even any room for choice for those who create and produce these films? Horror is an extremely beloved genre and sometimes it becomes hard to move away from something that has worked for so long. If you look back on something like The Exorcist (1973) it was terrifying on so many levels. But it’s the freshness and newness of the scares that created that reaction within the generation. Like most things, the horror genre isn’t and shouldn’t be static. What once worked then, shouldn’t be held as the standard for what should work now. After decades of the same formula being replicated, again and again, people have become increasingly desensitized to the blood, gore, and ghosts, making what was once scary and shocking become boring and repetitive. You can see the way The Cabin in the Woods critiques that ideology. The director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon establish a rulebook for the film merely to disobey it. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) seem to know all the tricks to get the characters to do exactly what they want to produce a certain outcome. It’s worked for so long but now things aren’t going as planned.
Perhaps it’s time horror tried something new. Maybe the formula needs a little destruction.