Author’s Note: This article first appeared on MonkeyGoose on October 9, 2015.
Drew Goddard’s directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is the horror movie to end all horror movies, in more ways than one.
Goddard, who wrote Cloverfield (2008), several episodes of Lost, and most recently The Martian (2015), penned the script with fellow geek icon Joss Whedon, creator of such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and director of The Avengers (2012). Both fans of horror films, they wrote it as a “loving hate letter” to the genre, as the movie serves as both a send-up to classic horror and also a criticism of what it had become (since “torture porn” had become popular, with films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and Human Centipede (2009), Goddard and Whedon found horror to be…well….horrible).
And that’s probably the best way to describe The Cabin in the Woods: a meta-horror movie attempting to revitalize the genre by taking it apart. But unlike Scream (1996), which is a horror/slasher movie with some self-awareness, or Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which is a comedy of errors framed as a horror movie, Cabin is a full-on deconstruction of the horror genre. It uses tired tropes in order to highlight how tired they are, but also (on some level) creatively defends their use by offering a clever explanation of why they’re used, retroactively explaining a lot of horror movies that came before it.
Unfortunately, that’s about as much as I can say about it without diving into spoilers. The aspects that make the movie great also make it hard to talk about (and even harder to market). Suffice to say that the marketing tagline Lionsgate eventually landed on – “You think you know the story” – is spot on.
But it doesn’t top the tagline of Lionsgate’s other great 2012 release.
The bare bones premise – five college kids spending a weekend at a remote, creepy cabin – is all too familiar, but don’t let that fool you. As the trailers hint, and as we learn in the opening scene (which makes you think you’ve wandered into the wrong theater, until the very-nicely-done title card), there’s much more going on with this story than meets the eye. And while the first hour is more or less a horror movie with a mysterious twist, it takes it up to 11 in the third act.
Shot in the spring of 2009 (Chris Hemsworth was cast in Thor (2011) while filming Cabin), the movie sat on the shelf for three full years while it changed hands from MGM to Lionsgate, a 3D conversion was attempted but abandoned, and its original (appropriate) October release date was pushed back to the box office dead zone of April. And despite plenty of critical acclaim, it failed to find an audience in the box office.
Its box office numbers shouldn’t be a surprise (or a deterrent); there’s no way to sell this movie. While the first two-thirds certainly has its tense moments (and a small handful of highly-telegraphed jump scares), it’s not scary enough as a straight up horror flick to justify its own existence (which is likely what moviegoers were looking for), and it requires much more thought on the audiences’ part than the typical slasher that it pretends to be (which is likely not what moviegoers were looking for). That said, its third act is so deliciously over-the-top, depending on your disposition, you’ll either be peering through your fingers in horror or laughing with glee (or both).
While it requires some thought, there’s plenty of exposition to help you, but said exposition stays vague enough to keep you curious and asking questions. All of your questions will be answered after one viewing (for the most part), but it’s even better on a second viewing. More importantly, it’s not any worse on a third viewing (which is more than I can say about a lot of “See it twice!” movies).
It didn’t find an audience in theaters, but it more than deserved to. And it deserves a spot in your yearly October horror movie marathons. You won’t regret putting this breath of fresh air into your rotation; you might even find it elevates the other horror movies around it. Because Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon accomplished exactly what they set out to do.
They made horror fun again.
And you’ll never look at mermaids or unicorns the same way again.