The class premiere of Cabin in the Woods was probably the sixth or seventh time I watched the movie, which is just as well. It’s always a fun movie to talk about with other horror fans, even though it’s been a while since I’ve had any new insights about it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s difficult for me to judge Cabin in the Woods as anything but a reflexive film. To me it was always metafilm first, horror second. As such, I loved the movie but I could never really take it as anything more than a fun Wheadon-Goddard dissertation on the horror genre. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deliver on scare, of course, but first things first: rules, rules, and how to break them.
It can’t be denied that there is a subtle connection between Cabin in the Woods and classic horror staples like Scream. A lot of Scream’s cult status was built on its weird, ironically self-aware meta dialogue, which was intricately expounded on and added to in later sequels. Cabin in the Woods channels some of that same energy. The person behind the secret organization is called “the director”, after all, and the clinical way the technicians dissect their horrific brand of storytelling only serves to mimic the odd, intimate-yet-detached relationship of filmmakers to their craft. The technicians’ treatment of Dana actually brings to mind the famous story about Stanley Kubrick wringing performances from Shelley Duvall by emotionally and mentally torturing her and encouraging the rest of the production team to do the same.
Cabin in the Woods isn’t exactly subtle about what it’s trying to do. From the realization that there’s more to the story than meets the eye (behind-the-scenes meddling, the students not quite living up to their respective stereotypes) to the disruption of the typical horror narrative structure/formula (did anyone else miss the secret government scene in Friday the 13th?), the movie isn’t afraid to run roughshod over everything and anything the horror genre has held sacred for years.
I don’t think it’s too biased of me to say that best part about Cabin in the Woods is in identifying the different tropes and in consequently seeing said tropes demolished or restructured. The movie questions the limits of artistic license and of the various excuses people make in order to justify… well, pretty much anything. It also asks all the usual questions— “Who are the real monsters, here? Is it us? It’s us, isn’t it.”—but humorously rebounds on itself and self-consciously adds “but the monsters of our fantasies are pretty effing scary too, no lie!” Because, let’s face it, we could wax poetic about how the horror genre’s true genius lies in its ability to mirror back deep metaphors about a culture’s fears and (better yet!) its morals, but at the end of the day the thing that keeps us up at night isn’t the guilt brought about by revelations on our nature as human beings. It’s the freaky image of the dead little girl crawling under your bed covers, or of the serial killer waiting to burst in on your shower time, or even just the thought that we might someday find ourselves hunted down by a zombie redneck torture family.