The golden age of horror: The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Chris: One of my favorite little throwaway scenes in Cabin in the Woods is one where a disembodied zombie appendage distracts a hired gunman long enough to allow our protagonists to render him senseless. No, that’s not the part I’m talking about, not yet. We then get this bit of inspired, silly dialogue: “Good work, zombie arm,” but that’s not the bit either, though also awesome. The part I’m talking about happens as our characters leave the incapacitated gunman. We see the disembodied arm and hand make its way onto the guy’s face, presumably to tear him apart as best it can…as zombie arms will do. It’s one of so many similarly clever and fun moments that exist at the periphery of this film that endear it to me so much.

After the jump, am I on speakerphone?

Barac: The Cabin in the Woods is one of those movies that one really ought to go into cold. So if you have somehow managed to avoid hearing anything about it (all I had heard was that Joss Whedon was attached, when I first saw it in theaters), I would really recommend going and seeing it before reading further. Even the premise is, in my book, a pretty cool reveal. And I think we’re going to need to discuss the ending, so, y’know, spoilers ahead.

Chris: Good call on the spoiler warnings, although I will say that the script here walks a really interesting line. With the very first scene–which is completely incongruous to the movie we think we’re getting–we know something’s up. This isn’t going to be just a kids in the woods horror movie. Very slyly, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard make us think they’ve just spoiled us or revealed a key plot point…and then as things go forward we find out that we didn’t know the half of it yet.

Barac: The Cabin in the Woods is an interesting beast. I think to me it’s more of a deconstruction of horror movies than a horror movie per se, but there are so many fun touches and careful bits of craft that I certainly wasn’t going to quibble about its inclusion. For example, the lovely opening scene, juxtaposing that creepy blood crawl at the very beginning with the seemingly mundane office banter at some sort of government facility, and then the smash cut to the title, all in lurid red.

Chris: It definitely fits into a sub-genre I think we can call funny horror. Films like Cabin and American Werewolf in London especially manage to balance being genuinely humorous and clever along with scenes of actual real horror. There’s lots of gore here, for instance; this isn’t Ghostbusters. Maybe one of the keys to doing a movie like this is that laughter and fright are both emotional states within us that feel like someone’s turned a knob in our brains to 11. They feel like distant poles, in other words, and maybe the way you do this right is to get our senses whipping from one extreme to another? For instance, The Buckners are fantastic movie horror zombies. They look terrifying. They kill in terrifying ways. And for all the breezy walk and talk dialogue and snappy one-liners, there’s gravitas around the 5 teenagers trapped in the forest. We want them to live. We’re bummed when we see them killed. Credit the movie for making them more than just their archetypes.

Barac: I love how the characters, while being carefully slotted into the standard horror movie tropes, don’t actually fit those boxes very well. Chris Hemsworth’s handsome jock is a sociology major and recommends alternate textbooks to friends. Jules isn’t a natural blond (among other things). Our “nerd” is a (polite, intelligent) star football player. Our “virgin” isn’t. And, okay, Marty’s a pretty fool-y fool for much of the movie, but in some ways he’s the smartest character of all. Certainly he’s the first one to see through the trap being laid for them, and surprisingly capable at survival, too.

Chris: That’s the problem with a resourceful stoner–always possible to miss spiking his secret stash with mind control drugs. That’ll happen. And our “virgin”? Genius. “We work with what we’ve got.” So many brilliant lines. I’m not sure that the only character Bradley Whitford has in his arsenal isn’t Josh Lyman, but that’s fine by me. It’s such a damn good character and it so perfectly fits what’s asked here that I didn’t mind. Even better, Richard Jenkins threatens to steal most scenes with the two of them. He’s one of the great “Oh yeah, THAT guy” actors of our generation. He’s one of those performers who even in crappy movies is worth watching.


Barac: I really dig that, as seemingly cheery and callous as the atmosphere of partying at the control room is, you definitely get the sense that these people understand the cost of their actions and do not ultimately do it lightly. They’re not villains, exactly. They’re just protecting us in ways that may not be worth it, as our heroes ultimately decide. And what a brave way to end a movie, too. How many films would allow their protagonists to make that particular choice the way they do?

Rob: Mind if I pop in? I’m so glad you mentioned that party in the control room, Barac. I didn’t know what to make of Cabin the first time I saw it, but it really clicked the second time through and that party was my a-ha moment. It’s the perfect contrast between the two halves of this movie, scientist comedy vs. slasher horror. What an inspired bit of gruesome absurdity to build a movie around. I also love the cellar full of cursed objects that might kickstart the story in any number of different directions. I wish we could see each different one play out in sequels, or a Choose Your Own Adventure format where the audience makes the call.

Chris: What I love about the dichotomy of the science control room versus the slasher movie is how it creates a really interesting scene for audience loyalty about two-thirds through the film. We’re pretty clear now on what the stakes are, and know that it’s all on the American lab folks to save the day. They realize that the tunnel hasn’t caved in like it’s supposed to, though, and we get this scene where Jenkins runs through the complex in a scene that reminded me of the poor intern in Broadcast News trying to get the tape to the control room. We’re rooting for Jenkins to get to Demolitions and take care of the problem. He’s racing against time. We want him to succeed…and then we remember that if he succeeds, the poor kids in the motorhome are doomed. I love how this movie twirls our loyalties around. Who’s a protagonist? Who’s an antagonist?

And you’re totally right about the choice at the end of the film, and it works so well because it’s based on that wavering loyalty we have. That also takes us to the denouement of the biggest mystery/twist that yanked me through the entire film. I spent the second half pondering whether they really were talking end of the world. Surely, I thought, there’d be some exit ramp here, a technicality that would allow both Marty and Dana to walk away and live happily ever after. Nope. Like Rapture and Miracle Mile, Cabin in the Woods plays a big game of chicken with the audience, and when we think we’ve got the movie ready to ditch out, it decides to go right over the falls.

Barac: Let’s not forget that, much of the time, this is a very funny movie. Marty is hysterical virtually all the way through, but stuff like putting Mordecai on speaker phone, the singing Japanese school children, or the beautiful board tracking the office betting pool (best appreciated in freeze frame) are also great. Tom, back in the day, talked a lot about how he felt Lost’s influence heavily in this movie (Drew Goddard worked on Lost), but to me it maps much more closely onto the aesthetic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and both Whedon and Goddard were involved with that one) – horrible monsters, horror tropes…but also humor and an acknowledgment of the inherent goofiness of a lot of this stuff. Not to mention that there are zero Lost alumni on the cast and a number of Whedon regulars made it, like Amy Acker and Fran Kranz.

Chris: What I love about Whedon’s relationship to horror is how he expects us to get it without a lot of handholding. That was how things went with Buffy, and that’s how they are here. The scene that shows how Japan finally loses their perfect record is a great case in point. I don’t know exactly what movie is being referenced, but I’ve now seen enough Japanese horror that the joke made me laugh until tears came to my eyes. The movie manages to combine that humor and horror into a wonderful fizzy cocktail throughout. This is, perhaps, every bit the interesting diversion yet artistic cul-de-sac that a movie like Scream is. The difference between the two is that for our purposes of surveying fantastic horror movies of recent vintage, Cabin can be enjoyed as a clever sideshow without ever having to serve as main attraction.

Plus it makes better use of an REO Speedwagon song than any movie soundtrack in history.

(The Cabin in the Woods is available to stream for Netflix and Amazon Prime subscribers, or for purchase from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)