Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods is one of the most impeccable fusions of horror and satire ever made. It is a film which both sets up and follows through on every formula and trope of the horror genre and still subverts expectations in a way that is genuinely refreshing. It strikes real fear while also letting the audience in on the joke.
The film centers around a group of college students taking a trip to a remote cabin. The referential humor begins almost immediately as the group is laughably predictable as if ripped from the pages of the Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Horror Movie. Dana (Kristen Connolly) is the nice girl who is spoon fed as the obvious protagonist and it could be concluded mere minutes into the movie that if one character will survive it will be her. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) is a jock and a goof-off and his girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchinson) is a beautiful blond with few inhibitions. Marty (Fran Kranz) is the oddball who the group only seems to hang out with so he can provide some comic relief and Holden (Jesse Williams) is a newcomer who Curt and Jules have handpicked to bed Dana. Meanwhile, the audience sees two scientists played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins who are covertly monitoring the group for unexplained reasons.
The first portion of the movie unfolds with a lot of horror trope fake-outs. The group stops at a run down gas station where an odd and suspicious attendant gives off an unsettling vibe. When they arrive at the cabin they begin to detect some peculiarities and there are a couple of moments where the audience is lead to believe that something is about to happen. In playing with genre norms, Goddard builds a fair amount of tension. Simultaneously, the scientists, part of a larger organization, are engaged in some sort of betting pool the nature of which clearly has to do with the group and what item they select from the cabin’s basement full of seemingly haunted triggers.
The film’s second act settles into the rhythm of the genre. The group is attacked by a group of zombie hillbillies who start to pick them off one at a time. The horrifying slasher-esque sequences terrify without feeling too outside the norm. Strangely, the zombie attacks lull the audience into a sense of security. Sure the events are horrifying, but we’ve seen this movie before. We know how this ends. This section of the movie climaxes when Curt, outraged at his girlfriend’s demise and showing all the typical attributes of horror heroism, goes to jump a large ravene with his bike to get help. Inspiring music mounts as we are lead to believe that this will be the first major breakthrough in the group’s eventual rescue. The tension is then quickly sucked out of the scene when Curt and his motorcycle slam into the invisible forcefield locking the group into the region. It is a moment of utter hopelessness, but one that almost plays as comedic. The ridiculous shift in tone offers the feel of Goddard poking fun at the audience’s expectations.
The third and final act is where The Cabin in the Woods really goes haywire. As the last two survivors of the group, Dana and Marty, find their way into the secret facility, all Hell breaks loose. The nature of the film’s final twist leads to an out pour of horror movie monsters which wreak havoc on the facility and the scientists who were making light of the group’s deaths. Violent and horrifying sequences play for laughs as the most absurd combination of ghoulish beast imaginable descend on the building.
The film’s resolution is no more predictable than its body. The Cabin in the Woods’ brilliance lies in its willingness to toy with and then immediately buck firmly set expectations. In making a commentary on the genre and satirizing many tropes, Goddard does succeed in making a genuinely scary horror movie. A viewer who fails to be brought in on the joke would still likely find a lot of value in appraising The Cabin in the Woods as a standard horror, albeit one that goes delightfully off the rails. For this reason I think that the film has the staying power to be canonized as a horror classic.