Warning: heavy spoilers for The Cabin in The Woods below! Read at your own risk!
One of my favorite writers is Vern, best known for his takes on Steven Seagal's entire filmography (collected/expanded into "Seagalogy", a book I read cover to cover despite having only seen Seagal's theatrical output), as well as an expert on "Badass Cinema," a topic our readers (and writers!) should appreciate very much. He also tackles horror films on a regular basis, and while I don't always agree with his take, I can usually see where he's coming from and respect his opinion. Hell, even when I don't agree with him, I would still say reading Vern's opposing take is a much better use of your time than most writers I agree with.
However, I was a bit taken back by the first paragraph of his (mixed-to-positive, and intelligent) The Cabin in the Woods review, which was the complete opposite feeling I took away from it after my first (of two, and counting) viewings. From his review:
I liked THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, but it’s the kind of movie that people who don’t like horror movies say is THE BEST HORROR MOVIE IN YEARS. Of course it seems that way to them because 1) they don’t have that much to compare it to, they just have a hunch about what those other ones are like, those bad ones, and 2) since they don’t like horror movies that much they prefer one that’s not really that much of a horror movie.
Not that I think Vern is completely in the wrong; I'm sure there are some non-fans who have patted themselves on the back for recognizing the fake Pinhead in Cabin. But it's certainly not true of everyone who has given it such accolades - I like horror movies very much, and since I've watched one every day for over five years (not to mention the scores of films I had seen prior), I think my horror intake exceeds pretty much anyone else in this field save maybe Scott Weinberg (when I see something he hasn't, I feel a slight tinge of pride). So when I say that The Cabin In The Woods is (quoting my own oft-retweeted, post-midnight screening "blurb"): "the best horror movie I've seen in years," I DO, in fact, say it as a die-hard horror fan, and I also have quite a bit to compare it to. In fact, I credit that massive exposure as being part of the reason I loved it as much as I did.
(FINAL SPOILER WARNING!!!)
Now, I went into the film relatively unburdened by spoilers and the like. I knew it was "clever" and had gotten whiffs of it being a sort of "behind the scenes" of a typical horror movie, but nothing else - I didn't know how Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins' characters fit into the story until they appeared on screen. And while they don't explain their intentions until the third act, it doesn't take long to understand that they are engineering the events of a pretty traditional horror film story. That story, should you be reading this without having seen the film (you fool!) concerns five kids who head off to an isolated spot, meet a creepy "Harbinger of Doom" along the way, get drunk, get high, fool around and get picked off one by one.
The specifics vary, but this is more or less in the vein of Evil Dead, Wrong Turn, Friday the 13th (and most sequels), Tourist Trap, Hatchet, House of Wax (2005), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those are pretty popular films; even a casual horror fan has seen many/all of them, and that would be enough of a primer to enjoy the satire behind Cabin's concept. But I'm no casual horror fan, and due to my need to find a movie every day, I can add quite a bit to the list of films that Cabin is (or at least could be) riffing on. Exit 33, Don't Let Him In, Beware, Butchered, Mask Maker, Silent Scream, Creature, Somebody Help Me, The Fear, Pelt, Backwoods Bloodbath, Reunion Of Terror, Night Divides The Day, The Eves, Husk, The Season, The Graves, Resurrection County, The Lodge, Savage County, Warlock III, Goblin, Graveyard Disturbance, The Inheritance, The Hollow, Portal... these are just the movies I've watched in the past twelve months that, in some alternate universe, are just as popular as Evil Dead and thus could have been one of the direct influences on at least one element of The Cabin In The Woods script.
See, all of them feature one or more clichés that Cabin mocks, and that was something that made me incredibly giddy as I watched the film. The idea that the out of nowhere mist that constantly engulfs horror movie protagonists is actually a pheromone spray that inspires them to have sex in strange places? That is something that is going to amuse me every time I see yet another movie featuring this scenario. Ditto for the basements filled with trinkets and antiques - I have actually wondered in the past how our hero or heroine managed to zero in on the ONE object, be it an old diary or mystical object, that would unleash a demon in these Evil Dead ripoff movies. Thus, I took much delight from the idea that EVERY object in these impossibly overstuffed basements or attics would have released an evil creature should it have been tampered with.
It's these and other moments that will make me laugh when they pop up in "serious" (or is that ignorant?) horror movies from now until the end of time, just as Scream has forever "ruined" someone saying "I'll be right back!" But more importantly, this actually made Horror Movie A Day-ing worthwhile, something I certainly wouldn't say about any of the films I mentioned in that second list above. I could have been one of those fans Vern was referring to, and simply assumed that Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon were mocking Texas Chainsaw and Evil Dead, but each ripoff of those films just made me appreciate the joke behind these elements all the more. I've seen enough creepy gas station assholes to last me a lifetime, so forgive me if that makes me laugh extra hard at the idea that he's an intentional cliché intended to ensure that our group of protagonists go off into dangerous territory on their own free will.
This idea comes across more strongly in the novelization (yay!), by the way. It's just a line or two in the film, but the novel - based on the final draft script and not prone to "editing for time" as the feature would be - further delves into the various things that the "Downstairs" folk do to make sure that our kids "put on a good show." It also helps clarify some of the things that weren't as clearly defined in the film, such as how much of a jock/dick Curt had become, or Holden being changed into the group's "egghead." Thus, it's a good read for fans (it also gives some detail about Kevin!), and even the film's detractors could stand to check it out, or least the parts they had problems with. For example, some people have complained that Sigourney Weaver* should have just shot Marty (and maybe Dana for good measure), but it doesn't work that way - the Old Ones (and by proxy, us) have to be satisfied with the outcome in order to be appeased for the year, and no one would be satisfied with that simple of an ending. It's the same logic behind the kids being the ones to unleash their destroyer (in this scenario, that's the Buckner family) - there has to be a degree of fairness, and it has to be entertaining for the viewer. A character we don't know showing up and killing our hero would be a giant letdown, even if it was Ellen Ripley. Let's put it this way - if you didn't recognize the actress, or if it was some no-name, would you have been okay with her showing up and shooting Marty? Didn't think so.
Another point that Vern makes is that the narrow stereotypes assigned to the Cabin characters (the slut, the jock, the nerd, the fool/stoner and the virgin) don't fit into the movies they're referencing, such as Hellraiser. And I agree with that (Hellraiser is probably the closest we get to a specific reference in the film despite the fact that Clive Barker's mythology is far removed from this sort of scenario - a Jason wannabe would have made more sense), but part of what I like about Cabin is that it's NOT too specific. Unlike Scream, no single film is mentioned directly in the film, and the monsters, while influenced by certain films, are mostly sort of generic. Like, there's a killer clown, but it's not necessarily Pennywise. So I think they were going for an all-purpose "melting pot" of horror here, mixing up the elements so that they could get away with having a lot of fun but without specifically mocking any particular film. So the archetypes are drawn from slashers, the villains from supernatural/monster films - all bases are covered. And we even get the bonus of the other countries, so Japan covers our vengeful ghosts and Buenos Aires is besieged by a rampaging King Kong type. Hell they even work in some "torture porn" if you pay attention to the monitors, plus one could argue that the Whitford/Jenkins characters are like Hoffman and Jigsaw, putting five innocent people through a "game" that they have some (but not complete) control over. By getting things "wrong," so to speak, they're actually doing it right - it puts all of us on a level playing field with regards to being catered to. If the five kids perfectly mirrored the five in Evil Dead (which would make Dana... Ash?), it wouldn't work - it'd just be a clever spoof of Sam Raimi's film, and those who hadn't seen it would probably be missing part of the joke. Instead it's riffing on the genre itself, without any specifics to distract you, or even breaking things down into the familiar sub-genres. It's a survival monster supernatural slasher home invasion mad scientist movie! With zombies!
Which brings me to another concern that has baffled me: the idea that Cabin "isn't a horror movie." I've seen the issue raised by critics and fans, and I just don't understand their mentality. One specific concern is that the film "isn't scary." Well, shit, I'm glad you were so terrified by Saw V, because that sure as hell wasn't scary to anyone I know but I doubt there's a soul on the planet who would dismiss the idea that it's a horror film. And if you're of the belief that there can't be any comedy in the film for it to count as horror, then it must suck having to disregard American Werewolf In London, Tremors, Fright Night, Slither, Gremlins, or Return of the Living Dead as legitimate horror movies as well.
Also, fuck you it's not scary! Even the goddamn TITLE caused the audience to yelp/jump at both screenings I attended, and there are several other good jolts as well (the "wind" blowing the basement door open, the first attack, Holden's death, etc). The gore is plentiful, the body count is high, and there are more monsters and murderers in this movie than in a dozen issues of Fangoria combined. Just because the context is different doesn't make it less of a reality, and in fact I think it's a bit insulting to dismiss the idea that this is a horror film. What, so now horror movies can't be creative? They have to adhere to clichés instead of poking holes in them? Cabin succeeds first and foremost at telling a creative, largely original story, something that is becoming harder and harder to find in ANY genre nowadays. That they've done that in the context of a very fun and yes, occasionally scary horror film should be lauded. It's not that Cabin In The Woods might not be a horror film, because it most certainly is - the problem might be that you're not a very good horror fan if you can't accept a movie that doesn't stick to the same old rules.
Part of that "it's not scary" mentality might be attributed to a simple misconception. If you watch the film and think that Dana and Marty are the heroes (even disregarding their final act, which nullifies that idea to an infinite degree), you've misunderstood it. The heroes of the film are Sitterson and Hadley; Dana and the others are just pawns in their attempt to, essentially, save the world. Knowing that, the movie is incredibly suspenseful - the bits where things go astray (the cave not being blocked, for example) are much more exciting and unnerving than any chase scene, because the world might end if they don't succeed in getting things back on track.
I could go on and on, because this is the first horror film in years that I've been truly blown away by, and there's plenty to discuss and chew over, but this (very small and thankfully not too vocal) "backlash" really bummed me out. I don't care if you don't like the movie - no movie is ever going to satisfy everyone, certainly not a horror movie (one that requires a little brain activity to boot). But the dismissals I see from usually clear-thinking folks are in some ways more upsetting than Rex Reed's now legendary and hilariously inept review, because some of them (not Vern's, I should stress) almost seem to be of the opinion that the film can't be considered horror simply because it's intelligent. One point of the film is that we NEED horror movies to keep the world from descending into chaos - because of that, The Cabin In The Woods has done more to validate the genre than you, I, or any other horror critic ever will.
*Anyone else think this cameo would have been even funnier/more awesome if it was Jamie Lee Curtis in the role? I mean, it all comes down to making sure that the virgin is the last to die, who better to explain this than the originator of the cliché?