‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2011) Review

“I’m sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world.”

I first saw The Cabin in the Woods at a drive-in as the bottom half of a double feature with Prometheus. I got a double-shot of migraine during Prometheus (probably not related to the movie), so I wasn’t in the best spot to watch Cabin, but it was still fun to watch on the big screen in the middle of the Western Maine woods.

The film hadn’t really been on my radar, though I had a vague memory of seeing a TV spot where an eagle smashed into an invisible force field. I think I thought it was just another meta-horror film, doing for the “cabin in the woods” sub-genre what Scream had done for slashers. I was happy to see it, but I was there for Prometheus and didn’t have any expectations.

I loved it. Even through the migraine haze I enjoyed the subversion of expectations, the references to various horror films, the set design, humor, characters etc. And yeah, I loved the horror elements as well. Did I enjoy it more because I didn’t know what I was getting into? Maybe, but I think I would have liked it anyway. I’m just happy I got to go in fairly blind, and sit through those first few minutes with Sitterson, Marty and Lin wondering if the drive-in had loaded the wrong film.

As much as I enjoyed it, I haven’t re-watched it much. I think I did when I first picked up the Blu-ray, just trying to see how many references I could get. Then I watched the extras and put it away. I haven’t watched it just for fun since then but found myself thinking about it this week and decided to dig it out again. It was a good palate cleanser after the delirium of all the Fulci films I’ve been watching.

Oh, if you’re interested in (most) of the film’s horror references, this video on the GoodBadFlicks YouTube channel does a good job of catching most of them. (Though they miss the Funny Games reference in the opening and make some weird conclusions – how is “The Bride” not a reference to Bride of Frankenstein?)

The Medium
I have the Lionsgate Blu-ray release of The Cabin in the Woods from 2012. It looks great and comes with a decent amount of extras. There’s a 4k release from 2017 if that’s more your thing.

For streaming options, the film is available for free (with ads) on Peacock and on SyFy for subs. It can be rented or purchased at a large number of online vendors as well.

The Movie
Here’s the basic setup of The Cabin in the Woods: A group of college kids head out to the titular ‘cabin’ while being watched by a mysterious group of white-shirt/black-tie technicians. All the trappings of your traditional horror movie are in play and both those elements and our main characters are being manipulated by the mysterious group, but not everything is going to go according to script.

The film doesn’t start with those kids, though, and I’d honestly forgotten that the opening scene features the mysterious agency that’s responsible for the events of the film. Watching Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) go through their daily routine with Lin (Amy Acker) threw me off when I first saw the movie – this time I’d expected it to come later for some reason. I love the whole agency setup, with that sense of jaded complacency. I particularly like how everyone seems to be dressed like they’re working at NASA Mission Control circa 1968.

When we’re introduced to our other main characters, the protagonists – the victims – they fall roughly into a standard movie trope stereotypes. The jock Curt (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth), the nerd Holden (Jesse Williams), the stoner Marty (Franz Kranz), the virgin Dana (Kristen Connolly) and the whore Jules (Anna Hutchinson). Except they’re not, of course, they’re deeper, richer characters with more agency and complexity than your standard horror movie cutout. But that’s the point, and at this later date they almost feel like different sorts of stereotypes, the meta-characters that are really more than they seem. We’re at that point with movies, especially horror films, when meta awareness has become a cliché of its own and we’re impressed when a horror movie plays it straight. A standard slasher is now “refreshing.”

The Cabin in the Woods is from an earlier time, however, and even a decade after Scream made the self-aware horror film a cash-cow, there was still plenty of gold to be mined from a film that used and abused the tropes of horror to make some sort of point. Luckily Cabin doesn’t make the mistake of getting too far up its own ass in in making that statement, nor does it get too didactic or “film-student” cute. It is – dare I say it – kinda having a good time with the very elements that it’s directing its ire against.

Cabin is a fun movie with both a love of horror and a certain level of disdain for the same – though maybe it’s the disdain of a friend who knows you can do better.  It’s the kind of movie that invites a lot of discussion over intent and self-awareness: are the guys running the show supposed to be us? Voyeurs turned on by gore and breasts? Or the studio system, feeding fictional virgins to the beast of the bottom line? Or is it just self-indulgent meta-awareness on the part of two pop-culture fed creatives, the film equivalent of a circle jerk?

I dunno.

But I like it. I enjoy the shout-outs to various horror films – with The Evil Dead getting the most love, especially in the beginning. I love Sitterson and Hadley, the two main technicians, even when they’re being pathetic jerks. I like the sheer amount of horror-related crap they piled in the basement. And yeah, I love all the monsters, and Hadley’s sad (and ultimately fulfilled) desire to see a mer-man. That chart of possible monsters as part of the betting pool makes me laugh every time – particularly when you see “Kevin” slotted in between “Deadites” and “Mummy.” Digging out horror movie theory and making it an express requirement for keeping the Old Ones at bay also makes me laugh. I even like the ending, even if it was the end of the world.

Watching the movie this time around, I feel like maybe the filmmakers erred a little too much on the side of humor, though. There are moments, like the prayer Sitterson and Hadley engage in after Jules’ death, that feel like there’s something deeper we’re juuuust missing out on. That’s the moment I key in on during that sequence, though I still appreciate the humor/commentary of the crew of (mostly guys) waiting for a glimpse of nudity and their disappointment when it’s (at first) subverted. Coming from an adolescence wherein I ranked horror films on how much gore and/or nudity they contained I understood who they were commenting on and why.

And of course, in the end, they made a film that their targets would still be happy to watch, so… what does that say?

The Bottom Line
I get the feeling that Whedon and Goddard want The Cabin in the Woods to be more meaningful than it ends up being. It’s just too much fun to be a serious commentary on horror movies and their audiences. That’s okay, though – I much prefer a fun ride with a dose of meta than the other way around.

And seriously, Japan? When have schoolkids ever won out in a Japanese horror movie?

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.