There aren’t too many movie genres as hidebound to its own conventions as horror. And within that, the slasher movie is perhaps the most hidebound of them all. So much so, that if you watch pretty much any slasher movie made in the last 40 years, it will follow a set of unspoken rules that make these kinds of stories predictable. Very predictable. In fact, half the fun of watching them is to see how far ahead of the story one can get while wondering if the filmmakers will be clever enough to subvert the audience’s cliché-driven expectations. It’s a kind of “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know” game between the artists and their audience that you really don’t see elsewhere in cinema. And while there have been a few notable efforts to mine this subversion of expectations and genre conventions elsewhere, none of them quite match The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that somehow manages to pay homage to, and deconstruct, every horror movie ever made.
The story takes place in an unnamed college town where five friends—the sweet and earnest Dana, the stoned and sarcastic Marty, the smart and caring Holden, the beautiful and vivacious Jules, and the athletic and charismatic Curt—head up to the mountains for a weekend in a cabin recently purchased by Curt’s brother. Meanwhile, technicians in a secret government facility are running some kind of simulation across the planet, and have put our five friends under extensive surveillance. Soon everybody in the movie except for Dana, Marty, Holden, Jules and Curt know that the cabin is some kind of trap where every environmental condition can be manipulated. What is more, the technicians back at Horror NORAD are pushing and pulling levers to drive the five students into the same courses of action that render slasher movies possible: people split up for no good reason, they wander off into the darkness to go hook up, they decide to explore exceedingly dark and creepy places and handle whatever exceedingly dark and creepy stuff they find there. None of it makes any sense, and slowly, Dana and Marty begin to realize it. The notion that they might all somehow be puppets at the end of somebody else’s strings is just a little too crazy for them to take seriously, but what else would explain their uncharacteristic behavior, and the surveillance equipment found in the Cabin? The arrival of a family of redneck torture zombies soon puts all questions to rest as the students scramble in a futile effort to save their lives, and for reasons we still don’t understand, the more people die, the happier everybody back in Horror NORAD seems to be. As the movie churns toward its blood-soaked ending (with what must be the bloodiest single scene in horror cinema, and the highest body count as well) one thing becomes certain: There absolutely, positively will not be a sequel.
Okay, first things first: this almost isn’t a horror movie. Whatever scares are built into it are telegraphed so far in advance as to be meaningless, and the manner in which the movie plays to those already familiar with the genre makes this a walk in the park for even the most skittish of viewers. No, this is more like a science fiction movie about horror movies, offering a crazy grand unification story that somehow ties together every single horror movie you have ever seen before this one. That one with the guy in the mask who carves up a whole dorm of co-eds? Connected. That one about a werewolf in India? Connected. That one in space? Connected. That one wh—CONNECTED, okay? They are all connected.
Once we come to understand why, the movie starts to get extremely fun as characters assume different roles though their behavior is the same, and exactly who is a victim begins to take on a deeper set of implications. There are scenes within Horror NORAD that provide nonstop comic relief as the movie laughs at the absurdity of the horror genre’s self-made rules and its inability to play outside of them. But it also seems to be arching a skeptical eyebrow at some of the more repugnant aspects of more recent fare, such as torture porn and our tendency to root for the bad guys in horror flicks. Really, how much do you really want to see somebody get a blowtorch put to their face, or forced to endure prolonged acts of trauma-triggering cruelty?
It’s a question seemingly on the mind of a newly-assigned security guard to Horror NORAD, who becomes the audience’s stand-in as he tries to take in everything he is seeing. As he watches the technicians cheer the deaths of innocent people dying under truly horrifying circumstances they never really had a chance to survive, he starts to wonder who the good guys really are here. And so do we.
The moment of truth in The Cabin in the Woods comes when the technicians see Dana—the final girl—cornered by the leader of the redneck torture zombies. With Dana’s death assured, the technician’s mission appears to have been completed. And there’s a lot riding on it too, judging by the immense partying that breaks out in the control room. There is a moment when we see the techs drinking and dancing and laughing while Dana’s fight for life is still being broadcast on huge wall monitors across the control room. Whatever this ritual is, and whatever purpose it is meant to serve, somewhere along the line, it has become an exercise of the ends justifying the means. That kind of cruel indifference invites judgement and retribution. And before this night is out, there will be both, and of a kind few are truly prepared to imagine. Especially those in the audience. If ever there was a movie to watch unprepared, this is the one.