The Cabin in The Woods – Genre Expectation and Relishing Possibility

"If you hear a strange noise outside... Have sex" The Cabin in the Woods posterIf ever a film truly honours horror movie fandom, The Cabin in the Woods is it. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and directed by Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a brilliantly simple premise, a homage to the great horror films of the past and at the same time playing on genre expectations like no other film has done so.

While enjoyable in itself, the real pleasure of The Cabin in the Woods isn’t based on its tip of the hat to the horror genre or its subversion of horror movie tropes. The Cabin in the Woods works so brilliantly as a horror film because it relies on our knowledge of horror movie expectations to imagine our own possibilities of plots that might have been.

Just Another Typical Horror Movie?

The Cabin in the Woods, as the title quite obviously suggests, gives us all of the features of the “cabin in the woods” horror movie tradition. A group of college kids go out to the woods for the weekend – drinking, sex and grisly death ensues.

Evil_dead_ver1There is everything here we’ve come to expect from the genre, even to the point of numerous direct allusions to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), arguably the most influential “cabin in the woods” style horror film made. The sudden appearance of the red title at the beginning; the mysterious trapdoor opening to reveal the basement and the collection of occult curiosities that will ultimately lead to the horror we’re all here to see – all straight from Evil Dead.

While our characters at the beginning are not your typical horror movie kids, they are transformed into such when they enter the control of the Puppet Masters. The exception here is probably Marty who is a philosophising stoner cliché from the beginning.

While The Cabin in the Woods serves us up all of the standard tropes of the genre, it’s also carving a new genre at the same time by referencing all of those standards of expectation. This isn’t happening in the obvious self-referential way like the Scream franchises where the entire plot premise was based on following the rules of horror.  But rather it’s the effect of these expectations that makes Cabin in the Woods an entirely different genre of horror movie experience and unlike any “cabin in the woods” movie we’ve ever seen before.  

How Does the Film Play On Our Expectations?

Because this is a film dealing in standards and pre-set expectations, we know at least some of these characters are going to die. We’ve come to the movie to see just that, as we go to any other movie of the “cabin in the woods” genre.

The film then delivers on these very expectations and even though it does so in a completely different context, the generic standards have by and large still been met.

The monumental difference to this and something like the Wrong Turn “cabin-in-the-woods” style franchise for example is not the fact that these kids are set up to die in awful bloody deaths, it’s not even the fact that it’s all done at the hands of these mysterious Puppet Masters working of the ultimate evil ancient gods. *A note – Wrong Turn films aren’t all standard “cabin-in-the-woods” movies, but they do share the genre’s core elements.

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What allows The Cabin in the Woods operate on a totally unique level is not the appeal of what is happening, but rather the excitement of What Could Have Happened.

In the DVD commentary, Joss Whedon states the success of the film is all about set up and payoff. I can’t argue with Joss Whedon. I just can’t. But I can add something else….

Set up and payoff is the success of any horror film and The Cabin in the Woods is no different. What is different is that the appeal of the film, the effect of the film and what makes it so special is the possibilities that arise from the multiple set ups, a lot of which we don’t actually realise until the film’s penultimate scenes when all of the monsters are set free.

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There is some good old  set up and pay off horror satisfaction – if there wasn’t this wouldn’t be a good horror movie. When Curt goes to take the leap on his motor bike, the genre itself tells us what to expect – death. But it’s this special manipulation of the genre that gives us a cooler death than anything we’ve ever seen before.

In some ways it’s like the appeal of watching any of the Final Destination films. We sit down to watch characters picked off one by one, fated to die in bloody accidents. As we wait for them,  we’re offered so many false leads. We’re convinced a character is going to die in one way, because that’s what the camera shows us, but a sudden and unexpected accident kills them by different and unexpected means – something we had no chance to see coming – and we’re given the horror thrill ride moment we watch horror for.

Unlike the Final Destination films, The Cabin in the Woods never directly gives us that unseen and unexpected moment. What we get instead is the tantalising possibility and we essentially have to make up the rest for ourselves.

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Genre Expectation Combines With Plot Possibility

As the Puppet Masters set up the choices and give us little teasers of what COULD happen – What’s the appeal of the merman he want to see so much? What’s happening in the Japanese division? What would have happened if a different monster was chosen?  – we experience the key delight of The Cabin in the Woods.

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As the torrents of hideous and bizarre creatures come forth from the elevators, it’s the most unusual ones that are most intriguing because we don’t know what to except if they had been chosen to make the sacrifice. The masked faces, the ballerina dentata  – we know what to expect the in wilderness horror genre, but what could have been if these unique horrors were in the story?

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Even in the familiar horror creatures operate on this same appeal. For example, we see a Hell Lord creature not unlike a Cenobite and we’re tingling at the thought – what would have happened if he came out? Same too with the Evil Dead style trees or any of the other familiar nasties. Every one of those creatures is another possibility and it’s up to us to imagine what that possibility might have delivers. The fact that the hillbilly zombies won out in the end had to happen for this movie to be what it is – something horror fans are long familiar with, but presented in a different context.

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The appeal of the story is happening in our minds as we watch and imagine, and like any other piece of horror that uses this same technique (the teasing revelation in Alien, for example), what we imagine is usually far  more exhilarating than what we’re actually seeing on screen with the story we’re given. Not to say the plot as it is lacks in any way.

Expectation coupled with anticipation and then possibility is the true relish of The Cabin in the Woods and what makes it such a satisfying film unlike anything else we’ve seen before and yet operating on such familiar territory.

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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