Horror has been a staple of filmmaking since the earliest days of cinema, when the Lumiere brothers (perhaps unintentionally) terrified audiences with the sight of a train seeming to rush straight toward them (1896) and when Lon Chaney made audiences shudder as the first creepy Phantom of the Opera (1925).
The best horror films of the ’50s and the ’60s — such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965) relied on psychological tension rather than blood and gore to develop an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. In fact, Hitchcock deliberately filmed Psycho in black and white to reduce the vividness of the blood one sees in the famous shower scene. Then along came Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the bloodfest was on.
Humans seem drawn to the cathartic effect of intense fear followed by a flood of relief — especially when that fear remains within the safety of a darkened theater. Once we could go home laughing merrily, knowing that the vampire had been vanquished with a silver bullet or the devil had been destroyed. Then the unvanquishable villain was introduced — Rosemary decided not to kill her devil baby (1968); Freddy Krueger refused to stay dead. Chainsaws and meat hooks increased the gore and reduced the catharsis.
Just when it seemed that the genre had completely saturated itself with mindless gore and predictable stereotypes, Scream appeared (1996) and iconized the genre, adding a new stock character (the likeable nerd) who explained the "rules" of horror movies to his terrorized friends while they were being terrorized. Acting as the chorus in a Greek play, this character participated in the drama and simultaneously narrated it, providing a bridge between the people on-screen and the people in the seats.
Randy (the Greek chorus): "There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie! For instance, Number One: You can never have sex. (Crowd moans and cheers.) Sex equals death, OK? Number Two: You can never drink or do drugs. (Crowd moans and cheers.) No, it's the sin factor, it's a sin, it's an extension of Number One! And Number Three: Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say 'I'll be right back,' 'cause you won't be back."
Stu: "I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?"
Randy: "Yeah, sure."
Stu: "I'll be right back!!!!"
This insider narration turned the story into a kind of film class and elevated the Scream franchise intellectually above typical slasher films. Yes, it still had buckets of blood, but it also challenged viewers to consider the film as an artform with distinct features and expectations. As audience members we were drawn into the film with a knowing nod of our heads. Yes, we too were intellectually superior to these knuckleheads who don’t know enough to stay together, look behind the door, and MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW, IDIOT!
The Cabin in the Woodstakes this insider narration a step further, suggesting that, if there are rules, then there must be rulemakers. Rules like "the slut dies first" and "the virgin makes it out alive" aren't just the observations of classroom teachers of literary criticism; in The Cabin in the Woods the rules are positively diabolic. Two distinct storylines develop side by side, one scary and intense, the other droll and detached. Throughout the film, just when the tension seems almost unbearable, “reality” intrudes, reminding the audience that this isn't real — or is it?
It all lends the film a bizarre sense of humor and camp, as zombies with buzzsaws (and even a crazed unicorn!) terrorize the quintet of beautiful, robust teens who just want a quiet weekend of beer, weed, and sex at an idyllic cabin in the lovely woods. There are watchers in these woods, watchers who are intentionally controlling the action, for reasons that don't become apparent until late in the film.
As horror films go, this one is pretty basic, but the framing device of having a story within a story sets it apart and gives the audience something meaty to consider.Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are particularly amusing as the bland, unemotional, white-shirted IT men-behind-the-scenes in the external frame story.
Despite its campiness (and it does have moments of delicious humor) and its intimations of mythic significance, The Cabin in the Woods is still a horror film at heart. If you go, expect to see throat stabbings, arm hackings, blood spewings, and lots of eerie music to pump up your heart and curl your toes. So don’t go alone. Stay together. And MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOW!!!