How to Tell a True Horror Story: Cabin In The Woods

The best horror stories make you keep on suspecting that this can’t possibly go on. That things have already reached their bloody crescendo, have hit that point past which any reasonable story is going to have run out of gas.

That’s right about when Cabin in the Woods starts picking up speed.

There’s an exuberance here that you see very, very rarely at the cineplex. At the film festivals, sure, sometimes. From Sam Raimi or Wes Craven: more often than not. In your treasured DVD collection: hopefully. But Cabin in the Woods is something you don’t have on your shelf. That tagline on the poster, You think you know the story? I did think I knew the story.

Group of mismatched not-naked-yet college types loading into an RV, trekking out into the woods for some Savage Weekend action? It’s every horror movie from Just Before Dawn to Severance. It’s Kill Theory through a Tucker & Dale vs. Evil filter, with some Cabin Fever goodness thrown in. I mean, where does The Texas Chain Saw Massacre start if not with some kids in a van, driving out into the sticks? And if The Hills Have Eyes and AMC’s The Walking Dead have taught us anything, it’s that people in RVs only take Wrong Turns. Like Crazy Ralph said once upon a time: they’re doomed.

And, of course we’ve all seen the trailer already, but in case any of you are just climbing out of a cave:

The Rubik’s Cube Monster House from Thief of Always is no-doubt cool, but does anybody recognize that massive Raccoon City sub-basement? It’s direct from that Rock-remake of Escape from Witch Mountain. Except here, by the time the elevator doors open, all the kids have gone to bed: there’s those walls of blood The Shining have trained us to love. And please be very very aware that, for reasons of non-spoilage, they can’t show us the super supercool stuff in that trailer. I mean, what’s there’s cool enough, definitely. But it goes beyond. As one of the Heathers might have said: it’s very.

So, by way of pre-synopsis, walking into the theater you know that these strangely beautiful kids aren’t just going to die, they’re going to die slasher-style, which is to say we’ll tease them apart and sacrifice them one by one, give them each a set-piece kind of death. And there’ll be humor along the way (horror needs its pressure-release valves), there’ll be some version of Scream’s Randy, we’ll see some skin—eye candy for all—and, finally, one plucky member of these willing victims will come into his or her own, go Ripley on the bad guys, maybe even live to see the sequel, start the franchise.

It’s the rollercoaster horror story we know and love. It’s a time-honored gospel. Jason and Freddy and Michael and Ghostface all go to this particular church. Even Chucky lowers his head in prayer. I mean, leprechauns take a knee. Can Cabin in the Woods sing from a different hymnal, finally?

Whedon and GoddardYes. Specifically because of that whole tradition. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, they know and love all those movies as well. Obviously. After the film, Drew Goddard was saying how this was his and Whedon’s love letter to the genre. And it shows. And it’s written in blood, as it has to be.


Watch enough of these teenybopper stalk & slash numbers in a row, and what you come away with—what you’re hardly surprised to come away with—is that, as Kevin Williamson told us, they’re all variations on a theme. A very good and important theme, one that seems to be programmed into our brainstem, but still, Goddard and Whedon, they’re hardly content to just walk demurely in John Carpenter’s footsteps. The meek don’t inherit the box office. And this isn’t that complaint critics are always lobbing at contemporary horror, from Hostel to Saw to I Saw the Devil, that today’s horror films aren’t subtle enough, that they’re all loud and fast music videos, that they’ve forgotten the dreadwork you can do with shadows and atmosphere and properly-arched eyebrows.

No, Goddard and Whedon, they have a pretty solid handle on this particular strain of dreadwork: they understand that where it happens, it’s in the script, it’s in the story. The trick with adrenaline-rush kind of horror, though, the kind that never lets up, even to get popcorn, it’s that persistent escalation gets you up the story’s mountain too fast, then launches you out into the void of the ridiculous, the contrived, the unbelievable. Which is to say the scare goes away. We’ve seen it happen time and again, enough that I don’t need to name names.

Still, when two guys of this caliber, with their kind of pedigrees—again, I hardly need to name titles—when they set down to pen a horror story, it’s not enough to just make all the necessary genre nods while trying to redo Scream in such a way that nobody calls them on it.

Really, the way I see them at their writing table, it’s this:

With Cabin in the Woods, they didn’t just make one horror movie. They made them all.


Sonic guysYes, like the rest of your video shelf does, they force their characters through a meatgrinder of a narrative, and are just as heartless with them as they need to be, as we're paying for them to be, but, as counterpoint, as brilliant, inspired pacing device—you know those two guys from the Sonic commercials? Well, without giving anything away, their Office Space versions are here, working deep in the bowels of the beauracrcy of fear, providing a running banter to keep things from ever even starting to drag.

How? Can’t say. Or, won't. Dr. Claire Saunders is there, if that helps. I can say that for any good movie like this, it takes a village. And I’m not talking about Goddard’s crew, though they were obviously on-task. I’m talking about the story. How about this: in the Q&A (this was Boulder, the tour’s last stop), Goddard might have, I don’t know . . . invoked Cthulhu? Maybe in response to an unrelated question, of course. And maybe not.

There’s even more going on too, though. Yes, obviously Whedon and Goddard are commenting on the internal dynamics of the horror movie, and trying to revitalize any genre fatigue that might be happening, remake by remake. But they’re also commenting on the whole horror genre itself. Big picture, I’m saying. One we’re all in. One we were born into.

Why do we return to see these same people die again and again? Once makes a sick kind of sense, at least if gratuitous violence and splatter comedy are your thing. But over and over? There must be a reason.

There is.

Ask Cabin in the Woods. It knows. It shows us. In as Clive Barker a way as possible. Which is to say In the best way possible.

But perhaps the best recommendation I can finally give Cabin in the Woods, it’s that what we’re seeing on the screen, in the theatre, it already feels like a director’s cut. Like every bit of fun Whedon and Goddard wanted to have, they’re having it up there. And every frame of it’s absolutely necessary. Cabin in the Woods, it’s got the potential to be a game-changer. If it hits like it should, like it deserves to, it can send the studios to their slushpiles, to see what they can cash in on, what they've been ignoring too long. But, unlike the brief renaissance Scream provoked, I don’t see Cabin in the Woods getting cloned again and again. Some movies—Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet—are so much their own thing that they can’t be copied. But they can influence a generation. They can insert their DNA into every movie that comes after. They can be a big reset button, and a model of what can be done, if you really try. If you really really want it. If you believe.

Cabin in the Woods makes you believe.

zomBill MurrayAnd, if that’s not enough, then—and you have to trust me on this, and don’t don’t don’t let anybody spoil it for you—let me just say that, until now, the best cameo ever was probably Bill Murray in Zombieland. Yes?

Or, the best cameo ever, it used to be Bill Murray all zombied up.

Cabin in the Woods goes it one better, though. You’ll see. You’ll clap, you’ll smile, and there’ll probably even be tears in your eyes by then. Of joy.

As far as I’m concerned, Cabin in the Woods is the most important horror movie of this kind since 1996. Since my own holy grail, Scream. Cabin in the Woods takes all that genre-awareness, though, all the obligatory tropes and clichés, the nods and knowing grins, and then it rushes us all the way back to Evil Dead, by way of The Thing, say. And can there be anything more chocolate and peanut butter in the horror world than that?

If you don’t see this movie in the theater, you’re missing an event. Then, like the summer of ’81, you can come back for more, friends in tow, just to watch them scream from this dead kid exploding up from the water once and forever, and your box office receipts can usher in a new little golden age of horror, of innovation and competition, of excess and wonderful accidents. Stars will be born and stars will die, in every way Tom Savini could have imagined, and maybe even more.

The blood will slosh from wall to wall.

Let’s ride it as long as we can.


[ could be a spoiler in these tags, for those with the eyes to see. be wary ]


  • best wolf kiss EVERsynopsis-via-tags: DeliveranceHalf-BakedChildren Shouldn’t Play with Dead ThingsShowgirls;→Truman ShowHouse of 1000 CorpsesMonsters, Inc. CommunionThe Adjustment BureauMonsters vs. AliensHellboyCarrie

What movies would you tag Cabin in the Woods with? What—even just working off the trailer—do you see as its predecessors, its contemporaries, its challengers? Does it have a chance of starting something new again with horror?

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nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King April 13, 2012 - 2:48pm

I dunno it was fun and all, but I like at least some amount of horror in my horror movies. This thing was more of a comedy than Zombieland. There wasn't any lurking dread or grip the arm of your chair tighter moment. Plenty of great jokes and gags though.

I was really disappointed in it. From the trailer to what little I had read about it (wanting to keep as far away from spoilers as possible) I was expecting a Watchmen-esque deconstruction of the horror genre with tons of blood and gore and with some sharp banter. Instead I got a bunch of in-jokes about horror movie tropes, maybe gallons (not tons) blood and gore and some sharp banter.

I don't want to spoil too much either, so I guess I'll wait till more people have had a chance to see it to really elaborate, but even the cameo appearance let me down.

You know what, the hell with it, I am going to spoil something. There's No Spiders! WTF! In the entire movie, not a single spider!!

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun April 13, 2012 - 5:56pm

I thought it was a lot of fun but I don't know if I would call it a "horror" movie because yeah, it's not really about the horror. Still highly suggest people check it out though.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine April 14, 2012 - 1:29pm

Just got back from the theater. Loved it. Def had Cthulu on the brain towards the end. And I loved the whole, 'Why do we watch these kind of movies' dialog.

@nathaniel: There absolutely was at least one spider. He's there. Look closer.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. April 15, 2012 - 1:31am

The ending is the best part, everything else is just build up and the dialogue wasn't as clever as it seemed to think it was. At times I was like, "Really? That's all you got?" I felt like they could have made the main characters a little more interesting.  I get that they were stereotypes but that's also what was annoying about it. I just wish the buildup to the amazing ending was as interesting as getting there. Instead it felt like we were being tricked into enjoying a cliche because it was a cliche if that makes sense. Plus it was almost too self-aware at times, the metaness of the "watchers" kind of killed the suspense of what was actually happening. I almost wish they would have completely saved the twist for the end and not let us in on it at all.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King April 15, 2012 - 5:24pm

*Maybe kinda sorta spoilerish*



I thought a nice touch might have been if they kept the watchers bit separate from the cabin bit for a while, maybe not til the end though. Maybe just show them going through the motions like they do, but not show the screens they're watching. Then when the motorcycle thing comes up bring them together. It would have cut out a lot of the humour though, but it might have ratcheted up the tension.

Kirk's picture
Kirk from Pingree Grove, IL is reading The Book Of The New Sun April 17, 2012 - 8:57am

Yeah, I had to look up a shot of the whiteboard (click to embiggin)

I love some of the stuff on there "Witches, Sexy Witches" "Deadites" and of course, "Dismemberment Goblins"

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology April 17, 2012 - 10:32am

beautiful find. thanks. and, yeah, the sexy witches were my merman. of course. though I appreciate the Marvel pairing of 'sasquatch' and 'wendigo,' too. though either of them'd take a yeti in a heartbeat. 

and, just now seeing 'sugarplum fairy.' wow.

Teri's picture
Teri April 17, 2012 - 2:40pm

That's fantastic. Although, really, shouldn't vampires be in "aquisitions?"

jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners April 25, 2012 - 2:58pm

There might be sorta-spoilers but not really and only if you think too hard.

I loved the movie. The dialogue, the confusion, the horror that comes from watching something and trying to see what's going on behind them because that's really quite awful. The subtlety lies in the thinking of all the things they could have done all the Choose Your Own Adventure ways that could have been. It was like a lead-in to all the horror movies playing in my head.

But, I have to ask, did anyone else have Mortal Kombat flashbacks? I had this overwhelming desire to yell, "Get Over Here!" (lol)

My favorite part was the telephone call. The first one, not the other one.

Finally, what the hell with the cameo? It was like ten minutes. Alfred Hitchcock walking along a sidewalk in Birds is a cameo. I spent all this time on Google like, "Cameo?" and when I found it I was like, "Damnit LitReactor for sending me on a wild goose chase for some obvious thing I already knew but thought I missed." (But then I was laughing at myself and thinking about this movie makes me love the world and get all giddy about movies and really, I was scared a little and disgusted a little and OMG no plot holes you could drive a crappy RV through, so I was in a forgiving mood.)

Really, I loved it so hard I was stunned.

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks April 26, 2012 - 9:11pm

I loved it. Yeah, techincally, it wasn't that scary. But Evil Dead, to me at least, wasn't that scary either and I still consider it a horror film. Drag Me To Hell had a similiar vibe. Those kinds of horror movies are the hardest to pull off I think. Ones that kinda make me laugh while at the same time having a few thrills and some scares. This one was a lot of fun. I won't say what happened to save others from spoiling it, but the last half hour alone was such a blast. I tried to spot as many horror tropes as I could and it was so much fun recognizing all the kinds of things I've seen in horror played out on the screen in this particular film. "Love letter to horror" puts it perfectly. From King To Barker to Lovecraft, they got pretty much every sub genre of horror into one film and it was a blast.

As far as meta horror films go (Scream being one), I'd say this was the best one in a very long time (possibly ever). It's a game changer only in the sense that it has challenged how we view horror and embaresses a writer when he/she writes something that has been done before because... well, it's been DONE before. It made fun of horror in a weird way, and despite being such a loyal fan of the genre, I thought it was done very well. I was laughing throughout most of this movie. Debating the label is as tired as when people talk about 28 Days Later not being a zombie film. Alright, we get it, techincally they're not zombies, and techincally this didn't scare me, but it's as much a horror film as all the films it references.

"Yeah but it's not a horror film." Well then what is it? It's def not a comedy. It had some scares, some humor, and a decent story for anyone that knows the genre well. It was an hour and a half of winking and the more you knew the genre the better you understood the joke and appreciated it.

Americantypo's picture
Americantypo from Philadelphia is reading The Bone Clocks April 26, 2012 - 9:21pm

Also I'm dying to know what the fuck "Kevin" is in the list of monsters.

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology April 28, 2012 - 1:09pm

man, 'Kevin' -- I feel like I should know that reference. like I halfway do. like it's a Gary Larson panel or something. anybody?

Larry Nocella's picture
Larry Nocella from USA is reading Loser's Memorial by Larry Nocella April 30, 2012 - 12:33pm

I'd put Cabin In The Woods love letter to horror in the same category as Scream. I keep wanting to call it cute, and not mean it fully condescending, just a little so.


Teri's picture
Teri April 30, 2012 - 2:35pm

Re: 'Kevin' thanks for sending me googling for about thirty minutes before I was like...what am I doing? Because...because...can feel it right on the tip of the brain, just right there in the rolodex and...?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine April 30, 2012 - 3:46pm

We need to talk about Kevin?

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology June 15, 2012 - 1:20pm

can't remember who or where, but somebody somewhere in the last, say, five weeks told me that 'Kevin' is Elijah Woods' character in SIN CITY. and that seemed about right. I need to read that WE NEED TO TAL ABOUT KEVIN book, too. 

Mr Toad's picture
Mr Toad from England is reading Haunted July 16, 2013 - 4:42pm

I definitely Kevin is Elijah Wood in Sin City.

Loved CITW! And in terms of genre, I would have to label it Meta Horror.

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 10, 2013 - 9:50am

It is horror, and it is comedy, and it is great. That's all I'll say, because I don't want this ever spoiled. But yeah, Scream is number one, and in a similar vein, I greatly appreciate what Shaun of the Dead did with humor and homage (not parody) to the Dead films of George Romero, but Cabin in the's way up there, as horror royalty. Genius. 

Kelby Losack's picture
Kelby Losack from Texas is reading Muerte Con Carne; The Summer Job; Bizarro Bizarro November 10, 2013 - 9:55am

Oh, and while it is a twist, most definitely, at the end, what makes it a good twist and not an M. Night Shyamalan fuck-up, is the build-up throughout the film, that we already know in a sense what's going on, but don't completely get it until the end. That's the only way a twist can properly work, to make you go back over and over and appreciate it throughout the story, versus just thinking the whole time, "This doesn't matter. This suspense, doesn't matter, because the French woman and the scary Larry the Cable Guy dude are the same person."