A few minutes after arriving to the titular cabin of Cabin in the Woods, Jesse Williams’s Holden character removes a creepy painting from his bedroom wall to discover a one-way mirror into the room of Dana, the woman his friends are attempting to set him up with. After serious hesitation, Holden stops Dana from undressing, tells her about the mirror, and switches rooms, after which she is forced to play observer to his undressing. Being a true lady, she replaces the painting over the mirror, but shortly afterwards covers it with a rug. Being one-sided, this mirror reflects more than mere appearances—is the embodiment of the horror movie-going experience itself. Just as Holden’s character is tempted to watch Dana undress, so are we tempted to observe acts of perversion—in this case, violent rather than sexual—as a culture. And just as Dana’s character “masks” the mirror, the audience’s desire for vengeance against whatever monsters may arise represents the undoing of horror and removal of malicious intent. This mirror therefore represents the basest of audience expectations for the horror genre, and when it’s ultimately broken down during a mid-movie zombie attack, becomes a physical manifestation of the continuous assault Cabin forces against both horror genre conventions and the fourth wall.
This metatextual breaking of the fourth wall is best found in Marty, a pothead who spends large swathes of the film doling out self-aware comments on the absurd nature of their predicament. Speaking to Dana about his theory that they’re all being manipulated by some outside force, he claims “You’re not seeing what you don’t want to see”, adding almost as an afterthought, “We are not who we are”. It’s not difficult to see what he means—Dana’s best friend, Jules, dyed her hair blonde before the trip, and partakes of an overly-sexualized makeout session with a stuffed wolf’s head early in the film. Her character shifts from a moderately enjoyable friend to a lap-dancing seductress before ultimately meeting her end. To further evidence this transformation, Jules’ s makeout session is met with grand applause, which prompts her to take a bow—adulation and action usually reserved for performers. Such affectations are widespread—Curt’s academic background (hinted at by his suggesting which texts Dana study for a class) is quickly cast aside for a motorcycle-jumping, sex-crazed alpha-male persona, and, faced with a moment of crisis, soft-spoken nerdy Holden takes the wheel of his friends’ van and leads them towards a potential rampage through the woods.
Character roles are only one of many clichés Marty notes; the film begins massing a collection of horror tropes very early, with characters exploring the cabin’s basement and discovering old-timey photos, an abandoned diary, old bride’s dresses, sea conches, puzzle spheres, and a dusty music box. While the others are busy uncovering these totems, Marty attends to the single item in this scene that isn’t an outward allusion to iconic, cliché instruments of the horror genre: a reel of film. The great irony of this, of course, is that metatextuality is a constant of horror filmmaking, whether it be New Nightmare, Scream, Halloween: Ressurrection, Hellraiser: Hellworld, or any other number of films. Marty’s role is therefore to both deconstruct the actions of Cabin’s characters while actively standing in as a horror genre trope; likewise, he pushes back against the horror filmmaking system, questioning, and ultimately deconstructing it, but also falls in line with its trappings. This is made most evident when a ghostly voice wakes him from his sleep, instructing him to “Go for a walk”. He initially questions it, yelling that he won’t “do a little puppet dance” for the voice. But then, in anger, he decides to go for a walk.
The entire first half of the film, while enjoyable, is less compelling than its second, if only because it refuses to allow escape beyond the typical horror entry. The first 45 minutes hit every traditional horror beat—a long drive into the wooded mountains ala The Shining and The Evil Dead, a chance encounter with an unnamed grotesque man at an abandoned gas station, a swift influx of zombies. When Curt (Jules’s boyfriend) crashes his motorcycle into the cabin’s invisible forcefield, subsequently plummeting to his death, he isn’t merely slamming against a fictional device—the forcefield acts as a barrier, limiting any expansion outside the expected horror formula; the characters can’t escape, and the universe can’t expand.
The engineers experience their own dissatisfaction with the genre’s limitations, bemoaning “Zombies…remember when you could just throw a girl into a volcano?”. One of the two primary engineers longs to see a merman used as the horror of just one of their experiments; though this is easily written off as a throwaway joke, its later payoff is huge, as are its real-world implications. In decades of living on this planet, I’ve yet to witness a single film that used mer-people as its villain. There are monsters that appear on the engineers “possibility list” that, though legitimately horrifying, have experienced little-to-no actual screen exposure; instead, we’re inundated year after year with derivative zombie knockoffs and half-hearted reboots of established iconic characters. This predictability—the “formula” of the Hollywood horror genre—is vaguely hinted at when we’re told “Maintenance wins every year” even though they’re uncreative; when “Zombie Redneck Torture Family” is chosen from the list of possibilities, it is then no surprise that this was maintenance’s pick.
The engineers double as a stand-in for the audience, coldly placing bets on what horrors will befall the young protagonists, sitting with bated breath during hints of nudity, and celebrating the slaughter’s aftermath with drinks, discussion, and music. The aforementioned party tunes plays a role outside the celebration, however—with any other film, the presumed death of the final protagonist followed by a fade into music would cue the credits. And yet Cabin continues, with the party soon interrupted by a phone call; we’re told Marty and Dana are still alive, whom we soon find have unearthed an entrance to the control center the engineers are working from. In going down into the lab, the characters effectively escape the forcefield they spent hindered by during the film’s first half, breaking the limits and expectations of the horror genre.
We are soon faced with another panorama of horror tropes, this time of the monsters each earlier totem alluded to. Whereas the first collection was intended to honor, or perhaps satirize, the typical horror film, this shot showcases the possibilities—the underused potential—of the horror genre; hundreds of containers shift about containing unicorns, giant snakes, mutant mermen, masked killers, enormous bloodthirsty bats, deranged surgeons, and, of course, zombies. Different creatures wander in and out of sight as if in limbo, and momentarily, the camera pans out to what appears a cube comprised of alternating smaller cubes contained within a vast nothingness; it’s as if by breaking the conventions of the horror genre, Dana and Marty have “unhinged” reality—rather than playing witness to what is, they now see what could have been. Escaping this rotating rogue’s gallery and entering the control center, our characters are told by a loudspeaker “this shouldn’t have ended like this”; this idea is furthered by a later image, which takes place shortly after the aforementioned monsters are released, featuring each creature recorded on a separate monitor. A typical Hollywood horror entry would segregate these creatures into their own “box”, but Cabin breaks the rules, combining them. The announcement that “this shouldn’t have ended like this” isn’t just a fictional voice of disapproval, but rather the broadly-applied voice of the producer-controlled studio system—refers not only to Marty and Dana’s escape, but also the film’s continuance beyond the aforementioned cookie-cutter ending as heralded by the credits music. This mixing of monster types only adds to the incongruity of the film’s continued narrative in light of the Hollywood horror formula.
Finally, Dana and Marty descend into a sub-subterranean chamber used for human sacrifice; around the center of the chamber are five icons of stereotypical horror genre roles—the whore, athlete, scholar, fool, and virgin. We’re told that five “youths” must ritualistically be sacrificed to keep an ancient evil at bay. Though the film realizes this evil in the form of giant angry gods, what they represent in the film are the standard clichés and figures of the genre—the Freddy Kruegers, Pinheads, Deadheads, nameless zombies, and everything derivative from them. These “ancient” films defined the current system horror cinema deals in—effectively molded audience expectations, and therefore now act as a formula by which kids are ritualistically slaughtered. This is why the engineers at the beginning of the film are nonchalantly discussing drawer rollers and marriage, overlooking their co-worker’s plea to focus on their plan; it’s been done hundreds of times before—has been diluted to a science. In refusing to adhere strictly to the confines of the horror genre (as defined by the “The Ancient Ones”), it likewise begs the question of whether such a system is worth saving. As such, Marty (the Fool) refuses to be sacrificed—survives long enough to speculate “Giant angry gods. I wish we could’ve seen them. That would’ve been a fun weekend”, before being smashed by a massive hand shuttling out of the ground. The hand simultaneously destroys all that came before it—the command center, monsters, ritualistic icons, and cabin namesake—visually “bringing down the screen” to the credits. In this single act, it destroys the formula Hollywood has used for decades when constructing films, realizing the logical end of its metatextual struggle against the boundaries writers place on the genre—it has, however briefly, allowed the world to end, ostensibly giving us something we haven’t seen before (or at least not every Summer). The simple insanity of seeing a giant god destroy the insular world of the film is akin to the moment in Inglorious Basterds when Hitler is machine-gunned to death—it’s nigh unthinkable; and yet, while Hitler’s death is surprising due to its historical reimagining, Cabin’s ending surprises only because it defies Hollywood standards—begs a discussion of the increasing staleness of the films being squeezed out the studios’ aging anus, ultimately proposing we deserve more than we’ve become accustomed to.