Today marks the release of writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon’s genre-skewering horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” which, and I don’t think this will come as much of a surprise, is set primarily in a cabin in the woods. To celebrate its long-awaited public unveiling, I thought I’d take a look back at the “cabin in the woods” genre, or more specifically the ten most notable films to come out of this area of horror cinema. I should note that the films collected below are listed not in terms of quality but in chronological order of release, so as to see how the “cabin in the woods” genre has evolved over the years, if at all.
“I Spit on Your Grave” (1978)
This might seem a bit of an instant curveball (I’m sure you all thought I’d kick off with a masked-maniac slasher flick), but I think this is as good a starting point as any, or at least an interesting one. Originally titled “Day of the Woman,” “I Spit on Your Grave” is a rape-revenge horror-thriller from writer-director Meir Zarchi. It sees aspiring writer Jennifer Hills, scrawny and brown-locked, heading out on a writing expedition to a cabin in the woods, where she is subjected to a stomach-churning slew of sexual abuse by four twisted local men. After one of the perpetrators fails to do away with her, a traumatised Jennifer collects herself and decides to take brutal, methodical revenge against her unwitting abusers, one by one.
Seen by some as a powerful celebration of female empowerment and by others as pointless, sleazy, exploitative garbage, the film proved tremendously controversial for its gratuitous violence and unbearably drawn-out depictions of rape, labeled in the UK as a “video nasty” and banned in many countries worldwide. Frequently compared to Wes Craven’s debut feature, 1972 rape-revenge flick “The Last House on the Left,” the film remains notorious over 30 years later, much attention drawn back to it by its much slicker 2010 remake directed by Steven R. Monroe. Regardless of your stomach strength or point of view about the film’s intentions, it’s a grim, tough watch that is nigh impossible to ever forget, much as you undoubtedly wish to.
“Friday the 13th” (1980)
I’d say that “Friday the 13th” is often mistaken for showcasing Jason Voorhees’ first reign of terror against horny, pot-smoking teenagers (the machete-wielding maniac doesn’t start stalking and slashing until “Part 2”), but I think the opening scene of Wes Craven’s meta-horror “Scream” has helped to eradicate that silly error. As you should know, the villain of “Part 1” is in fact (spoiler alert) Jason’s mother, who has taken to callously murdering the adolescent residents of the abandoned Camp Crystal Lake following the supposed death of her son at the negligence of the camp’s canoodling counselors over 20 years ago.
Initially conceived as a low-budget cash-in on John Carpenter’s mega-successful 1978 slasher masterpiece “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” was a massive financial success, much as the critics (including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel) kicked the crap out of it. With word quickly spreading about its grisly violence, terrifying scares and now-infamous shock ending, its $550,000 budget went on to earn it $39 million domestically, or almost $120 million in adjusted modern dollars. It has also gone on to spawn ten increasingly rubbish sequels, a 2003 crossover with Freddy “Nightmare on Elm Street” Krueger, a crappy 2009 remake by Platinum Dunes, and a million-or-so cheap, nasty rip-offs currently displayed in a Blockbuster bargain bin near you. Say what you will about its quality (I personally think it’s dumb, but fun), but its success and influence is unquestionable.
“The Evil Dead” (1981)
Quite possibly the definitive “cabin in the woods” movie, Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” is an eye-gouging, shotgun-blasting, chainsaw-wielding horror classic that has its serpentine tongue planted firmly in its pus-spewing cheek. Written and directed by Raimi (who would go on to helm the “Spider-Man” trilogy), this shoestring-budgeted splatter-fest sees five college kids intending to take a peaceful and relaxing vacation in an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods in Tennessee. However, soon after they arrive on the empty cabin’s doorstep, all hell breaks loose, as a swarm of vicious demons are unleashed upon the group, determined to possess their bodies and swallow their souls.
Drenched in corn syrup and gushing with a wide assortment of bodily fluids, the film was unfortunately slashed to ribbons by censors and completely banned in many countries at the time of its release – I don’t think they took very kindly to the scene in which one of the female cabineers appears to be sexually assaulted by a tree. Initially deemed a cheap and stupid video nasty, it has nevertheless risen considerably in public opinion since the early ‘80s, now seen to be an uncompromising must-see masterpiece of the horror genre, thanks largely to the wackily inventive visuals of Raimi, the gleefully twisted sense of humour surrounding the whole production, the knuckle-gnawing use of heart-pounding tension and the deliriously entertaining performance of leading man Bruce Campbell – he’s more than just a walking chin, y’know.
“Sleepaway Camp” (1983)
Undoubtedly a “Friday the 13th” rip-off, “Sleepaway Camp” sees the young inhabitants of a holiday camp being violently offed one-by-one by an unknown assailant. But while Sean S. Cunningham’s 1981 film saw its unhappy campers gruesomely murdered by axes and knives, Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 flick decides to be a little more inventive with its death scenes, which involve boiling water, bee stings and, rather disturbingly, a curling iron being slid up a lady’s vagina (though one suspects she may have died as a result of the pillow being held against her face).
Also like “Friday the 13th,” the semi-successful “Sleepaway Camp” went on to spawn a number of sequels, though not to the same overbloated extent; it currently has two direct-to-video follow-ups, an unfinished sequel filmed in 1992, a direct-to-DVD 2008 sequel directed by Hiltzik, and an upcoming “Reunion” seemingly stuck in production hell. The film’s legacy, however, is without a doubt held by its infamous “Crying Games”-esque twist ending, which left many a movie-goer jaw-dropped in theatres before reconsidering their open-mouthed expression of surprise. The film is also noted for having a fairly devoted cult following, a fact of which Hiltzik was entirely unaware until contacted by sleepawaycampmovie.com’s owner Jeff Hayes in 2000, and also for setting the transgender community back for quite some time.
“Evil Dead II” (1987)
Six years after the nutso controversy surrounding his big-screen debut, “The Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi decided to unleash what some now refer to as a “retcon sequel.” Armed with a bigger budget and more experience in the art of filmmaking, Raimi came up with “Evil Dead II,” a significantly more comedic and slightly less grisly take on its tongue-in-cheek predecessor. The result was a masterpiece of both horror and comedy cinema that frightened, tickled, thrilled, wowed and, most importantly of all, entertained its audience, reminding many why they love going to the movies: for the sheer excitement of it all.
Beginning with a slightly altered recap of the events of the first film (hence the “retcon sequel” thing), “Evil Dead II” sees sole survivor Ash continuing his bloody battle against the tormenting demons that stalk the woods he has found himself trapped in. With much of the film’s events revolving solely around a shrieking Ash, leading man Bruce Campbell practically carries the film on his lengthy shoulders, reveling in the goofball magnetism he would later epitomise in the film’s lesser sequel, “Army of Darkness.” Much like he did in the first instalment but to a much higher degree, Raimi shoots the film with a slapstick aesthetic, calling to mind on several occasions the legendary work of the Three Stooges, of whom Raimi was a big fan. All in all, it’s jolly good fun, wildly funny, nail-chompingly intense, and is, in my personal opinion, the second greatest horror film of all time – in my opinion!
“Dog Soldiers” (2002)
Jumping ahead 15 years, we come to “Dog Soldiers,” a “cabin in the woods” movie that’s technically set primarily inside a house in the woods, but hey, I’m still counting it. A British film, it pins a gang of gung-ho soldiers against a litter of blood-thirsty werewolves in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. Holding up inside a rural, empty house, they desperately defend themselves against the oversized canines, hoping to make it to sunrise, when their attackers will, with any luck, revert back to human form.
Inspired by the likes of Sam Raimi’s aforementioned “The Evil Dead” and James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel “Aliens,” the low-budgeted “Dog Soldiers” was written and directed by English filmmaker Neil Marshall, who would later go on to direct spine-chilling horror hit “The Descent.” Much like the rest of Marshall’s filmography, the film has a penchant for human bean juice, with heads lopped off, bellies impaled and intestines playfully chewed on by domesticated dogs. It’s also rather scary, showcasing a plethora of nerve-wracking suspense, effective jump-out-of-your seat moments and also some truly startling creature effects (all practical). As it stands, it’s one of the finest examples to come out of werewolf horror cinema, standing quite sturdily in comparison with the genre’s magnum opus, John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London.”
“Cabin Fever” (2002)
Also released in 2002 was “Evil Dead” byproduct “Cabin Fever,” a deeply unpleasant horror flick which puts a bit of a twist on the “cabin in the woods” formula. While most entries in the genre see a group of people viciously attacked in the woods by a physical presence (a hockey-masked maniac, a gang of demons, a transgender psychopath), “Cabin Fever” sees a group of people viciously attacked in the woods by a biological presence: a deadly virus that eats away at its victim’s flesh.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Eli Roth (before he went away and did all that “Hostel” nonsense), the film’s protagonists are five college graduates who rent a cabin in the woods, only to find themselves infected by a rapidly spreading flesh-nibbling disease; this situation isn’t helped by the fact that the locals they seek assistance from are a bunch of homicidal hillbillies. Apparently a direct reaction to Roth’s tiring of watered down PG-13 horrors, “Cabin Fever” certainly is a very nasty watch, featuring several stomach-churning shots of our protagonists spewing blood, their bodies slowly but surely deteriorating and pretty much falling apart – a scene in which one of the two leading ladies peels away her skin while shaving her legs in the bathtub is particularly discomforting. While many labeled it as brainless trash (myself included), it was nonetheless a fair financial success, making over $30 million worldwide in comparison to its measly $1.5 million budget. Nonetheless, it’s still brainless trash, although perhaps that’s why some people took such a keen liking to it.
“Wrong Turn” (2003)
Rob Schmidt’s “Wrong Turn” makes no discernable effort to hide its massive debt to Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic “The Hills Have Eyes;” it owes its existence to it, it’s practically stealing from it and it damn well knows it, so hey, let’s just get on with it. A cross between action and horror, it sees a group of six young, attractive people on the run in the West Virginia woods from a trio of cannibalistic mountain men, who, judging by their mutated physical appearances, seem to be the result of inbreeding.
Going on to spawn two sequels and a prequel (all straight-to-DVD), “Wrong Turn” is efficient, if wholly unremarkable, slasher material that takes the many cliches of the genre and turns them up to 11, seemingly without a dash of irony. We have pot-smoking teens, teens having sex, broken down cars, receptionless phones, false jump scares, creepy gas station attendants, creepy children’s toys and characters naively yelling, “Hello?!” It would feel like a parody of the genre, were it not for the film’s strange ability to maintain a straight face for the entire 80-minute runtime, even during a scene in which three of the main characters jump over 20 feet from a burning watchtower into a bunch of trees and simply wander off, completely unharmed. It’s silly, gory and dumb as a box of blood-stained hammers, but its nigh ambitious lack of originality can only be admired.
Probably the only art house film on this list (I’d like to see you make the same argument for “Sleepaway Camp”), “Antichrist” is a horror-slash-drama from Danish writer-director Lars von Trier, who’s something of a prankster in the art house community (he recently got in trouble at the 64th Cannes Film Festival for “joking” that he sympathised with Adolf Hitler while attending a conference for his apocalyptic drama “Melancholia”). A meditation on misogyny, “Antichrist” stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a nameless couple who have recently lost their young son. With She crippled by grief, He decides to take her to the cabin in the woods in which they once spent time with their late child, in the hopes of curing her grief by way of exposure therapy. As it turns out, this is the worst idea ever, as things only escalate from bad to worse, thanks to the increasingly creepy and almost demonic aura surrounding the cabin.
As is typical of von Trier’s work, “Antichrist” is very clearly intended to provoke controversy, with many left mortified by the film’s more adult elements: these include, among other things, a hardcore opening sex scene, the crushing of a pair of testicles, the severing of a clitoris, and a fox munching away at its own stomach before turning to He and uttering in plain English, “Chaos reigns.” In spite of this, though, the film does showcase some of von Trier’s best work, at least on the visual side of things; it’s beautifully shot and is certainly a very good looking film, genital mutilation pushed aside for a moment. Still, it proved tremendously polarising, a reaction von Trier is probably used to by now, the crafty git.
“Tucker and Dale vs Evil” (2010)
Taking us full circle, “Tucker and Dale vs Evil” is a low-budget Canadian horror-comedy with similar intentions to “The Cabin in the Woods:” to turn horror cinema on its head, spin it around a few times, perform an autopsy on it, sew it back up and turn it the right way up again. The directorial debut of Eli Craig, it stars Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk as two naive hillbilly buddies who have just recently bought a derelict cabin by a lake in the middle of the woods. Coincidentally, a gang of squeaky-clean, skinny-dipping college kids have set up camp nearby, setting in motion a hilariously nutty chain of blood-splattered events.
The basic premise is this: through an increasingly bizarre series of unfortunate accidents involving jagged tree branches and woodchippers, the clumsy college kids begin to die one by one. However, the surviving kids believe that it’s the hillbillies murdering their friends (a la Leatherface or Jason Voorhees), while the bewildered hillbillies believe they’ve stumbled upon a suicide pact. It’s a terrific premise, and ultimately makes for a fantastically entertaining and rather insightful commentary on horror cinema, working its way through the many clichés of the genre and turning the typical heroes and villains upside down. And while it’s almost undone by a dodgy climax, it’s still a barrel of laughs while it lasts, providing enough blood and guts to please gore-hounds, and enough comedy and heart to please all you non-sadistic norms.
By Stephen Watson