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Ever since the slasher film became a substantial sub-genre of horror, unlucky soon-to-be-victims have found themselves in isolated surroundings (led by the ominous Camp Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th) without communication or transportation and stalked by an unstoppable force of evil. Director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon add to the collection with the more-than-aptly titled The Cabin in the Woods (there is certainly no mistaking what these two have planned).
What will deviate from the oh-so-familiar formula is that “Cabin” will offer a skewering of the now-clichéd fright flick convention, all while hopefully providing the thrills that made this setting so popular for so long. Although offering a distinctive introspection of the genre, this duo is far from the first to toy with the framework. To celebrate a hopefully entertaining parody, here are 10 of the most unique visions of “the cabin in the woods” trope.
Cabin Fever (2002)
While most offspring of this genre present us with an overtly tangible, visual threat, director Eli Roth’s directorial debut intimidates his teens with a deadly, flesh-eating virus which renders its victims into a haemorrhaging heap within a day’s time. Those with mysophobic tendencies should squirm at the thought alone, not to mention our protagonists are stranded and isolated after the original carrier of the disease vomits contaminated blood over the inside of their vehicle. It is not often we have victims stalked by a menace that cannot be contained or defeated, and Cabin Fever lays on the paranoia thick. It is not until the somewhat disappointing finale that this horror effort turns visibly conventional, but by then Roth has made his mark.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Arguably the very first film to grab the cabin setting by its proverbial balls and twist, Sami Raimi’s first big-screen (but low-budget) effort is bat-shit crazy and replaces a man with a machete with demons released by the reading of an ancient book, the "Necronomicon Ex-Mortis." Isn’t that always the way? Spawning a trilogy, this quintessential cult horror film wasn’t as concerned with jump scares and tension as it was with oddball dark humor (a tone that might define Raimi’s career) and bizarre goings-on. It's far from scary, especially by today’s horror standards, but The Evil Dead is undeniably unique and a standalone classic that needs no spoofing. It does that on its own.
The Ruins (2008)
A “cabin in the woods” becomes a pyramid in the jungle in this 2008 Australian-American horror flick that also boasts a threat extending far beyond an armed intruder. In The Ruins, a group of vacationing teens opt to take an excursion to a Mayan pyramid (just a little off the beaten trail) to search for a missing archaeologist who is a brother of one of the group. Almost immediately after their arrival at the ruins, armed Mayans trap the friends on the ancient structure, slaying those who try and leave. It is soon revealed it is not them the locals fear, but the otherworldly vines which ensnare the temple.
Some of the plot turns are messy and character choices rather inexplicable, but The Ruins makes up for most of its shortcomings with vision and execution. The traditional villain becomes nature and the “flat tire” or “dead cell phone” phenomenon becomes the Mayan blockade. Like the first two entries on this list, The Ruins comes from a first-time filmmaker. I guess first-timers have something to offer after all.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Why buck a positive trend? From first-time feature-film director Eli Craig comes bloody spoof Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a conventionally set-up slasher that spins the protagonist/antagonist angle on its (severed) head. Tucker and Dale are two good-hearted best buds on the way to their newly purchased cabin out in the forest. Enter a group of students, one of who during a night of skinny dipping hits her head on a rock and is rescued by the duo. Taken to their rustic abode for help, her friends instead believe she has been kidnapped and a series of gory (but hilarious) misunderstandings ensue. For once in this sub-genre, it is actually the teenagers who are the “attackers” and the hillbilly locals who believe they are in mortal peril. The way the situation evolves is nothing short of inspired lunacy and is a recent parody that’s worth a look.
Wrong Turn (2003)
Easily the most conventional entry on this list, Wrong Turn is nevertheless a guiltily entertaining B-movie throwback from the last decade. The kink in the convention: it is only when the gang of model-hot teens themselves stumble upon an eerie cabin in the woods do things go from bad to “oh dear god.” After taking a —wait for it— wrong turn, their car collides with another stranded vehicle that had become tangled in a barbed-wire snare. Desperately searching for some sign of civilization they happen upon the aforementioned shack which just happens to be inhabited by cannibalistic inbred mutants. Bummer. From there it is a desperate fight for survival as teens are picked off one by one until the remaining heroes opt for a last stand at—you guessed it—that darn cabin once again.
Back to satirical comedy. Severance is a little gem of a slasher whereby a group of white-collar yuppies head off to a corporate team-building retreat in the mountains only to be hunted down by a gang of deranged killers (albeit in hilarious fashion). Sometimes, all it takes to make a “cabin in the woods” film with distinction is to back the effort with a witty screenplay and plenty of genre in-jokes. From first-time screenwriter (shock) James Moran, Severance is gorier than most actual dead teenager movies and an ongoing gag about how long a human head can live after being detached from its frame is executed perfectly. However, first and foremost, Severance follows that oh-so-familiar framework as the water cooler folks barricade themselves in the very lodge that was supposed to be their getaway in an attempt to protect themselves from their hunter foes.
Secret Window (2004)
A famous Chinese proverb reads your greatest enemy is yourself, and such is the theme of psychological thriller Secret Window with Johnny Depp. After author Mort Rainey suffers a psychotic break when he catches his wife having an affair, he puts off the divorce by retreating to his secluded cabin where he winds up even more distressed as he begins to suffer from writer's block. Things start to go amiss (as they always do) beginning with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, the death of his dog and all-round odd things occurring around his rustic hideaway. This is probably the only entry on the docket that isn’t a slasher offering, but when the right mood is applied and the tension is ample, you don’t always need brain matter to spin your “cabin in the woods” yarn.
Dead Snow (2009)
To put your stamp on a conventionally assembled fright flick, sometimes you don’t need to alter the venue — just the scenery. This 2009 Norwegian zombie film finds a group of friends who journey to a mountain-top cabin over Easter weekend only to find themselves besieged by an undead, flesh-eating squad of Nazis. Sprechen sie zombie? The film itself is a tad uneven, but there is plenty of wry humor that takes jabs at both the zombie film and the isolated teen cliché (the foreign flavor doesn’t hurt either). One of the film’s best sequences comes when two of the leads venture to the nearby outhouse to engage in some acts of indiscretion and after finished, one is yanked into the smelly bowels below. For the number of times someone gets axed relieving themselves at the latrine in a slasher film, it really reminds us why we have evolved to indoor plumbing.
The Shining (1980)
Ok, so technically this Stanley Kubrick classic takes place at the lavish Overlook Motel, but the structure of the plot remains the same: unsuspecting folks head off for a trip full of relaxation, wind up at a creepy structure, things go bump and they have no way of leaving. Unlike modern offerings (but akin to The Evil Dead in a way), it is the structure itself that poses the threat (and in more ways than one). It would be interesting to discover if this masterpiece from Kubrick and writer Stephen King helped in any way to launch the now-famous setup of the “cabin” sub-class – whether or not the original “Three C’s” of the modern slasher (Clark, Carpenter and Cunningham) drew inspiration. The novel may have been written before this blood-soaked genre really began, but whatever the case, the parallels exist nevertheless and The Shining still remains one of the very best that this (or any other) style of scary movie has to offer.
The “cabin in the woods” theme goes arthouse (and also completely insane) in Lars Von Trier’s controversial horror drama Antichrist, which delivers all the explicit sex scenes, genital mutilation and perplexing allegories you could want in a movie. Wait, you didn’t want that? In this 2009 effort, a husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsborough) who have just suffered the loss of a son retreat to their lakehouse in an attempt to repair their disintegrating marriage. However, “nature” takes its course and events dissolve into the maddening for this couple. What Antichrist fails to accomplish in coherent storytelling or subtle execution it certainly makes up for in squirm-inducing potency, the kind that often makes you yearn for a simple beheading by a masked intruder.