Everything from “The Truman Show” to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is chopped up and blended in the pop culture Cuisinart that is Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s irrepressible “Cabin in the Woods” (read our review from SXSW here). But it quite clearly owes a certain debt to a very specific type of horror sub-genre set primarily in a rickety homestead in the forest, one just desolate or decrepit enough to be rife with the possibility of evil spirits, demented madmen, psychic trauma… or all of the above. When Whedon originally came to Goddard with the concept, he gleefully suggested making a “cabin movie.” While “Cabin in the Woods” ended up being much more than that (it's an acidic takedown and euphoric celebration of all things horror), we wanted to briefly cite five of the films that contributed, either directly or through the pop culture ether, to “Cabin in the Woods.”
Film: “Evil Dead” (Sam Raimi, 1981) and “Evil Dead II” (Sam Raimi, 1987)
Cabin: Anonymous cabin in the woods where Ashley “Ash” Williams (Bruce Campbell) and his college chums go to unwind but instead end up unleashing an ancient evil.
Supernatural, Psychotic, or Spiritual Terror: All of the above. When the kids accidentally read from the book of the dead (Necronomicon Ex-Mortis if we’re being specific), a whole host of demonic nastiness comes with it, including but not limited to possession, monstrous spirits, and, oh yeah, tree rape. Thanks to Raimi’s hyperkinetic camera movements, you actually get the point of view of the malevolent spirits as they zoom through the woods, approaching the mist-blanketed cabin.
Fingerprints in “Cabin In The Woods”: Generally, these two films, particularly its sequel (which eschewed straight horror for a more ambitious meld of comedy and terror), have the biggest impact on “Cabin in the Woods.” The titular cabin looks very much like the ramshackle “Evil Dead” abode (complete with a very questionable cellar), they boast a similar central conceit, and “Cabin in the Woods” even shares the sequel’s cinematographer, Peter Deming, responsible for both films' dewy, earthen look.
Film: “Antichrist” (Lars von Trier, 2009)
Cabin: Eden, a quaint cabin in the woods where two nameless parents (artily referred to as She and He, played gamely by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) go to mourn the tragic death of their child.
Supernatural, Psychotic, or Spiritual Terror: Mostly spiritual but some psychotic too (the supernatural being an off-shoot of the two, with little basis in concrete reality). Von Trier makes a case for the inherent “evilness” of nature, which means we get trippy images of deer being dragged down by gooey placentas and a fox (that sounds nothing like George Clooney) warning that “Chaos reigns.” But it’s really the spiritual taxation following the death of their small child that leads to a psychotic break in She, which results in lots of screaming, an investigation into the occult and, oh yeah, genital mutilation.
Fingerprints in “Cabin In The Woods”: There isn’t anything that you can point to directly that link the two films, although they share an absolute willingness to mix the terrifying with the genuinely absurd. Both “Cabin in the Woods” and “Antichrist” create a dialogue with the audience, asking, "how much a participant in this stuff do you really want to be?" But only one has a talking fox.
Film: “Friday the 13th” (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)
Cabin: The long-lost Camp Crystal Lake, site of a horrifying accident and closed for decades. Until, of course, some plucky young profiteers decide to reopen the camp. Big mistake.
Supernatural, Psychotic, or Spiritual Terror: While latter films in the seemingly endless franchise would bring elements of the supernatural in (also: space travel), the first film is purely psychotic. Inspired equally by racy Italian horror films of the time and Agatha Christie novels, Cunningham kills off the nubile counselors one by one, utilizing creative and groundbreaking prosthetics technologies by the legendary Tom Savini (seeing a young Kevin Bacon getting stabbed through the throat with an arrow is particularly delightful). What is often lost, though, is that iconic axe murderer Jason Vorhees, the Mickey Mouse of the “Friday the 13th” franchise, wasn’t introduced until the almost-as-good ‘Part 2’ (1981), and that all the madness and murderin’ in the original came from Jason’s mother, Mrs. Vorhees (Betsy Palmer), avenging the death of her young, mongoloid son at the hand of uncaring camp councilors.
Fingerprints in “Cabin in the Woods”: You can point to a few things that the two films share, notably an optimistic pluckiness in the characters even when every scenario screams “get the fuck out.” And speaking of “get the fuck out,” “Cabin in the Woods” contains at least one direct reference: the wall-eyed local who warns the children of the woods’ evil past, forbidding them to go any further (without much luck). How so many kids can just glaze over someone yelling “You’re doomed!” is beyond us.
Film: “Cabin Fever” (Eli Roth, 2002)
Cabin: Another anonymous rural cabin in the woods, being visited by another crop of comely young college students, this time running afoul of a killer flesh-eating virus. Gooeyness ensues.
Supernatural, Psychotic, or Spiritual Terror: While there are elements of psychosis after the townspeople become aware of the killer virus being spread by those damn kids (hence the title’s double-meaning), it’s mostly a biological terror (an outlier for these types of movies) – a virus that, in one of the film’s more unforgettable sequences, turns shaving your legs into something out of a slaughterhouse. What’s interesting, too, is that most movies about viral outbreaks (and indeed the hysteria following both the AIDS epidemic and more sensational scares like SARS or the Bird Flu) are concerned with the wildfire-like spread in urban areas, whereas “Cabin Fever” dials down the scope, following on a handful of college kids in the middle of nowhere while still commenting on the germaphobic uneasiness of people everywhere.
Fingerprints in “Cabin in the Woods”: Besides the same set-up (college kids, cabin in the woods), the movies bond over a willingness to reference the genre’s past and a primal commitment to scaring the pants off the audience, no matter the cost. Eli Roth (back then a protégé of David Lynch and not the Tarantino bud/torture porn impresario we know today) longs for the more “hardcore” horror films of the past and isn’t much interested in the larger thematic questions that “Cabin in the Woods” explores, but they both openly engage in what’s come before with an eye towards the future.
Film: “The Woods” (Lucky McKee, 2006)
Cabin: The all-girls private boarding school, Falburn Academy, which sees a new student in Heather (Agnes Bruckner), sent to the school after seeing a forest fire (ding ding ding). The school has a much stronger connection with the surrounding, titular woods.
Supernatural, Psychotic, or Spiritual Terror: “The Woods,” at one point notable for being the film that forced M. Night Shyamalan to change the name of his big budget Disney movie to “The Village,” is very much in the “supernatural” category. The film is set in 1965 and works mostly as a loving homage to both Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (the school’s headmistresses and teachers are truly witchy) and “Evil Dead” (not only are there eerie spirit POV shots but Bruce Campbell plays a wonderful role as Bruckner’s father – at one point he even gets attacked by a possessed tree!). The film’s troubled production/release history suggests some artistic compromise and a more muddled narrative but we’re fairly certain that they were witches.
Fingerprints in “Cabin in the Woods”: There aren’t fingerprints of “The Woods” in “Cabin in the Woods” as much as the films bond over a shared love affair with the original “Evil Dead” (as well as similarly misty location photography). Like Roth, McKee is a post-modern smart-ass, but like Whedon and Goddard, his intentions are more pure. There’s something less impish and more genuine about “The Woods,” which makes it even more tragic that the film was buried and almost completely ignored. It’s just waiting to be discovered at some thirteen-year-old kid’s slumber party. We hope.
You can play “spot the reference” too when “Cabin in the Woods” opens this Friday, April 13th. Spooky!