By Mohamad Hirwan Shah
The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is an American horror comedy movie directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon. Goddard and Whedon sought to create a movie which would turn the horror genre on its head (Goddard cited in Schoenbrun). It would do so by using a mixture of absurdist and dark comedy to twist the typical horror tropes found in classic horror movies such as Scream (1996) and Friday the 13th (1980), making itself a sort of parody of these types of movies.
The plot of The Cabin revolves around a group of college students – Dana Polk, Jules Louden, Curt Vaughan, Holden McCrea and Marty Mikalski – visiting a remote forest cabin for the weekend. There they fall victim to a variety of monsters while technicians manipulate these events from an underground facility deep beneath the cabin. It is later revealed that the technicians are trying to carry out a ritual that requires the sacrifice of five slasher film stereotypes, all corresponding to each one of the college students. “Dana is the Virgin, Jules is the whore, Curt is the jock, Holden is the scholar and finally Marty is the fool” (Roberts). This ritual is carried out to appease the Ancient Ones, a group of powerful giant beings who, if unsatisfied with the ritual, will rise from their slumber and bring about the apocalypse. Ultimately the ritual fails in the end as both Marty and Dana survive, resulting in the movie ending with the destruction of the cabin as the Ancient Ones carry out their threat.
Throughout the movie, comedy is used as a way to relieve some of the built up tension but as the movie progresses and the threat of the apocalypse gets more apparent, the nature of the comedy morphs to reflect this change. It is as if the movie is expertly using comedy as a signifier of the upcoming apocalypse, resulting in the seriousness of the situation realising itself in the end. This transition is most clearly seen between each of the three acts of the movie. In act one, the protagonists and technicians are still fully in control of their situations and this is reflected by the standard laugh-out-loud type humour used by both parties. This changes in act two, when the main protagonists loses control as they are attacked by zombies while the technicians still remain in control, dictating the events in the cabin. In this act, the comedy used is morphed into comic juxtaposition, where the protagonists’ horror experience is contrasted with the fun and lively atmosphere in the underground facility. Finally in the third act, a more absurdist dark humour is used as both parties fully lose control of their situations, signalling fully that the apocalypse is imminent. Hence, I argue that The Cabin uses comedy effectively to showcase and enhance the creeping threat of the apocalypse by morphing it from a laugh-out-loud type of humour to comic juxtaposition and finally to absurdist humour in the three acts respectively.
Marisa Manuel’s “Horror-Comedy: The Chaotic Spectrum and Cinematic Synthesis” will aid me in analysing how this morphing of comedy from one act to the next enhances the overall feeling of terror and hopelessness of the apocalypse that occurs at the end of the film. More specifically, I will use her idea of “The Chaotic Spectrum” which is a method used to define the horror and comedy genres and everything in between the two. This spectrum contains five categories but I will only be focusing on three – Comedy with Horror, Horror-Comedy and Horror with Humour. A Comedy with Horror is characterised by the lack of threat from the monster and also the overpowering of horror aspects by the comedic aspects, resulting in minimum tension being created and sustained. In a Horror-Comedy, the monster’s threat is apparent but still manageable with the tension being subverted by the jokes presented. Finally, in a Horror with Comedy, the monster becomes very threatening and comedy is used to enhance this threat too instead of relieving the tension built up (Manuel 24). With respect to The Cabin, the threat of the monster refers to the threat of the apocalypse. Thus, I will be pairing these three categories with the three respective acts, to aid in my showcase of how the threat of the apocalypse gets larger from one act to the other.
The Calm Before The Storm
In the first act, the common laugh-out-loud type of comedy consisting of wisecrack jokes and normal everyday humour is used, representing the minimal threat of the apocalypse. From the introduction of the main group of protagonists to the scenes in the underground facility, this humour is apparent in most scenes in this act. Comedy here serves to undercut the tension that is built up throughout the act, keeping this tension at a minimum. For example, on their way to the remote cabin in the woods, the protagonists meet Mordecai, an old man who warns them about their impending doom in a cryptic and threatening way. Marty cracks back, making jokes about the age of the old man, undercutting the tension of the scene. Later on, there is a scene where Mordecai calls the technicians, revealing that he was working with them all along. He talks to them in a cryptic, serious way, reporting about how the “lambs have passed through the gate, they have come to the killing floor”, referencing how the protagonists have reached the Cabin. As he speaks, he realises that he is on speaker phone and breaks character, asking in a normal voice to be taken off speaker. This causes the technicians to laugh out loud and make fun of Mordecai asking him “what happens next?” as Mordecai swears and hangs up. This whole scene further subverts the tension that Mordecai’s initial warning to the protagonists built up, as Mordecai is seen as a joke and someone not to be taken seriously. The usage of this type of laugh-out-loud humour in this act signifies how both the protagonists and the technicians still have control over their actions and situations, showcasing how the threat of the apocalypse is minimal and far away.
This initial act resonates with the genre of Comedy with Horror. The built up in tension showcases to the audience that something ominous is going to happen to the protagonists. However this threat to the protagonists and the threat of the apocalypse are undercut by the well-timed jokes made by both the protagonists and the technicians, showcasing how the comedy used overpowers the horror aspects present in this act, thus showing how this act resonates with the genre of Comedy with Horror on the chaotic spectrum.
Zombie Redneck Torture Family
In this act, the protagonists rarely exhibit any type of humour but this is juxtaposed by the technicians in the underground facility where the atmosphere is still quite light-hearted, signifying a change in threat level to the protagonists. By this point, the technicians have engineered the events in the cabin to follow the plot of a typical horror movie. The protagonists have been attacked by a group of zombies, comedically dubbed the “zombie redneck torture family” by the technicians. During the act, the protagonists get killed off one by one until only Dana and Marty remain. In one of the scenes, there is a scene of Dana getting manhandled by a zombie being shown on a large screen in the background while the technicians dance about and break out the champagne in the foreground, thinking that they have completed the ritual resulting in the creation of comic juxtaposition where two largely contrasting events placed together will result in this strangely funny situation. This signifies how the protagonists have lost all agency as their actions are being manipulated by the technicians who are still in control, showcasing how the threat to the protagonists has been realised but the overall threat of the apocalypse is still a little distant.
This second act embodies the Horror-comedy genre as the horror aspects faced by the protagonist are balanced by the humour created by the technicians. Both aspects work in tandem with each other, creating a mix where one doesn’t overpower the other, resulting in tension being created and then subverted. Furthermore, the threat of the apocalypse is fully present but still manageable as seen by how close the technicians are to completing their ritual. Thus, this shows how this act exhibits the Horror-comedy genre.
Everything Comes Crashing Down
In this final act, not only do the protagonists not partake in comedy, the technicians in the underground facility also stop making humorous jokes, resulting in the atmosphere of the movie taking a dark and ominous turn. The technicians realise that their ritual is incomplete, due to Marty’s miraculous survival from the zombie attack. Suddenly, it’s a race against time for the technicians to chase down Marty, kill him to complete the ritual and prevent the Ancient Ones from rising and bringing about the apocalypse. It is during this act that all the monsters kept in the facility are released by Marty and Dana and havoc ensues, resulting in the deaths of the technicians and everyone else in the facility. However, the seriousness of this act is still punctuated with a few instances of comedy. In this case, the comedy is not transmitted through any wise-cracking jokes made by Marty or any of the technicians but instead, it is exhibited through the usage of absurdist comedy. There are scenes where a unicorn, a creature seen as innocent and mystical, is seen stabbing someone through the gut or where a clown is surviving through being shot multiple times before igniting a grenade and exploding, all while laughing maniacally. This usage of absurdist comedy signifies how both parties have lost control of their respective situations and have regressed to being purely reactive to the events happening. The humour no longer comes from any of the characters but instead it’s from the monsters themselves. Hence, this showcases how the threat of the apocalypse has fully made itself present.
This act is characterised perfectly by the Horror with Humour genre. There are scenes of gore everywhere as the monsters go on a purging rampage, killing the technicians and all who work in the underground facility. However, there are still instances of absurdist comedy sprinkled throughout this act. These scenes of absurdist comedy don’t intend to subvert and make light of the horror shown but instead enhance it. The ridiculousness of what’s happening, in conjunction with the blood and gore showcased, enhances the horror of the act to another level, thus making this third act a horror with humour.
I have shown how as we move from one act to the next, the type of comedy used morphs from laugh-out-loud type of humour to comic juxtaposition and finally to absurdist humour, signalling the gradual erasure of control for both the protagonists and the technicians. Additionally, from one act to the next, there is also a shift in genre from Comedy with Horror to Horror-comedy and finally to Horror with Humour. This shifting in genre showcases how The Cabin slowly transitions from a comedic movie to horror one as the threat to both the protagonists and technicians gets more and more real. By combining these two aspects of the movie, The Cabin manages to create a threat of the apocalypse that looms closer and closer with each passing act. As the protagonists and technicians lose more and more control and the threat to their lives significantly increases with each act, the audience is left with this ever increasing sense of dread and hopelessness for these characters. By the end of the movie, all the despair for these characters reaches its climax as the ritual fails and the Ancient Ones rise to destroy the Earth.
Manuel, Marisa. “Horror-Comedy: The Chaotic Spectrum and Cinematic Synthesis.” Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research. 2.2 (2013): 1-49.
Roberts, Daniel. “The Cabin in the Woods Ending Explained.” EpicStream. 18 Oct 2021. <https://epicstream.com/article/the-cabin-in-the-woods-ending-explained>.
Schoenbrun, Jane. Interview with Drew Goddard. “A Conversation with Cabin in the Woods Director Drew Goddard.” Filmmaker Magazine 10 April 2012. <https://filmmakermagazine.com/43750-a-conversation-with-cabin-in-the-woods-director-drew-goddard/>