The Cabin in the Woods might not have been the singular driving force that prompted the last decade’s modern horror renaissance, but it certainly serves as an omen for what would follow.
The 2010s saw a much-needed turn in the horror genre, in which films that once would have been confined to cult status were accepted by big mainstream audiences and critics.
From The Conjuring’s cinematic universe to It Follows, The VVitch, and Midsommar, the decade defied previously established tropes of horror and proved that if you make great horror films accessible to viewers, they’ll go see them. Cabin in the Woods, and its frustration over the horror genre going stale, did a few things absolutely right to spur this change.
Here and now though, at the end of ten straight years of horror classics, it’s easy to forget just how dire the genre was in 2010. There’s never been a decade in which great horror films weren’t produced but the great horror films of the aughts seemed fewer and farther between, with studios focusing on recycled IP -- the Big Three horror franchises (Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween) all received ill-fated reboots in the 2000s. Schlock became the norm. And because horror has been relatively cheap to produce, effort wasn’t necessary. A bad horror movie that failed to make an impression, could still offer a return on the investment.
The Cabin in the Woods was filmed at the tail-end of this frustrating decade, shot in early 2009 with a cast of mostly-unknowns in Canada. Despite the involvement of superstar filmmaker Joss Whedon, and it functioning as the directorial debut of Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, it languished in release purgatory for years because of the financial troubles initial distributor. So it showed at select festivals, building up a reputation that way. Everyone who saw it seemed to agree: It was a hit in the making, but it would be three years before a proper release. When it opened wide, the game was changed. A rewatch in 2020 reveals the movie to still feel fresh, with Whedon’s scripted banter as effervescent as the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The film functions, in the words of Whedon and Godard, as a “loving hate-letter” to horror, deconstructing the genre for a pointed critique. Tht plot touches everything from the genre’s outdated view of sex to why we find ourselves drawn to the “Final Girl.” It even makes a few sly references to the foreign horror market that the US had largely cannibalized via remakes over the course of the preceding decade (The Ring, 2002).
To call The Cabin in the Woods parody is underselling its criticism, but it certainly wasn’t the first film to point out how rote horror had become. As far back as Wes Craven’s 1996 masterpiece Scream, filmmakers had been ripping apart horror movie elements. Despite this, the genre never changed.
For such a funny movie there’s a palpable rage to The Cabin in the Woods. Whereas Scary Movie or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil gesture at the tropes of the horror genre and say, “Hey, aren’t these kind of funny?” Cabin acts as a friend staging intervention over a toxic relationship. “Aren’t you tired of being treated this way?” it asks, “Don’t you think you deserve better than this?”
The movie seems to know great horror movies exist and it’s sick of the walls that are put up between those special movies and the audiences they deserve. The film’s closing shots are an indictment of what mainstream horror was then, suggesting that things were beyond repair. No other choice remained but to wipe the slate clean.
The Cabin in the Woods didn’t single-handedly fix horror. If anything, the two most significant factors in creating the horror renaissance of the 2010s are the success of Insidious in 2011 (an original horror film that became the most profitable movie of the year and relaunched the career of The Conjuring mastermind James Wan), and the genesis of streaming, providing an accessible platform through which audiences could connect with horror films of all sizes.
Cabin remains emblematic of where the genre was at the time and where it needed to go. It told horror fans they deserved better and for once, they listened.
This essay is part of the Inverse Singularity Awards, a critics' poll and essay collection about the best genre movies of the 2010s.