When it comes to horror, iconography is king. It’s the fear we remember, not the dread we forget as it creeps across our spine. From the widow’s peaked presence of Count Dracula, to the flat-topped bolt neck of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, terror can turn on a visual, or a singular scary moment. As a matter of fact, the world of post-modern fright is drenched in the dynamic of placing images above ideas. When we are lucky enough to get both - the pea-soup superiority of an Exorcist, the backwoods bone-crushing shivers of a cannibal family and their chainsaw wielding, Leatherfaced finder of fresh meat - the shock stays with us.
The Cabin in the Woods understands this all too well. Made by men steeped in the traditions of the genre - as in Buffy‘s Joss Whedon and Lost‘s Drew Goddard - and referencing all the cinematic scares they could afford (rights issues, you know), the movie made a mint during the Spring of 2012 chiefly on the last act denouement revolving around the explanation of what is happening to our victim fodder, and perhaps most importantly, why.
Though spoilers would clear things up, we’ll hold off until the official DVD release in September. Let’s just say that the finale does find a way to be many things at once: gory, grisly, hilarious, haunting, mesmerizing, and perhaps most importantly, meaningful. Fans who’ve fled to the discount aisles of video stores for the last two decades instantly recognize the number of obvious references to fear franchises past and present. Even better, Whedon and Goddard make the recognition part of the rejoice. Like a game of haunted Husker Du, our experience with the scary movie is rewarded over and over again.
Call it meta or self-referential, but The Cabin in the Woods is built on the backs of terror trivia. It’s like Scream spread out across the entire paranormal playing field. The more you know about your favorite supernatural obsessions, the more fulfilling the film is. Reminiscent of clique members snickering at an inside joke, Whedon and Goddard give the devoted the insular track, treating them to moment unshared by the rest of the audience. In fact, both Craven’s revision of the slasher film and this reconfiguration of something similar play better with a forehand knowledge of what’s being played with.
Still, in the 16 years between Scream and Cabin, there was a necessary linking verb so to speak, a movie made within the same homage-heavy parameters that turned idols on their head and expectations on their ass. A long simmering combo of competing franchises, it had been planned ever since the two title titans turned viewers into quivering piles of petrified mush. By 2003, both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films were on fumes. Home video kept them viable, but for the most part, both psycho killers had run their course. The answer? Combine them together for a crash course in slaughter and series celebration.
That’s right, Freddy vs. Jason is the movie Cabin in the Woods claims to be, a circular experience in celluloid dread dreamt up by two genre geeks who wanted nothing more than to see their favorite fiends battling each other in a rumble royale. Both Mark Swift and Damian Shannon were motion picture newbies at the time. Freddy vs. Jason represented their first officially produced screenplay. Simmering since 1987, the final results lead the way for something like Cabin with the Woods. It both played within the confines of each fright franchise while raiding the creepshow cupboard for winks to those in the Friday/Nightmare know.
For those unfamiliar with this forgotten gem, the children of Springwood have been effectively brainwashed (by a malevolent pharmaceutical concern) into no longer believing in charred child murderer Fred Krueger. Without their faith, and the fear that accompanies their dreams, the ethereal evil can’t continue his reign of carnage. As a result, he must find another way of sparking horror in the hearts of his potential victims, thereby opening them to his evil intrusions. The answer - Jason Voorhees. Apparently, Camp Crystal Lake and its infamous mutant madmen are just a few miles away from the equally notorious neighborhood where Nancy Thompson and her friends once lived. Freddy intends to resurrect the hulk, send him after a new generation of spawn, and sample the easy pickings.
Right up front, the parallels to Whedon and Goddard’s film are intriguing. In Cabin in the Woods, horror iconography of both specific and generic makeup are utilized by a secret government service to appease some…thing. The desire to both explore and deconstruct the fright formulas and their cinematic consistency stretch from the setting (an Evil Dead like hovel in the forest) to the other options available (including a hilarious moment of mindblowing J-Horror). The end result is most important - the creation of terror. In Freddy vs. Jason, the notion of a celebrated killer coming back from the ‘dead’ in order to remind victims of what they should fear, thus opening up a channel to more subconscious scares.
Taken a step further, Freddy vs. Jason plays on the past of both characters. Old fried face gets his giant corpse reanimated thanks in part to a throwback to the first film in the Friday series. Similarly, the decrepit Crystal Lake becomes the implied “cabin” in these “woods.” Freddy, formed out of nightmares and needing revenge, sees his one liners turned on him for the sake of something more serious. Instead of ending in a pop culture kiss off, he’s returned to his roots as badly burned Angel of Death. Together, the two fight it out for macabre supremacy, similar to the finale sequences in Cabin where hundreds of horror icons cause chaos within their captures lair.
Outside each film, however, the similarities are striking. Both Cabin and Freddy rely on a viewer precognition to achieve full appreciation. They hope a certain moment or minor aside will get those clued in commenting to each other (or at the very least, a polite poke in the ribs). Better still, the set-up belies the premise, predicting what will come while circumventing said expectations with twists and turns. In the end, we get a totally difference experience than we expect, with Freddy not requiring a sullen spoiler alert. Our two monsters fight each other, their individual ‘victories’ ultimately leading to their own destruction. Similarly, Cabin collapses into itself, arguing that the only way out is through a kind of all out apocalypse. As the last kids contemplate the significant, the storyline shows the shocking truth.
True, the differences between both films flies in the face of such a connection, but the fact remains that both The Cabin in the Woods and Freddy vs. Jason spring from the same source, for the same reasons. They are horror experiences made for those ready to reflect and recoil. They require pre-knowledge as well as a fright fan’s ample suspension of disbelief. They both reward patience and reject the opposite. If you don’t get it, they don’t care. They are love letters for those already head over heels, heaping helpings of bone chilling memory measured out so a few in the mainstream can appreciate it. If horror is all about the visuals, both films make their point with easy. The Cabin in the Woods may be the au currant cause celeb, but Freddy vs. Jason did it a decade ago - and some may argue, a lot better.