If you’re even a casual watcher of horror movies, you’re probably well acquainted with the tried-and-true “cabin in the woods” trope and the 2012 film named for it. But you might not be as well acquainted with the comedic blood (and not just in the “so bad it’s good” camp) running through the vein of horror.
But to make fun of something well, you first have to know it well; let’s go through a brief history of “cabin in the woods” horror movies, a subgenre of travel horror (any sort of media dealing with protagonists entering unfamiliar spaces to them and dealing with horrific, previously unknown threats).
I’d argue one of the first entries in the travel horror genre was Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 film Psycho—a woman on the run stays in a roadside motel to less than ideal results. But travel horror truly got its legs when a group of teenagers went on a roadtrip through the backroads of Texas in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 low-budget foray The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer and director Tobe Hooper told the AV Club in a 2000 interview:
I started in comedy, and to me, one of the things I love about Chainsaw is the dark comedy that’s obviously in it. An example is a line they quote a lot in screenings: “Look what your brother’s done to the door.” It’s kind of ironic, dark comedy. But it was years until anyone recognized that aspect of it, I guess because it filled the senses in such a direction. “Don’t go into the woods. You don’t know what’s out there.” I don’t think the comedy was seen until later.
But Hooper wouldn’t course-correct for another twelve years.
Meanwhile, in the years following 1974, the floodgates opened and we received films like Tourist Trap (1979), Mother’s Day (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), and The Evil Dead (1981). Travel horror was a bona fide genre and comedy was already creeping into it. Although Tourist Trap was played mostly straight, Mother’s Day, a noted influence on travel horror extraordinaire Eli Roth, leaned into dark comedy hard. Real hard.
Finally, Hooper released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 in 1986, a sequel which saw the cannibalistic Sawyer family enter the ’80s in Sawyer family-fashion: dismembering jocks on a live radio show and elevating the macabre, madcap tone laced beneath the first’s grungy exterior. Highlighting the played-up comedy, Hooper’s movie poster parodied that of John Hughes’ 1985 teen flick The Breakfast Club.
In that same AV Club interview, Hooper explained of Part 2, “I ended up running out of time and directing it myself. In doing so, I amplified the comedy and, I think, gave the general audience exactly what they did not want.”
In comparison, Sam Raimi decided to ramp up the comedy tacit in The Evil Dead (1981) and blessed us with 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, a film critically and commercially celebrated. While The Evil Dead was the story of college kids trapped in a cabin with demonic spirits brought about by passages from the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, Evil Dead II, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, served as a soft sequel but predominately a parody of the original. In essence, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 walked so Evil Dead II could run, and Evil Dead II ran so Cabin in the Woods (2012) could sprint.
Of course, the early 2000s gave us more cabin-in-the-woods horrors like Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002), his first horror film before Hostel (2005) propelled him to the forefront of the torture porn genre (a moniker which conveniently erases the travel portion of his movies), and Wrong Turn (2003), a movie harkening back to Deliverance (1972) and the trope/stereotype of the “sadistic hillbillies” (which we’ll see again shortly). Cabin Fever possesses a distinct line of humor, as dark as it may be—how can the comedic value of a dude pouring Listerine on his dick so it won’t rot off be ignored? There are mountain men in Cabin Fever, but they’re less monstrous and more so collateral damage.
All of this brings us to Cabin in the Woods, right? Not quite. Released in 2010, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil beat Cabin in the Woods to the punch by two years when it comes to making fun of college kids going to a cabin in the woods and meeting horrifying ends. While Tucker & Dale vs. Evil doesn’t pin the whole thing on a government conspiracy, the trope of “sadistic hillbillies” is lampooned via repeated coincidences and misunderstandings rather than all-out evil.
The release of Cabin in the Woods provided a meta commentary on the entire subgenre à la Scream in the ’90s with slashers. Both lovingly paid homage and poked fun at the oft-used conventions of the subgenres. We’re still talking about both films today for a reason: pairing legitimate scares with clever comedy isn’t easy. The long legacy of comedy in horror and horror comedies shows us this: when we get something as good as Cabin in the Woods, we’ll still be discussing it 10 years later.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.