This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
This year certainly isn’t hurting for volume of indie horror releases, but you might say that the average quality level isn’t quite as high as its been in a few of the years that preceded it, perhaps owing to a lack of headliners at the top of the card, beyond The Cabin in the Woods. You can at least say it’s a year with more kid-friendly spooky stuff than usual, between ParaNorman and Frankenweenie.
2012 also feels like a year where some of the best indie horror films remain fairly under-seen to this day. Take, for instance, the minimalist zombie drama The Battery, which consists of a former minor league pitcher and catcher (in baseball, this duo is referred to as a “battery”) wandering the desolate American landscape, struggling to simply stay alive another day. It’s a remarkably patient, low-budget and self-contained little story that opts for simple character building rather than any kind of zombie spectacle, content to examine how a friendship might both grow and deteriorate under different aspects of being forced to constantly have one another’s backs. It’s hard not to admire The Battery for its frankness and down-to-Earth consideration of aspects of this scenario that most films don’t have the time to address, including the sexual repression of two cisgender, hetero guys who have been locked up together for far too long. It’s a film that plumbs the psychologically transformative aspects of scrabbling for survival far more than zombie films that are more concerned with action and gore, making it an outlier in the genre.
Also underseen is Antiviral, the feature film debut of Brandon Cronenberg, the son of David. As one might no doubt expect, it weaves a potent spell of body horror in the Cronenbergian style, but actually stands out most for its seriously messed-up (but wonderfully imaginative) setting. In this future dystopia, the idea of celebrity has evolved to such an unhealthy degree that the most devout display of dedication to your chosen celeb is to inject yourself with strains of a disease taken directly from that famous person’s body. Which is to say, you can hook yourself up with your favorite movie star’s genetically identical herpes, even as you cook up a steak that is made from a celebrity’s cloned, tank-grown flesh for dinner. It’s idol worship, taken to its most horrifying extremes.
Other notables for 2012 include Katharine Isabelle of Ginger Snaps as a rogue, black market plastic surgeon in American Mary, and the bizarre blend of sensuality and audiophile horror in-jokes found in the truly unique psychological horror film Berberian Sound Studio. You may have no idea what’s going on in the latter, but it’s nice to see foley artists finally get their due in this genre, at the very least.
2012 Honorable Mentions:
The Battery, Antiviral, Sinister, Berberian Sound Studio, John Dies at the End, American Mary, Byzantium, V/H/S, ParaNorman, The Woman in Black, Grabbers, Maniac
Director: Drew Goddard
The path taken by The Cabin in the Woods to multiplexes was by no means an easy one. Shot in 2009, it was originally intended for a 2010 release, before finding itself wrapped up in the legal fallout of MGM’s high-profile bankruptcy. Drew Goddard’s feature film debut then found itself sitting on the sideline for several years, even as supporting star Chris Hemsworth’s Hollywood profile had suddenly become much more visible thanks to 2011’s Thor, right as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was picking up steam. That sudden rise in bankability of one of the film’s stars likely played into Lionsgate acquiring the movie for a 2012 release, but even then, no one seemed to know quite how to market The Cabin in the Woods. As the film’s initial trailers seem to be struggling to decide, do you play up the meta elements of this story when trying to get people into the theater? Or do you let them arrive, thinking they’re seeing the very type of film that is actually being satirized?
As such, it’s not surprising that The Cabin in the Woods took a bit of time to develop its cultural cache, but this was a film destined to eventually find and delight its intended audience. It was simply too clever, too fun and too well executed to remain hidden forever. As broad and successful a parody as the horror genre has ever seen, it’s one of the most purely likable genre films of the 2010s.
The gag here is that a group of young people, who loosely fall into a variety of slasher movie archetypes such as “the virgin,” “the fool” and “the athlete,” are being manipulated into a pitched, life-or-death battle that also serves as a proxy battle for all of humanity. This “ritual,” we come to understand, is orchestrated from an underground bunker full of comically unsympathetic white collar workers, who bend the rules of this contest as far as they can possibly be bent, and for good reason: If the hapless protagonists “upstairs” manage to survive, the entire world will be devoured by ancient gods who will rise from below. Only the appeasement of horror film cliches will keep the ancient evil below slumbering for another year.
Suffice to say, that framework is an excuse to pick apart the silliest (and most beloved) aspects of horror movie tropes, from the tendency of powerful groups to “split up” into more vulnerable singles, to the things protagonists do to trespass where they clearly shouldn’t be, bringing justified doom upon themselves. All the little niceties must be observed—even the presence of a weird old kook to warn the group that they’re all going to die, ‘ala “Crazy Ralph” in the Friday the 13th series. The monsters and antagonists likewise draw inspiration on countless horror franchises, from Evil Dead or Hellraiser to It, Chopping Mall or The Wolf Man. It’s a loving assembly of sinister, familiar cinematic imagery that has been corralled and controlled in a way that paints mankind as the ultimate evil above all others, due for extinction.
Nor does the film disappoint in its array of human characters, particularly the final duo of Dana and Marty, who are ultimately faced with a choice to either participate in this ritual for the sake of humanity or to burn the whole thing down. Fran Kranz in particular shines as Marty, the stereotypical pothead whose very specific intoxication somehow allows him to mentally operate outside the confines of the trope-laden story he finds himself in. He’s one of the genre’s most likable audience proxies, displaying a dry wit as he fights to upend the system. Likewise, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford relish the opportunity to play off one another, humanizing the apathetic office workers whose sarcastic detachment serves to protect them against the horrific work they do to prevent the end of the world. Those who espouse a utilitarian worldview may well find themselves siding with the antagonists here.
In the end, The Cabin in the Woods benefits from its smart scripting, strong performances and stylish direction, even as it scores all the goodwill it can handle with requisite genre references and nostalgic callbacks. It will remain a high bar against which horror genre parodies are judged.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.