When attractive people spend a weekend getaway in the woods, terror is always lurking nearby. The “cabin in the woods” subgenre emerged in the 1940’s with two films: Spooks Run Wild in the U.S. (1941), and Dead of Night in the U.K. (1945). In the 1970’s, the independent, exploitation film blitz paved the way for Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) to serve as the quintessential icon of the movement. The cult success of Raimi’s teenager/woods/isolated cabin combo has since been an inspiration for numerous filmmakers, and allowed Raimi to follow up with two sequels, with each introducing more comedy than its predecessor. More recently, we’ve seen Misery (1990), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Cabin Fever (2002) introduce their spin on the genre.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s recent smash, The Cabin in the Woods, is a meditation on the “cabin cinema” phenomenon. While the movie is marketed as just-another-cabin-film, its dissection of its own tropes reveals a keen awareness of the complex filmmaker-audience relationship. This is impressive, but other horror filmmakers still embrace the core elements of cabin cinema.
Fantasia had a slew of cabin films this year, including Michael Biehn’s (star of The Terminator, Aliens) The Victim, Casey Walker’s A Little Bit Zombie, and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution. Each film is a completely different take on the cabin theme, and each team of filmmakers had a different approach to production. While Benson crafted his own screenplay, Biehn and Walker acquired theirs through their agents, only to rework them later.
Reflecting on The Victim’s script, Biehn says, “…it was like a Saw kind of mentality…When I decided I was going to make a movie I thought I could take [the script] and gut it and write a rewrite on it. But that story took place in a cabin, in the woods, and that didn’t change.” Because we are all familiar with the theme, the storyline becomes malleable so that filmmakers can attempt to make it their own , without changing the basic concept or dipping too deep into their pockets. Biehn continues, “One of the reasons why we stuck with that idea is because if the movie takes place in a cabin in the woods, you mostly have one location.”
In addition to budget considerations, filmmakers have personal reasons for using the cabin setting. In Resolution, the setting was actually part of writer/director Justin Benson’s father’s property, where he had always wanted to make a film. Wanting to create something that hadn’t been done before, he compiled his ideas over several years, even taking bits of dialogue from his meth addict, Tourett’s-plagued neighbor. “That’s one cheesy writing thing I did,” he says. Yet in order to defy influence, Benson asks himself a very important question. “I think the entire time [about] whether or not my idea is from something. If I think that [it is], I don’t do it. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what’s been done, there’s just no point in doing it again.”
Tribute films call for different methods. Michael Biehn added plenty of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and James Cameron into his film. Casey Walker and the writers of A Little Bit Zombie, Christopher Bond and Trevor Martin, were in the market to make an homage to classic favorites like The Evil Dead II, and Poltergeist. But quoting predecessors isn’t always enough to keep things interesting. Walker reminds us that what is fresh about the film is that the zombie, Steve (Kristopher Turner), is the protagonist rather than the villain. “We did something very risky,” Walker states, “we broke the traditions of screenwriting, and our hero is never responsible for the outcome.” This idea of the “existential zombie,” combined with slapstick humor is the movie’s ingenuity.
While it’s definitely obvious that nouveau cabin films can be exploitative and funny, how do auteurs embrace the challenge of making them scary? Whereas Moorhead and Benson employ some “dick humor” in their story, their narrative distinction is in Resolution’s horror element: they create a new type of post-modern antagonist. Benson says, “The thing about the antagonist, is how do you make it scary on a micro-budget? And I think how you do that is you play it off the characters’ expressions…I’m not scared when I look at a well-designed monster on a movie poster.” Moorhead adds that it goes beyond the issue of money, “Had we had a higher budget, I still can’t imagine what could be scary enough to be satisfying.” In effect, the elusiveness of the villain fuels the fear. Familiar horror staples are now so common that finding something actually scary is a challenge.
Benson and Moorhead went below the surface, and recognized that “scary” is dependent upon the antagonist’s relationship with its audience. As their villain maintains an ever-looming presence, Benson says, “there’s this weird psychological thing that happens to certain audience members, where they almost feel like they’re manipulating the story.” Biehn would agree. Where he resists placing The Victim in the horror category (it’s more of a grindhouse gag), he still believes that fear can be extorted in a less obvious way. Recalling The Exorcist’s character-driven horror, Biehn says, “That seemed to be the closest thing to maybe reality that I could go: ‘Woah!’ You know? It almost seems like that could happen – compared to, you know, zombies.”
So how are films like these produced and marketed? When making a movie, you have to think about time constraints, casting, target demographic, the film’s future outlook, and much more. Casey Walker claims his experience in reality TV aided him in fast and effective filmmaking. A Little Bit Zombie was shot in approximately one month. He found his experienced cast online, assiduously reviewing their previous works.
One thing that makes The Victim interesting is that Biehn’s wife, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, was the producer. The two often collaborated on decisions and also cast themselves in the lead roles. “We’ve been working together for years on and off film,” Jennifer says. “This is the first time we’ve created a film; I produced it…It’s passionate. A little explosive, but then it kind of simmers.”
Because all of these films have been riding on the festival circuit and are bound to experience different audience reactions, the filmmakers will gain perspective on current/future distribution. A Little Bit Zombie has already had a theatrical release, is now available On Demand in the US, and, according to Walker, it is the current number two movie in Canada. This is no surprise considering the hilarious uproar it had its audience in at Fantasia. Because of the great chemistry of its cast members, Walker is now looking to employ them all in a new project.
The Victim is slightly harder to define, and has explicit sexual content, so the film may have trouble playing to more conservative audiences. Yet those very same audiences have helped the Biehns to create a “sexy” marketing angle. When screened in Kansas, a critic apparently described the picture as “unrepentantly sleazy.” Jennifer replied, “That’s exactly what we wanted to hear.”
The Biehns have been in the industry for a long time, and they were able to have a little more control over marketing. To help with their poster, they used a friend who is a top Hollywood designer. The resultant tagline: “Even Bad Girls Need Protection.” This became a mantra, which imbued the project with vision, giving it a spin that empowers women: it thwarts the virginal, damsel-in-distress device of prior films. The couple also created an icon for the film, which is the image of Biehn carrying an axe. Jennifer laughs, “When you put Michael Biehn in a movie with a crowbar and he’s about to torture someone with it and he says, ‘you’re not going to like where I put it next,’ hopefully people walk around saying that.”
Newer to the game, the gentleman of Resolution let the film speak for itself. “We had this theory, that as long as we hit every scene, that we could have any audience we want,” Benson says. The duo feels that it’s important to create a film that they would want to see themselves, not over-indulging in “nine-year” long shots. The pair are living proof that hard work pays off. After the film premiered at Tribeca in New York, it received much attention from the media, with many publications adding it to their favorites list. Once Fantasia came around, there was already enough word-of-mouth to sell out the theater.
The cabin film is not only a great platform for an exploitative comedy, an homage, or a grindhouse amusement piece, but also an excellent starting point for first-time filmmakers. Benson and Moorhead probably won’t remain in the “newcomers” category for too long, though. They claim to have “popcorn tastes” which they hope will appeal to audiences beyond horror fans. “We want anyone who likes Sex and the City,” Moorhead jokes. “We’re trying to convert them.”
By Olivia Saperstein