Got a bit of a silly one for you guys today.
Cabin in the Woods is, I think, one of the most rewatchable horror movies ever made. Part of that is due to its fun, snappy, Joss Whedon sensibilities. The dialogue is clever and catchy, without being overly obnoxious or twee, and the plot is just complex enough to be intriguing without bogging the film down with too much lore or mythology. It’s funny, it’s sincere, and it’s an absolute blast to watch from beginning to end, especially as the greater story begins to reveal itself.
But another huge aspect of the film that really lends itself to repeat viewings is just how tightly-packed it is with references to other horror films. As Cabin in the Woods is essentially satire, it naturally needs something to satirize, to build itself off of, and it wears those references on its sleeve with pride. Hell, the main concept alone, of a group of teens getting slaughtered at a remote cabin deep in the forest is ripped straight out of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. And so the film is chock full of allusions and shout-outs to the movies that both influences its style and that fed into the backstory that the film establishes for its mysterious monster-wrangling institute.
I thought it would be fun to look at just one scene, one shot in fact, in this impressively dense film to pick out all the fun little nods and winks to horror iconography and film history that I can. This scene takes place towards the beginning of the film, as the workers in the underground lab beneath the facility place bets on what terrible thing the hapless teens will select as their executioner. It’s a brief shot, in the background, of a whiteboard with all of the available choices, and it’s maybe the biggest treasure-trove of easter eggs in any horror movie. Here’s the whiteboard:
Let’s breakdown the list and see just how many movie references Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon managed to squeeze into a single frame of this movie:
Werewolf: Pretty standard horror fare, werewolves have been around in scary movies for pretty much as long as movies have been around. We can assume that this is just a general reference to the creatures, although the design of the beast itself, when we see it, is more reminiscent of The Howling or Wes Craven’s Cursed than the Lon Chaney Wolf Man.
Alien Beast: Fairly cut-and-dry reference to the titular Xenomorph in Alien, although we do get a glimpse of it in the film’s chaotic climax, where it seems to take its visual cues more from the facehugger than the full-grown alien itself. There’s also a bit of John Carpenter’s The Thing in there, which is appropriate due to its extraterrestrial origins.
Mutants: Another pretty generic one, which could be referencing anything from the inbred, irradiated hillbillies from The Hills Have Eyes to more zombie-like creatures like those from 28 Days Later. We see some very briefly later in the film, where they are clad in hazmat suits and spewing some sort of green, toxic substance, which makes me think it’s likely more a call-out to video game classic Left 4 Dead, which had a planned tie-in with the game before MGM went under.
Wraiths: Probably one of the more generic and nebulous references on the whiteboard, it’s pretty much just a ghost. A shrieking, wailing, skull-faced ghost, but a ghost nonetheless. Take your pick of reference points for this one, because it could very well be anything, although I myself think it’s meant to be a more refined, realistic version of the “guy in a bedsheet” style of specter.
Zombies: Another generic one, zombies are just zombies. Visually, there’s nothing to really indicate a direct reference when we see them in the facility at the end of the film, so let’s just say this one’s more of a trope reference than a specific shout-out.
Reptilius: We only ever see this guy briefly on a monitor in the film, but it seems to be a mash-up of the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Xenomorph from Alien. An upright, bipedal reptile man, with elements of the Velociraptors from Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure. Seems to be a hodge-podge of different movie monster elements, including even a little Godzilla.
Clowns: While their presence on the list conjures images of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown from the original adaptation of It, or perhaps the titular beings from Killer Klowns From Outer Space, their appearance when they finally show up for the finale suggests a more grounded inspiration, namely notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. It does end up being bulletproof though, so it’s probably supernatural to some degree.
Witches: Just, you know, witches. Pretty standard spooky stuff. Visually, they seem to be a combination of the creepy old lady witch from Pumpkinhead and maybe some of the female deadites from Army of Darkness and Drag Me to Hell.
Sexy Witches: Witches. Only sexy. I don’t think we ever actually see these (someone correct me if I’m wrong), but as a general pop-culture reference, think The Craft or Witches of Eastwick.
Demons: We catch only the briefest, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of these on a monitor, but they seem to be your standard red, horned variety of demon. Pretty typical religious iconography, not so much a direct reference to a horror film specifically. The behind-the-scenes images of the headsculpts for these creatures seem very del Toro Hellboy if anything.
Hell Lord: A straight-up riff on Pinhead and the Cenobites from Hellraiser, only with sawblades instead of nails. He even has his own puzzle box! Fun fact: His name is Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain, which is amazing.
Angry Molesting Tree: Another direct reference, this one to the similarly-dispositioned bit of foliage from The Evil Dead.
Giant Snake: Anaconda, obviously.
Deadites: Another clear-cut Evil Dead shout-out. Basically, it’s just another word for zombies, only the demonically-possessed variety. Usually summoned by a book made of human flesh. You know, that old chestnut.
Kevin: Just a regular, normal-looking guy. We don’t see him in the film, but the novelization mentions him casually gutting a guard. Another direct reference, this one to a rare non-horror source, alluding to the character of the same name from Sin City. Played in the film version by Elijah Wood, funnily enough, who himself is a massive horror nerd and actually spends his time now producing them.
Mummy: …you know, from The Mummy. Dead guy, wrapped in toilet paper. Standard stuff.
The Bride: While we don’t ever see The Bride herself, we see the wedding dress that summons her. Likely just another general genre-trope reference to things like Bride of Frankenstein and Bride of Chucky, although the vengeful spirit of a wronged woman, clad in her wedding dress, is a fairly common piece of imagery in ghost stories.
The Scarecrow Folk: Scarecrows, while not being monsters from any well-known or major horror films, are again, pretty typical Halloween-season mainstays. There’s a number of terrible B-movies featuring the monsters, but I doubt any of them are being specifically referenced here.
Snowman: Another creature we don’t actually get to see, this is, sadly, a likely reference to the terrible, terrible 1997 Jack Frost. And no, I don’t mean the Christmas movie with Michael Keaton. Which, to be fair, is also terrible.
Dragonbat: Half dragon, half bat, all awesome. This one seems to be an original creation of the film, but the name feels very Sci-Fi channel Original Movie. Think Dinocroc.
Vampires: Another genre-wide reference, although visually they take their design cues from Nosferatu’s Count Orlok.
Dismemberment Goblins: Cutesy, cartoony little bastards, these monsters seem to take inspiration from similarly childish movie monsters like Ghoulies.
Sugarplum Fairy: Another original creation of the film, the Sugarplum Fairy is the creepy little ballerina with the face full of teeth we see pretty prominently during the climax. Likely a trope-reference to ballerina-themed thrillers like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Black Swan, it has visual elements to the tooth fairies from Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Merman: Another great nod to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, only much, much grosser.
The Reanimated: Like the Deadites, this is another direct name-drop of a horror icon, namely the undead monsters from Re-Animator.
Unicorn: Basically just an in-joke making fun of how many horror films have derived their villains from innocent pieces of mythology, like Leprechaun.
The Huron: Cannibalistic, primitive natives of some kind. Probably alluding to something like Cannibal Holocaust.
Sasquatch/Wendigo/Yeti: Like I mentioned earlier this month, Bigfoot really doesn’t have much of a presence in horror all things considered, so this is just another vague creature inclusion. Although it could be a reference to The Legend of Boggy Creek.
Dolls: Normal-looking people wearing creepy Doll masks, I’m fairly certain this is a visual acknowledgment of home invasion horror films like The Strangers.
The Doctors: Evil doctors are pretty much as cliché as it gets. Just look at the costume aisle at Target this October, you’ll see a dozen of them. In the film, they look very much like the ghostly surgeons from The House on Haunted Hill.
Zombie Redneck Torture Family: The star creatures of Cabin in the Woods, the Buckners are one-part Jason Voorhees/Leatherface, one part The Hills Have Eyes, with just a dash of the pain-worshipping Cenobites from Hellraiser. But above that, them being chosen as the monsters who would be hunting and killing our sacrificial victims is a bit of satire as well, commenting on the state of horror movies as the time. In the late 2000s, nearly every horror movie either had Zombies, angry, violent hillbillies (looking at you, Rob Zombie), or gory torture porn, like Saw and Hostel. So, because Cabin in the Woods is, above all else, a commentary on modern horror more than anything else, we get the lovingly-mocking “Zombie Redneck Torture Family.”
Jack O’Lantern: A pretty cut-and-dry Legend of Sleepy Hollow reference, although I’m going to also selfishly believe that it’s a shout-out to Pumpkinhead as well, because that movie is great.
Giant: Just a giant. Of the Giant Beanstalk variety.
Twins: “Come play with us, Danny.” Obviously from The Shining.
Thirty-four. Thirty-four individual references, easter eggs, and direct callouts to horror films and greater horror mythology, all on one whiteboard. That’s insane, and it’s the exact type of love and dedication to the genre as a whole that makes Cabin in the Woods so fun to watch. Every time I see it, I catch something new. Pay attention to the “Purge” sequence in the third act, as it features easily double the references as the whiteboard does. You literally have to go frame by frame to catch them all.
I also highly recommend checking out any behind-the-scenes material from the film you can get your hands on. The amount of design and production work that went into the film’s monsters, many of whom you see only glimpses of, is truly astonishing. This was a film made with passion, and it shows.
What’s your favorite random monster from The Cabin in the Woods that’s not from the betting board? (Mine is the KKK. Yes, they show up on a monitor at one point). Let me know in the comments!