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The Biggest Lesson from Films This Decade: Only Bad Things Happen in Cabins

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by Steve Greene
August 23, 2013 2:17 PM
2 Comments
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"The Cabin in the Woods."
"The Cabin in the Woods."

Hey there! Just wanted to send a reminder about our special cabin getaway this weekend. You’re a great [insert personal relationship label] and I can’t wait to spend some quality time together. Talk to you soon! 

The next time you get an invitation like the one above, immediately delete it. Tear it up. Forget it ever happened. Because there’s a message that independent movies these days are trying to tell us: nothing good ever happens in cabins. 

Whether they come from American shores or from across international waters, these stories where characters of varying relationships take a break from busy city life never end with uniform positivity. The latest film to feature Cabin Trouble is “Drinking Buddies,” available now on VOD and in theaters in various cities starting today. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the early trip into the woods featuring the film’s central two couples doesn’t go exactly to plan. In fact, at this point in the indie film landscape, it would be more shocking to come across a story where friends/lovers/family members take a cabin trip that doesn't end in disaster. 

In case you think this is a slight exaggeration, here’s a sampling of how cabins have spelled doom for their unassuming victims in just the past few years. 

The Cabin in the Woods 

Self-explanatory, but it makes sense that the king of recent “Cabins are Bad” movies strips down the premise to its bare parts. Unlike other films where the peril creeps up on an unsuspecting audience, we know from the outset that something is amiss with this archetypal trip. And then, in a brilliant stroke of sub-subversion-subversion, Drew Goddard and Co. save the biggest terrors for a location other than the cabin, the area we assume to be the most secure.

One of the film’s greatest Easter Eggs is the company whiteboard, taking bets on which baddie will be the group of teenagers’ ultimate undoing (including Scarecrow Folk, Reptilius, Zombie Redneck Torture Family). My favorite? “Kevin.” In fact, if we want to be pseudo-scientific about this, we should probably measure Cabin Trouble Levels in Kevins. 

Cabin Trouble Level: 9.7 out of 10 Kevins (Because “Evil Dead 2” is the only 10 out of 10.) 

Your Sister’s Sister 

Lynn Shelton’s film from last year highlights one of the signature character flaws that leads to cabin mayhem: lack of communication. With the three central figures in this story, there’s a spectrum of understanding. We see close-knit sisters, a decently strong friendship and a one-night stand. The cabin represents a vacuum where these relationships are tested, without the possibility of another party coming to interfere with the experiment. 

Once all the moving parts are introduced, it becomes a collision of expectations as we see if family loyalty, however tenuous, wins out over revealing previously unspoken desires. (The moment where we see Jack (Mark Duplass) make an important discovery at a bathroom sink is perhaps the perfect distillation of cabin panic.) Rosemarie DeWitt placed high on our year-end Best Performance list, and with good reason. Even though the film braids all three people’s stories together, DeWitt’s Hannah is the sturdy epicenter of the controlled chaos. 

Cabin Trouble Level: ? out of 10 Kevins (If you remember the last shot, it depends on...well, you know.) 

The Color Wheel 

Perhaps the key to these retreat-based narratives is isolation. It’s the idea that, if you remove yourself from everyday pressures and create for yourself an opportunity to settle naturally into your own instincts, sometimes the results are messy. The climax of this film is jarring mostly in its simplicity, one of those natural ending points that makes you immediately want to go back and take stock of the subtle hints slowly spooled out over the rest of the runtime. If you haven’t seen “The Color Wheel” yet, you know what to do

Cabin Trouble Level: 7.4 out of 10 (3 of which are for this video of Alex Ross Perry signing a pineapple) 

Headhunters 

Not all cabin trips are voluntary getaways or involve the consequences of cavorting with friends and family. Sometimes you stumble into Cabin Trouble while trying to escape a dangerous, sly, vindictive fellow criminal. This Norwegian thriller puts its unfortunate art thief protagonist Roger (Aksel Hennie) through unthinkable terrors, both physical and psychological. Just when it seems that Roger has found a remote place to escape from the vengeful Clas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), his nemesis emerges, this time with a pitbull in tow. Roger discovers that his only way to avoid certain death is one particularly unpleasant hiding place. Although that cabin ends up holding a potential key to 

Cabin Trouble Level: 8.2 out of 10 Kevins (7 of which are for Roger’s MacGyver-ish breathing apparatus) 

Friends with Kids 

Some of the worst Cabin Danger moments are the ones that you can see coming. Critics were split on Jennifer Westfeldt’s story about platonic best friends (Adam Scott and Westfeldt) who decide to conceive a child, but the best sequence of the film involves (you guessed it!) four sets of couples on a skiing trip. Over the course of a fateful dinner conversation, Scott's Jason makes a passionate defense of the two friends’ plan, even as some of the more cynical guests argue that it’s probably a terrible idea. Amidst all the commotion is a reminder that the man behind Ben Wyatt has some chops when he’s paired with the right moment (see also: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday.”) 

Cabin Trouble Level: 5.1 out of 10 Kevins (4 of which are for Drunk Jon Hamm) 

The Way Way Back 

Our most recent example of Cabin Trouble’s less intense cousin, Beach House Anxiety. Here, a season-long vacation in a strange place, in closed quarters and with less-than-desirable future family members turns out to be more monotonous than dangerous. Duncan (Liam James) also gets occasional reprieves from his mother's boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), which only serves to repress the impending blowup. One of the final non-water-park scenes brings a number of townsfolk to Trent's summer residence. That way, when the tension bubbles over, there is a conveniently placed crowd to accentuate that inevitable family rift. This diminishes that sense of intimate conflict, but does magnify the finality of that showdown. Ultimately, this fledgling family was doomed from the start - all that was left to decide was the eventual ending place.

Cabin Trouble Level: 1.4 out of 10 Kevins (1 of which is for Lord Licorice

Teddy Bears 

One of our favorites from this year’s Seattle International Film Festival spun the Cabin Trouble tale by setting it in Joshua Tree region of California. No cool ocean breezes or rustic, pine lodge settings for these six friends. Just the vast, expansive desert to accent the sexual tension and mortality pondering. The film is still making the festival rounds, so no need to spoil the details of what amps up the awkwardness at this particular getaway. But the wily script and the strong central cast keeps the absurdity relatable. 

Cabin Trouble Level: 7.9 out of 10 Kevins (6 of which are for David Krumholtz) 

And this is just movies from 2010 onward. The decade previous had a few other varied, noteworthy examples: "Baghead," "Antichrist" and on the documentary front, "Winnebago Man," to name a few. And on TV, if I remember correctly, a cabin trip didn’t work out so well for Carrie and Brody on “Homeland” either. 

Any particular cabin story, current or otherwise, that we didn’t include here? Let us know in the comments.

2 Comments

  • Nikki | August 23, 2013 2:35 PMReply

    A lot of the movie 'mama' was in a cabin in the woods....bbbrrrr Nope, not for me thanks :)

  • Nikki | August 23, 2013 2:37 PM

    Dale and Tucker vs Evil was muy mucho fun though, also cabin in the woods based ^_^

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