The good ol’ rickety cabin in the woods: The site of many hunting trips, lakeside vacations, and according to Hollywood, fairly frequent bloody killing sprees. This setting has become so common in horror movies that it has been elevated to the status of “trope,” and it’s easy to see why.
A cabin is isolated, it’s easy to make the woods seem scary — especially at night, and it makes for a really cheap set to build, which means more money for fake blood! The trope has become so popular that you could make an argument for sub-genre status.
Even when the cabin isn’t exactly a cabin, it’s an isolated refuge against attacking evil plunked down in the middle of some insurmountable wilderness.
Two excellent meta, black comedy satires (there’s a subgenre for you) did a great job of directly lambasting the cabin-in-the-woods setup: the aptly titled The Cabin In The Woods (2011), which was released right on the heels of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010). As such, they will not be on this list. Besides, you should have seen them already. Both of them. It’s been a decade.
Those aside, here are my picks for the five best movies set in a cabin in the woods or its equivalent, in no particular order.
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The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Evil Dead (2013)
Director: Sam Raimi; Fede Alvarez
Starring: Bruce Campbell; Jane Levy
The two Evil Dead movies helped define the architecture of this trope by replacing the standard creepy, haunted mansion with a run-down cabin in an entire haunted forest. People can argue about whether or not Evil Dead 2 is a remake of the original or not, but both movies tell pretty much the same story.
In the first one, five college friends arrive at a remote cabin for a vacation. In the sequel, it’s only a couple who head to the cabin, and they are later joined by other characters to help up the body count.
In both movies, they find an ancient book written in a strange language and bound in human skin along with some research materials and a tape recorder. They play the tape and find a recording of the cabin’s previous tenant describing how super evil the book is before reading a passage aloud. This releases an evil force that destroys the bridge and possesses people, inanimate objects, and the very trees in the forest. No really. In the first one, a woman is raped by a demonic tree. Consider that your dendrophilia trigger warning.
The 2013 remake was a solid effort to turn Sam Raimi’s campy and wildly over-the-top world into a legit and totally serious horror movie with an emphasis on realistic yet still extreme gore and blood. It’s good, but there’s no Ash (Campbell).
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 3 Stars – “Groovy cabin, but nasty neighbors, and too many human-skin books just lying around. Do not recommend.”
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Friday the 13th (2009)
Director: Marcus Nispel
Starring: Derek Mears, Jared Padalecki, Amanda Righetti
While the original series introduced the summer camp setting to horror movies, the surprisingly good 2009 remake basically turned Friday the 13th into a cabin-in-the-woods flick. The original movie took place entirely at Camp Crystal Lake, and adult Jason doesn’t show up until Part 2; he doesn’t get his signature hockey mask until Part 3. The sequels are wildly different from one another and are a cluster when it comes to continuity. They never even explain how Jason goes from being a dead child in the first one to a very much alive adult in the sequel.
The remake, which I think is far better than any entry in the original series, gets through the whole summer camp thing with Mrs. Vorhees in the prologue and solves a big problem with the original movies by showing a young Jason still alive to witness the last surviving camp counselor behead dear ol’ mom at the end of her killing spree.
When the present-day part of the story begins, Jason haunts the grounds of the summer camp where his mother died, living in a network of tunnels beneath it, which explains how he gets around so fast.
The cabin in this movie is elevated to a rich douchebag’s family vacation house on the same lake as the old camp. The digs are pretty opulent, but the stakes are the same. The teens are isolated, cut off from help and communications, and are stalked in and around the lake house by an intelligent, agile, and huge Jason Vorhees until the few remaining survivors make a break for it and become even fewer survivors. This movie is solid, and it makes Jason into something scary for the first time in a long time. And while it’s outlandish, there’s nothing supernatural here.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 2 Stars – “Nice place, but too many teenagers banging and dancing to loud, bad music. Plus way too much murder.”
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The Strangers (2008)
Director: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
In this film, the cabin is a pretty nice house. No supernatural creatures or beasties are roaming about, just a regular group of homicidal lunatics in creepy-ass masks. But that’s enough.
If you’ve ever prepared for a home invasion, you’ll spend this movie’s runtime making a list of everything you would have done differently to not end up held hostage by a weird knife-wielding murder gang in a vacation house. You’ll also be yelling at the protagonists a lot for being so, so stupid sometimes.
Like Friday the 13th, a secluded house stands in for the cabin in the woods here, but it serves the same function. When James and Kristen (Speedman and Tyler) stop at James’ family summer home late at night, things are already kind of tense. She just turned down his marriage proposal — at their friend’s wedding. Brutal. It immediately sets the tension meter for the rest of the film, during which the needle only climbs as they are taunted and attacked by a trio of killers. This flick is a lesson in escalating tension, and the ending just assaults you.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 4 Stars – “Great place, but we kept getting trick-or-treaters in June?? Annoying. Would stay again.”
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Cabin Fever (2002)
Director: Eli Roth
Starring: Jordan Ladd, Rider Strong, James DeBello
This simple tale of body horror with a quirky dark-humor edge put Eli Roth on the map. This movie is about a particularly awful virus instead of a physical monster or a disembodied demon that possesses people. (Yeah, it hits different in a post-pandemic world.) It all starts with a dog that dies from a mysterious infection and passes it along to its hermit owner.
He stumbles upon a cabin where five college pals are hanging out on spring break. And they shoot him, like, right away. No lie. One dude goes out to hunt squirrels with a full-auto Ruger Mini-14 and shoots him dead when the hermit startles him. But the joke’s on them; his infection has already spread.
The grotesque disease works its way through the group of friends, affecting them like a particularly aggressive flesh-eating bacteria. This one ends on a downer, and it’s outstanding.
A sequel that didn’t involve Roth was released in 2009. It’s passable and tries to live up to the original’s tone, but it’s not great. A second sequel came out in 2014, and it was terrible. Then came a remake of the original in 2016, which is almost identical to Roth’s movie, just with less dark humor, less fun, and shittier camera work. Stick with the original.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 1 Star – “Cabin sucks. Nasty bathtub. Partied with rad police deputy all night. Hands melting off tho. Not cool.”
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Dog Soldiers (2002)
Director: Neil Marshall
Starring: Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Liam Cunningham
If you have a hankering to see a squad of trained soldiers go up against a family of full-on fucking werewolves, then you’re in luck.
The setup for this one is great: A special unit of British SAS soldiers is on a secret mission in the Scottish Highlands when they run into something unexpected in the night. Enter a squad of tough-as-nails average grunts who are inserted into the same area via helicopter to participate in a war-games exercise against the SF troops, or so they think.
They find the SAS guys torn to pieces, weird gear all over the place, and the only survivor keeps screaming, “There was only supposed to be one!” As dusk approaches and they hear monstrous howling in the distance, the grunts ditch their blank-firing L85A1 rifles and pick up the discarded SAS HK41s and MP5A2s along with any live ammo they can find.
They lose one man as they run for their lives from a gang of “huge hairy fuckin’ howlin’ things.” Just when they think they’ve had it, a mysterious stranger shows up in an SUV and takes them all to, you guessed it, a cabin in the woods. Well, it’s more like a cottage.
With no comms and little ammo, the soldiers use all their training and ingenuity to secure the house from the monsters outside, but what if the monsters are inside too? This is a great genre-blending movie, and the werewolves look fantastic, despite the film’s short budget. Look for some not-so-subtle nods in this one to the next movie on this list.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 4 Stars – “The family that owns the property is a little too welcoming and hands-on. But they make great stew!”
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Straw Dogs (1971, 2011)
Director: Sam Peckinpah; Rod Lurie
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George; James Marsden, Kate Bosworth
Both versions of Straw Dogs are very grounded in reality and drama, focusing on the nasty underbelly of a small town and the deep animosity it can breed that sometimes boils over into extreme violence. The cabin-in-the-woods part doesn’t come until the end.
The Peckinpah classic is infamous for influencing later exploitation films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and The Last House on the Left (1972) with its graphic and elaborate rape scene. It’s also known for a particularly violent conclusion and was heavily criticized for both when it was released.
In the original, an American mathematician, David Sumner (Hoffman), moves into a country home with his young wife, Amy (George), near the Cornish village where she grew up. The village contains Amy’s old boyfriend, Charlie, and a group of locals who stick to him like flies on shit. They immediately dislike Sumner for his success, nerdiness, small stature, and for marrying the best thing to come out of their crummy little town.
Tensions gradually increase as acts of violence are committed, culminating in a siege of the couple’s country home one night. Sumner, a self-proclaimed pacifist, girds his loins and violently defends himself, his wife, and a local mentally disabled man from the fury of a mob trying to break down his door. The fact that the house is stone with castle-like wooden doors certainly helps.
The remake is set stateside in a rural Mississippi town, and Sumner (Marsden) is a scriptwriter instead of a mathemetician, but otherwise, the setup is pretty much the same. In fact, other than adding stereotypical bits of Americana like high school football and deer hunting, it follows all the same beats of the Peckinpah version without venturing anywhere near its controversiality. It’s okay and totally watchable, but one has to question why it was ever made. Also, it loses points for being yet another movie that equates hunters with poachers.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 4 Stars – “The giant bear trap on the wall was suuuper convenient.”
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Night of the Living Dead (1968, 1990)
Director: George A. Romero; Tom Savini
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea; Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman
The original black-and-white 1968 version is an absolute classic and one of the few horror movies of that era that still holds up reasonably well. The 1990 remake doesn’t get enough credit. It’s a great update of the original and a great horror movie of its own, plus it features a very young Tony Todd.
In both versions, a farmhouse acts as the cabin in the woods, and the invading evil is a horde of zombies freshly risen from their graves in a nearby cemetery. In fact, one could argue the 1968 version is the very first cabin-in-the-woods movie.
It’s never really explained why the dead rise from their graves. It just happens, and Barbara is set to running from her life. She takes refuge in the farmhouse with Ben and a few other people fleeing from the undead holocaust. They defend the home as well as they can, but the dead keep getting in, so they eventually have to make a run for it. Sound familiar?
This setup was repeated in the sort-of sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) and its remake in 2004, only the cabin becomes an entire shopping mall that a band of survivors must defend against the zombie hordes.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 4 Stars – “Invitingly rustic atmosphere and the decor was very kitchy-country. Downside, we were up all night shooting zombies, but that was kinda fun, too!”
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Bonus Selection: Halloween (2018)
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, James Jude Courtney
This one is kind of a stretch, but it’s a stretch worth mentioning. All of the Halloween reboots and sequels have had one thing in common: Horror is always visited upon an average suburban environment, usually by Michael Myers. Okay, H20 was set in a posh college prep school, but it’s not that far off.
Halloween (2018), the highly successful direct sequel to the 1978 original that ignores all other sequels, changes this up. There’s a good bit of suburban stalking at first, but in the final act, Michael gets knocked unconscious and is driven to Laurie Strode’s (Curtis) house in the middle of the woods. See where I’m going with this?
It becomes a total cabin-in-the-woods, but instead of Laurie’s house serving as a rickety refuge keeping the evil out, it’s actually an elaborate trap that locks Myers in the basement as the house is incinerated in a huge fire.
Not to fear, Myers is totally not dead (shocker) and apparently racks up a staggering body count, even for a Halloween movie, in the soon-to-be-released sequel Halloween Kills (2021), which was severely delayed because of the pandemic.
Air-Cabin-N-The-Woods Rating: 5 Stars – “This place has a basement gun room hidden under the island counter in the kitchen! Score!”