In a high tech underground facility, senior technicians Sitterson and Hadley discuss plans for a mysterious operation. A similar operation undertaken by their counterparts in Stockholm has just ended in failure.
American college students Dana, Holden, Marty, Jules, and Curt are spending their weekend at a seemingly deserted cabin in the forest, a cabin recently acquired by Curt's cousin. From their underground facility where they possess significant technological control over the area in which the cabin is situated, Sitterson and Hadley manipulate the teenagers by intoxicating them with mind-altering drugs that hinder rational thinking and increase libido. They take bets from coworkers as to what kind of monster will attack the teenagers and discuss the failures of similar rituals in other nations.
In the cabin's cellar, the group finds many bizarre objects, including the diary of Patience Buckner, a cabin resident abused by her sadistic family. Dana recites incantations from the journal, inadvertently summoning the zombified Buckner family despite Marty's warnings. By releasing pheromones, Hadley successfully induces Curt and Jules to have sex. Attacked by the marauding Buckner zombies, Jules is decapitated while Curt escapes to alert the group. Marty, a frequent marijuana smoker, discovers concealed surveillance equipment before being dragged off by one of the Buckners. Later, the facility workers learn that the ritual in Japan has also ended in failure, meaning that the American ritual is humanity's last hope. It becomes apparent that the ritual involves blood sacrifice.
Curt, Holden, and Dana attempt to escape in their RV, but Sitterson triggers a tunnel collapse to block them. Curt jumps a ravine on his motorcycle in an attempt to flee and alert the authorities, only to crash into a force shield, killing him. Holden and Dana retreat to the RV to plan their next move, but one of the Buckners, hiding within all along, stabs Holden as they are driving away, resulting in the RV crashing and sinking into a lake. Dana escapes and swims ashore and is beset in turn. As she is attacked, Sitterson, Hadley, and their staff celebrate the successful completion of the ritual, viewing the events from their underground facility. The celebration is interrupted by a phone call pointing out that Marty has survived. His heavy marijuana use has apparently rendered him immune to Sitterson and Hadley's manipulations.
Marty rescues Dana and takes her to a hidden elevator he discovered under a grave. They descend into the underground facility, where a menagerie of monsters are imprisoned. Dana correlates them with the objects in the cabin's cellar and realizes that those items gave victims the opportunity to choose the agents of their own deaths during the ritual. Cornered by the facility's security personnel, she and Marty release the monsters, including zombies, goblins, mutants, witches, wraiths, a basilisk, a unicorn, a killer robot, and an evil clown. They wreak havoc and slaughter the staff; Hadley is killed by a merman.
Dana and Marty flee the carnage (particularly menaced by a giant bat). Dana accidentally mortally wounds Sitterson, who begs her to kill Marty. Fleeing further, they discover an ancient temple and are confronted by the facility’s leader, known only as The Director. She explains that they are participating in an annual ritual sacrifice to appease the Ancient Ones (described as “giant evil gods”). Each facility’s ritual conforms to the rules of that region’s local lore; in America young people are chosen to be sacrificed based on similarity to certain archetypes: the whore (Jules), the athlete (Curt), the scholar (Holden), the fool (Marty), and the virgin (Dana). In order to complete the ritual the whore must die first and the virgin must survive or die last. Since all other facilities have failed, the penalty for not completing the ritual is the extermination of the entire human race. Hence, The Director urges Dana to kill Marty. Dana considers, but she is interrupted by a werewolf attack, while zombie Patience Buckner appears and kills The Director.
Deciding that humanity is not worth saving, Dana and Marty share a joint while awaiting their fate. The temple floor collapses and a giant hand emerges, destroying the facility and the cabin itself.
With a production budget of $30 million, principal photography began on March 9, 2009 in Vancouver, and concluded in May 2009. Joss Whedon co-wrote the script with Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard, who also directed the film, marking his directorial debut. Goddard previously worked with Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel as a writer.
Whedon described the film as an attempt to revitalize the horror genre which he, along with director/co-writer Goddard, felt had "devolved" with the introduction of torture porn. He called it a "loving hate letter" to the genre, continuing:
On another level it's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.
Concerning the sheer number of creatures to be designed and made for the film, AFX Studio's David LeRoy Anderson estimated that "close to a thousand" people were turned into one of around 60 different monster types. The task necessitated renting a much larger facility to use as a workspace, as a crew of around 60 people were recruited. The producers told them to commence work on December 15, 2008, ahead of the official January 1, 2009 start date. They only completed the work by the March 9, 2009 production date because, as Anderson stated "We had nearly seventy people at peak, but in effect we had a hundred and forty people, because everybody had at least two jobs...it was crazy, but people had an incredible time...none of us are ever going to forget it, and we're never all going to be in the same room again."
The underground complex, elevators, and the control room were all sets, but for several wide shots, the British Columbia Institute of Technology's Aerospace building was used. Production designer Martin Whist referenced Stanley Kubrick and commented: "It's very high-tech industrial, and it's a brand new building, never been shot in before...I wanted [the elevators] to be without any controls...to almost feel like a glamorized freight elevator...The lobby I wanted to look slightly utilitarian, contemporary and institutional...sharp and almost characterless."
The Cabin in the Woods was slated for wide release on February 5, 2010 and then delayed until January 14, 2011 so the film could be converted to 3D. However, on June 17, 2010, MGM announced that the film would be delayed indefinitely due to ongoing financial difficulties at the studio.
On March 16, 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported the following: "New (MGM) chief executives Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum are seeking to sell both Red Dawn and the horror film The Cabin in the Woods, the last two pictures produced under a previous regime, as they try to reshape the 87-year-old company." A distribution sale to Lionsgate was announced on April 28, 2011, with some industry news outlets reporting plans for a Halloween 2011 release. On July 20, 2011, Lionsgate announced that they had acquired the distribution rights to the film and set a release date of April 13, 2012. Goddard described the deal as "a dream," stating "there's no question that Lionsgate is the right home for Cabin...you look at all the films that inspired Cabin – most of them were released by Lionsgate in the first place!" In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Goddard focused on the advantages of the delayed release, saying, "Lionsgate came along and they were the best possible home for that movie. Had the bankruptcy not happened, we wouldn't have been in the right fit with the right people. Yes, it took two years longer than we wish it would've taken, but Lionsgate didn't make us change a frame and believed in what we were trying to do. If I had complained too much when MGM went bankrupt, we could have hurt ourselves. We just held firm that we believed in the movie and that we would find the right home and time, and it did. It's hard, but you have to be very patient in Hollywood."
The world premiere was on March 9, 2012 at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas.
The Cabin in the Woods was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on September 18, 2012. Both the DVD and Blu-ray feature an audio commentary by Goddard and Whedon, several featurettes, a documentary about the making of the film, and a Q&A session at the 2012 WonderCon convention.
The Cabin in the Woods earned $42,073,277 in North America, along with $23,829,690 in other territories, for a worldwide total of $65,902,967.
The film opened in North America on April 13, 2012, opening with $5.5 million and went on to gross $14.7 million in its opening weekend in the United States at 2,811 theaters, taking the number three spot. The Cabin in the Woods closed in theaters on July 12, 2012 with $42.0 million. In total earnings, its highest-grossing countries after North America were the United Kingdom ($8.5 million), France ($2.4 million) and Russia ($2.3 million).
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 92%, based on 253 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Cabin in the Woods is an astonishing meta-feat, capable of being funny, strange, and scary – frequently all at the same time." On Metacritic, the film achieved an average score of 72 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars, saying that "The Cabin in the Woods has been constructed almost as a puzzle for horror fans to solve. Which conventions are being toyed with? Which authors and films are being referred to? Is the film itself an act of criticism?". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, calling it "fiendishly funny". Travers praised Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz for their performances, and wrote, "By turning splatter formula on its empty head, Cabin shows you can unleash a fire-breathing horror film without leaving your brain or your heart on the killing floor."
Cinema Blend's Editor in Chief, Katey Rich, gave the film 4.5 out of 5 stars and wrote,
"Even when the story sticks firmly in standard horror territory, this particular group of attractive kids is especially fun to spend time with... You'll have to see it, and you really have to see it if you love horror, hate horror, or have any interest in seeing how the genre can function as a playground for something completely fresh."
She praised Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford "in roles that are more fun to discover as you go along – they do get a lot of the best jokes, though, and their scenes show a lot of Goddard's skill in handling the rhythm of a scene." Jenkins and Whitford were also admired by The A.V. Club ("Whitford and Jenkins clearly delight in the verbose script") and by Wired, whose reviewer (granting 9 of 10 stars) called Cabin "a smart sendup of horror movies and mythology...with a peculiar relish that testifies to the moviemakers' love of genre film... a smart, sarcastic and deliriously fun journey into the belly of the horror beast." He cited the "witty banter, creative twists" and "clippy, quippy dialog that lifted Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to cult status." Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, giving the movie 3 of 4 stars, wrote,
"A fiendishly clever brand of meta-level genius propels The Cabin in the Woods, a pulpy, deceivingly insightful send-up of horror movies that elicits just as many knowing chuckles as horrified gasps. [It] comes not only to praise the slasher-, zombie- and gore-fests of yore but to critique them, elaborating on their grammatical elements and archetypal figures even while searching for ways to put them to novel use. The danger in such a loftily ironic approach is that everything in the film appears with ready-made quotation marks around it... But by then, the audience will have picked up on the infectiously goofy vibe of an enterprise that, from its first sprightly moments, clearly has no intention of taking itself too seriously."
Eric Goldman, writing for IGN, called the movie "an incredibly clever and fun take on classic horror movie tropes." SF Gate said, "The cliches come at an onslaught pace" in "a wonderfully conceived story that gives a bigger than life and fascinating explanation for why so many horror movie cliches exist in the first place... By the time the ride is over, director Drew Goddard and co-writers Goddard and Joss Whedon will change course three or four times, nodding and winking but never losing momentum." Of the screenplay by Goddard and Whedon, a CNN reviewer praised "these horror hipsters' acidic, postmodern designs on one of the movie industry's hoariest, least respected staples... the dialogue is always a notch or three smarter and snappier than you'd expect."
Keith Phipps of The A. V. Club addressed:
"the difficult challenge of putting across a satirical film with a serious body count. Cabin touches on everything from The Evil Dead and Friday The 13th to the mechanized mutilations of the Saw series while digging deeper into the Lovecraftian roots of horror in an attempt to reveal what makes the genre work... It’s an exercise in metafiction that, while providing grisly fun, never distances viewers. And it’s entertaining, while asking the same question of viewers and characters alike: Why come to a place you knew all along was going to be so dark and dangerous?"
In a more mixed review Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, calling herself "a wised-up viewer," gave the film a "B−" grade and said, "The movie's biggest surprise may be that the story we think we know from modern scary cinema — that horror is a fun, cosmic game, not much else — here turns out to be pretty much the whole enchilada." She shrugged off the talents of Whitford and Jenkins: "These two experienced actors provide the film's adult-level entertainment."
Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times believed that the film "is an inside joke" and also said, "The laughs [in the film] come easily, the screams not so much." David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter remarked, "It’s just too bad the movie is never much more than a hollow exercise in self-reflexive cleverness that’s not nearly as ingenious as it seems to think."
A.O. Scott of The New York Times said, "Novelty and genre traditionalism often fight to a draw. Too much overt cleverness has a way of spoiling dumb, reliable thrills. And despite the evident ingenuity and strenuous labor that went into it, The Cabin in the Woods does not quite work." Scott added,
"Some of the pleasure of the first (and best) part of The Cabin in the Woods comes from trying to see just over the narrative horizon and figure out what these incompatible sets of clichés have to do with each other. Two distinct kinds of movie are being yoked, by violence, together, and the performers inhabit their familiar roles with unusual wit."
On April 13, 2015, author Peter Gallagher filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in California federal court against the makers of the film. Gallagher claimed that due to the similarities between the film and his 2006 novel The Little White Trip: A Night In the Pines, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard had used his work without permission. The lawsuit demanded $10 million in damages. Whedon and Goddard were named as defendants, along with the production company Mutant Enemy Productions and distributor Lionsgate. Five months later, the case was dismissed.
On April 17, 2012, Titan Books released the Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion. It features interviews, behind-the-scenes photos, and concept art of unused creatures.
Alongside this, Titan Books released the mass market paperback The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Movie Novelization, from the author Tim Lebbon and creators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. The book also included monsters that are exclusive to the novelization.