The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard, 2012)


The Cabin in the Woods is a 2012 American horror film which can be categorised as a deconstructionist horror film, as it plays with the generic conventions of horror films and engages the audience in an ideological discourse about the audience need for and response to the genre.

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, who directed, produced and co-wrote the film, have described it as an attempt to revitalise the slasher cycle and as a critical satire on the popularity of ‘gore porn’.

The film was shot in Canada (often a cheaper alternative than shooting in the US) in 2009. The estimated budget for the film is $30 million. Principal photography lasted approximately 8 weeks.

Industry – Business and Release

The film was initially scheduled for release in February 2010, with this date being pushed back until January 2011 in order for the film to be converted into 3D. However, MGM, the studio behind the film filed for bankruptcy before the film’s release and so the film’s released. Following new ownership at MGM, the distribution rights for The Cabin in the Woods were sold to Lions Gate Entertainment. Despite hopes for a release in time for Halloween in 2011, Lions Gate eventually announced that the film would be released in April 2012.

The world premiere of the film happened at the South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin, TX in March 2012. SxSW has a reputation for being a lively and alternative arts festival, which reflects the anticipated target audience for the film.

The film eventually went on to make $65 million worldwide, $8.5 million of which came from the UK box office. This means that it is not regarded a successful, profitable film.

Key Companies

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) is an American media company, specialising in the production and distribution of film and television. MGM was founded in 1924, and was once Hollywood’s largest and most glamorous film studio. However, following changes in ownership and corporate restructuring, MGM was forced to file for bankruptcy at the end of 2010; putting all of the films that were in production or slated for production under MGM’s management in jeopardy. The most notable casualty was Skyfall (Mendes, 2012). Spyglass Entertainment, a smaller film production studio eventually came to MGM’s rescue. The executives from Spyglass negotiated a deal with Lions Gate Entertainment to distribute on The Cabin in the Woods.

Mutant Enemy Productions is the production company founded by Joss Whedon in 1997 to produce his television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since these beginnings, Mutant Enemy has become a cross-platform media production company, producing TV (Buffy, Angel, Firefly & Dollhouse in conjunction with 20th Century Fox Television), web content (the very successful Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and film (The Cabin in the Woods).

Lions Gate Entertainment is an American based independent production and distribution company. It is involved in the production of films and the distribution of both films and television. The announcement that Lions Gate would take on The Cabin in the Woods for distribution was made in July 2011.

The ‘Key Creatives’


Drew Goddard (director and co-writer) – Goddard is an American film and television writer, producer and director. He is, perhaps, best known for his collaborations for cross-platform super-creators Joss Whedon (Buffy & Angel) and J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Cloverfield). He has also authored comic books, as part of Whedon’s extended Buffy-verse. The Cabin in the Woods is his first project as director.

Joss Whedon (producer and co-writer) – Whedon is an American screenwriter, film and television producer and director, comic book author, composer and actor. He first gained success being the creator and showrunner for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before moving into film directing (Serenity [2005]), experimenting with web series, the superhero genre and musicals (Dr. Horrible [2009]). He is of course, currently best known for being the director of Avengers Assemble (2012), which is currently the third highest grossing film of all time. He went from Avengers to shooting a low budget adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Many of Whedon’s projects gain cult status, and he has now become regarded as a cross-platform auteur; meaning that his work in all the media forms he works is often recognisable as his. He has several distinctive signatures, including the casting of the same actors across different projects. Whedon’s other tropes are very strong female characters, distinctive dialogue that often includes mainstream and niche pop-culture references and an interest in existential themes.

The Cast

There is no clear protagonist in this film; this is an ensemble cast. The most notable of the performers include:

Bradley Whitford (Hadley) – Whitford is an American stage, TV and film actor, known to audiences for his role in Aaron Sorkin’s long running political drama The West Wing.

Richard Jenkins (Sitterson) – Jenkins is also an American stage, TV and film actor. He gained more fame following his role as Nathaniel Fisher is HBO’s funereal drama Six Feet Under. However he has since appeared in numerous film and television roles including Burn After Reading (2008), Eat Pray Love (2010) and The Rum Diary (2011).

Amy Acker (Lin) – Acker is an American TV and film actress, who is one of the actors who Whedon casts regularly in his projects. She had significant roles in his TV shows Angel and Dollhouse, as well as having more recently appeared in a leading role in his version of Much Ado About Nothing.


Chris Hemsworth (Curt) – Hemsworth is an Australian film and TV actor. Since taking the title role in Thor (2011), he has appeared in a number of high profile mainstream movies, including Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). He is definitely carving himself out the career of a mainstream, Hollywood movie star. The unfortunate delay in the release of The Cabin in the Woods meant that Hemsworth was a much bigger name by the time the film hit theatres. This meant that the distribution campaign could use his name to help appeal to audiences.


Fran Kranz (Marty) – Kranz is an American film, TV and stage actor. His appearance in the film is the second time he has appeared in a Whedon project. He gained fan acceptance as wise-cracking and geeky Topher in Whedon’s last TV show, Dollhouse.

Sigourney Weaver (The Director) – Weaver is an American film actor, who has gained mainstream and cult fame through her role as Ripley in the Alien franchise (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection [1997]). She has appeared in many commercial features since her rise to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her appearance in this film can be described as a cameo, as she is a recognisable face who doesn’t play a role with a lot of screen time. Having an actor of Weaver’s standing on board the project would have helped gain funding and attract an audience.

Audience – Demographic & Psychographic Profile

The primary target audience for this film is quite complex to identify in terms of its demographics.

Age: 20-50. Although the primary target audience for horror is usually 16-24, this film relies on the audience’s familiarity with the genre, particularly classics such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead. For this reason, we have to consider the target audience’s age range will be higher, as the film makers rely on the audience having an established knowledge of the genre.

Gender: Male – Even though there will be a clear secondary audience of females, horror’s target audience is typically male – as evidenced by the use of the male gaze and masculine action. Despite the fact that Whedon and Goddard create a more balanced representation of the genders, the film relies on established horror conventions which would target a male audience.

Socio-economic groups: B/C1– This is aimed at a mostly niche audience. Horror is principally aimed at a niche audience, despite its somewhat mainstream values. The niche quality of this film is emphasised by the fact that it is a ‘meta-’ horror; meaning that it is a film about horror films. A more cine-literate, probably with an extended education, would be the demographic groups most likely to engage in the film’s ideological discourse about the audience’s need for horror.

The psychographic profiles of the target audience are likely to be reformers. We can reason that this is the target group, as reformers often reject the mainstream and look for more challenging takes on the conventional. Reformers would also be drawn in by the cult status that Whedon enjoys. In addition, horror genre enthusiasts (of any age, gender, socio-economic demographic or of any psychographic group) are clearly being targeted by this text.

Critical Reviews and Audience Reaction

“This clever meta-horror asks what human need is fed by seeing hot youths get slaughtered, but it forgets to be properly scary.” Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian 12/04/12

“(A) biting satire on the entertainment industry, man’s appetite for violence and older people’s love-hate relationship with youth… If you wanted to be hyper-critical, you could argue Cabin is guilty of the sins that it condemns. It values narrative ingenuity over genuine horror and treats with flippant callousness the characters it slaughters for our gruesome scary-movie delectation.” Chris Tookey, The Daily Mail, 13/04/12

“Cabin is a deliciously devious scare dance that keeps changing the steps until you lose your shit and fall helplessly into its demonic traps. Screenwriters Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Goddard (Cloverfield), in his feature-directing debut, are fright-obsessed. They’re also pissed seeing terror morph into torture porn that drowns the human element in buckets of blood.” Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, 12/04/12

“And if a movie should catch my attention please don’t start it off as any other horror film ever made, it ruins the impression, even though it’s a parody. How would I know this was not just a standard horror movie? With bad acting and a uninteresting plot, not even scary, the only thing that i like about this movie is that its so predictable its funny.” Torbjorn,, 27/08/12

“Horror movies have lost its suspense because we don’t care about the characters and the characters are particularly dumb to make decisions to survive. It makes sense in this film. The actors did a great portraying these clichéd characters…it’s smart and inspired”  Mek Torres, 05/05/12

What issues do these reviews raise about the film?

The analysis… 

The horror genre is clearly signified in studio ident.  The title sequence again signals genre using – images of blood and the iconography of horror. It also establishes idea of sacrifice and theology. A sharp, jarring juxtaposition is created as the film cuts from the red and black of the title sequence to the blue insert shot of coffee machine with Hadley and Sitterson in the facility. Blue is the binary opposite to red, which makes this cut unexpected. Hadley and Sitterson seem like normal guys – Hadley and his wife want kids – which connotes his hope for the future. There are ambiguous references to Stockholm and Japan. Knowing audience will understand these are references to other countries with a reputation for horror film making. This creates enigma for the audience. Who are these people and what are they doing? They make plans for the future, usually this signals their death in horror films. The two shot connotes how united these two are. Title appears accompanied by a non-diegetic scream. This again, is in complete contrast to the preceding scene. This is unexpected for the audience and suggests the film is going to play with our expectations.

Introduction of the group of kids – Dana is a sexualised (she’s in her underwear) college girl. She is a transgressor ( we learn about an ill-advised affair with her professor). Jules (blonde, but intelligent, pre-med), Kurt (the jock, but also academic) and Holden (who also athletic but bookish) all introduced. These are a variety of characters that conform to varying degrees to the archetypes in the teen horror. We learn that a weekend away is planned, with a hint of a new romance (Holden and Dana). The van is shown with the bike on the back, which is a narrative plant for later. Marty – the stoner – is absolutely archetypal;  He is overtly rebellious. Upbeat music is used to aid excitement. The camera stays on the street after the camper leaves. It does this to reveal a FBI/CIA type agent character who reports on their departure. He is not part of the generic conventions of horror. The idea of surveillance, though, – suggests that this trip will be unexpected, and creates further enigma for the audience. Marty points at the isolation that they will be experiencing, reninforcing the generic setting where most of the action takes place. These characters need to be in the wilderness, away from possible help.

Cut back to Hadley & Sitterson –  the use of cutting on parallel action means the creators are asking the audience to ponder the connection between the kids and these two.

The Harbinger scene – the kids stop at a generically antiquated and desolate gas station for fuel en route. The old gas station setting is reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre; it’s an intertextual reference. A jump scare is used for Mordecai’s entrance. He’s a horror archetype; rural red-neck stranger with a warning. As is foregrounded later on, the generic conventions dictate that the characters must receive a warning, thus giving them a choice to turn back. The conventions also dictate that the characters must ignore the warning and choose the wrong path. They have free will. Dana, Marty and the gang do exactly that, because that’s what we’ve paid to see.

The journey shots reinforce the rural, isolated location; a generic convention of the horror film. The force field is revealed through the unexpected death of the bird; again creating dramatic irony for the audience. Interestingly, the bird, a bird of prey will initially be read by the audience as a signifier of the horror to come; however, the shock impact with the invisible force field means that this expectation is subverted. The bird is an unknowing victim, who flies blindly into unseen danger. It is, then, a metaphor for our characters.  Goddard uses  high angle shots makes the characters look powerless.

Cabin in the woods cabin

There is a group shot on arrival at the cabin, which positions Dana as the protagonist. The cabin is as creepy as the audience expects. There is an emphasis on dark wood, stuffed animals, and gruesome pictures. The two way mirror also suggests past voyeurism and establishes the potential romance between Holden and Dana. He is likeable, as he does the right thing on seeing Dana undress through the mirror. The scene is then mirrored when Dana switches rooms with Holden – her watching of him undressing emphasises the idea female gaze and that she finds him attractive.

There is a transition into surveillance gallery which builds on the theme of voyeurism previously established. Hadley and Sitterson are revealed to be the ones watching. They appear to be in control of events at the cabin. But these are likeable characters;– the audience may find this intriguing. Aren’t we used to be positioned to dislike the antagonists in horror films?Further enigma is created – what is actually going on? The reference to Jules’ hair dye suggests how this unknown organisation have been creating and controlling them for a while. The Mordecai’s phone call to Hadley on speakerphone – subverts the conventional discourse of horror with comedy.

The lake swimming scene establishes the equilibrium for the characters. The diegetic computer screen showing each character gives the impression that they are in some sort of game or experiment   and we know they are unknowing participants. This is similar to the tribute tracking screens shown in The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012); a film that explores similar themes. Monitoring their heart rates suggests that their lives are at stake. The betting of the facility staff shows that the employees of this organisation do not value the lives of these people. This is similar to the people in the Capitol betting on the outcome of The Hunger Games.

Hadley & Sitterson talk about ‘the system’, which highlights the generic conventions of the horror film again. The characters have to transgress to be punished. They have free will. They must also be warned about their fate and ignore the warning. They refer to the ‘director’ and to the events as ‘the game’.

Night time. In the party scene there is evidence of the male gaze as the camera focuses on Jules’ rear. This helps to emphasise her sexuality, an idea that is built on further into the scene. The inclusion of the sexualisation of young women, particularly those who are transgressive is common in the horror genre.


The frivolities in the cabin are halted by the cellar door swinging open. Enevitably, predictably, conventionally, the kids go down, unable to resist the temptation. – The cellar is full of the iconography of horror, many items are reminiscent of the iconography from iconic horror films. Marty seems to be the only character who is looking at the situation with a sense of the danger they might be in. They each explore different parts of the bric-a-brac cellar, each becoming facinated with a particular prop. Dana is the one that chooses; she draws the group together by chilling reading extracts from the diary of a girl; Patience Buckner. Despite reading a warning out loud, and despite Marty’s protestations, she reads an incantation in latin aloud…

Cut to outside the cabin, in the woods. Low-key lighting is used as the Buckners raise out of the ground. There enterence (bursting up out of their graves is iconic. The music, the lighting and their clear supernatural nature creates an increased sense of threat. It also creates dramatic irony for the audience. We know that monsters are coming for the kids.

Back at the facility, the assembled workers celebrate and commiserate as the outcome for the betting pool is resolved. The shot of   white board – suggests the iconic monsters (along with some comedic inclusions – seriously, who’s Kevin?) that the props in the cellar related to. This emphasises the choice the kids have made. They have chosen how they will die. The white board, filled with these choices, is –a feature designed with DVD and blu-ray viewing, as these give you the open to pause and to read all the choices clearly. For your convenience, there’s a picture below.


 We also have more development on the earlier reference to Japan. We cut to footage where we see a ghost or demon girl in classroom and small school girls, it’s an intertextual reference to J-horror and Korean horror , particularly films like Whispering Corridors, The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, etc.

Back at the cabin, we watch as these Kurt and Jules turn into the horror archetypes of the Athlete and the Whore. Holden’s glasses and ability to read latin indicate he is intelligent and educated, he is transforming into the archetype of the Scholar.

Kurt and Jules go out in the woods for some ‘alone’ time. The audience knows that this will be dangerous and our tension levels begin to rise. The diegetic audience of male workers gathered around the big screen in the control room suggests the Mulvey’s idea of male gaze, particularly their reaction to Jules’ reluctance to take off her clothes. Whedon and Goddard use this moment to highlight that part of the pleasure of watching slasher films for a male audience is the objectification of women. Kurt and Jules are transgressing ; sex before marriage is against American, conservative, Christian values. Theorist Carol Clover said that the order that the characters die in slasher films reflects the extent to which they have transgressed against society’s rules. The characters are punished. Jules is killed, as is conventional. A woman dies first, as she is the most transgressive. This links back to ideas about Eve in the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. Kurt is wounded and escapes. Cut to black.

Hadley & Sitterson aren’t happy about the death; this ensures the audience maintain their positive relationship. Enigma is built on again – ‘whose slumber’ they talk about. Their words actions seem to suggest this is a sacrifice. What is this mechanical device that we are shown in insert shots? More enigma to be explained later on.

A jump scare is used in Marty’s trip outside; it’s an example of misdirection. We see a Buckner approach, and anticipate her arrival, but Kurt enters from the right of the frame. As we are distracted, this creates the surprise needed for a successful jump scare. Once they are all back in the cabin, and have split up (again, a decision made by Kurt which was influenced by the Hadley & Sitterson) the internal doors are locked.  The characters understand this is supernatural, and it is conventional that the haunted house –that seems to be controlled by unseen forces is conventional for the genre . We know it isn’t the case here, though; – Hadley & Sitterson are controlling it. Marty’s discovery of the camera allows the film makers to point out that the most obvious application of secret cameras to young audience is reality TV. Marty rests against the window, a bad move in any horror film. He is pulled outside by one of the Buckners, presumably to meet his maker.

Kurt, Dana and Holden end up in ‘The Black Room ‘. There is– little light in this dark scene. The conventional effect with low key lit scenes in horror films is that we interrogate the frame more; waiting for the threat to emerge from the darkness. Dana’s attack on Judah suggests her transition into what Clover described as ‘The Final Girl’; she was weak, but she is finding the strength and courage to fight back. The audience expects, that if anyone survives, it will be her .

Back in the facility, Hadley says something like ‘It used to be so easy, you’d throw a girl in a volcano” when talking about managing this process. Of course, this is an intertextual reference to King Kong (1933). This reference is a comment on how far the genre has come, and how complex in terms of the variety of experience it offers the audience.

Meanwhile, in Japan, they have defeated the threat – this raises the tension for Hadley & Sitterson. However, very quickly another narrative barrier is thrown in their path;– Hadley & Sitterson have to stop the kids escaping, which has been complicated as the tunnel has not caved in, as needed. The cutting between the guys in the facility and the kids in the camper van raises an interesting dilemma for the audience: Who are we rooting for? Arguably, if we are there to see a horror film, we will likely find ourselves siding with Hadley & Sitterson, as we still have three characters alive. In horror, that result is not enjoyable for the audience. We want the maximum amount of bloodshed.

Hadley & Sitterson succeed in blocking the exit, which mean that Dana, Kurt and Holden have to overcome this barrier in some other way. Kurt hatches an idea. The bike on the back of the camper is a narrative plant for Kurt’s attempt to escape’ he intents to jump the gap in the road using the bike. There is dramatic irony. We know what will happen, which makes his heartfelt, courageous speech almost comedic. The music builds it into a triumphant moment, which is then subverted by the crash. Holden dies minutes later, ambushed by one of the Buckners. Dana is left alone.

Hadley & Sitterson celebrate.  She is the final girl. Their dialogue – points to the convention of the character. She doesn’t have to die, but she must suffer. There is a stark juxtaposition between the images of Dana and Judah being displayed on the large screen and the party in the facility. However, their jubilation does not last long, another narrative barrier is highlighted for Hadley & Sittersn; – everything hasn’t gone as smoothly as they thought. This information is delivered via a red phone, following a mention of ‘upstairs’ – this gives the impression of the importance of the communication and hints at the identity of the caller. We discover that Marty is not dead. This is a twist for the audience, as this information has been withheld.


Dana is rescued by Marty. Together they escape Judah Buckner. Marty reveals where he has been; he got into one of the graves to hide, but instead uncovered an entrance to somewhere incongruous. The gleaming stainless steel of the elevator carriage is another interesting juxtaposition for the audience. However, this type of setting is one we’ve started to associate with Hadley & Sitterson. The moment when the narrative journeys of our two sets of characters will intersect is drawing near. We anticipate it.

Dana and Marty use the lift, not knowing where it will take them. In this sequence, the containment of many, many horrible monsters is revealed. This element of the films feels more like sci-fi than horror. Dana and Marty are revealed to be in a similar containment cell. As the cells shuffle around, Dana spends a moment gazing into the soulful eyes of the ‘deadite’ (an intertextual reference to the cenobites in the  Hellraiser franchise) who is holding his puzzle globe. She realises the choice that she made.

They arrive in the facility, and defeat the first guard using the help of a severed Buckner hand. This brings some comedic relief. Dana and Marty cautiously make their way out into the lobby.

A voice in the facility addresses Dana and Marty over a PA gives confirmation of the sacrifice and talks of placating the ‘ancient ones. The voice is recognisable; Signorney Weaver. Her status as an actress means that the audience will understand that she is likely the Director that has been mentioned previously. Taking refuge in the security booth, Dana releases all the monsters.


The final battle is nothing short of a blood bath. Dana’s choice to release the monsters instead of submitting to her fate is an act of rebellion against the system (again another connection with the actions of the protagonist in The Hunger Games). This sequence is a comment on the ridiculousness of contemporary ‘gore porn’ where the emphasis is on showing the audience a lot of gore and disturbing scenes of horrible things happening to characters we aren’t invested in, instead of creating tension and fear for what may happen to characters we do care about. Throughout the film, the audience considers the identity of the real antagonist in this scenario. Is it Hadley & Sitterson, The monsters? The director? The ancient ones? Hadley & Sitterson both die; Hadley poetically, comedically the victim of a merman attack. Sitterson’s death is more tragic. It comes at Dana’s hands. With his last breath, Sitterson implores Dana to kill Marty to complete the ritual and save the world.

Dana and Marty end up a ritual chamber, they see the images of the horror archetypes carved into the wall; the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool and the virgin. The director arrives to try to convince them to complete the ritual; she says that the Ancient Ones will rise if the rite is not completed. This will bring the end of the world. The room begins to rumble from below, suggesting the ‘Ancient Ones’ are already stirring. Dana contemplates killing Marty but decides against it. There is a physical confrontation between Marty and The Director. Marty is saved, though, as Patience Buckner (who has wondered back down through the facility) takes out The Director. Both Patience and The Director plummet over the edge of the platform and into the abyss. Dana and Marty survive, and presented in a two shot, connoting their unity at this point, share a joint as the world ends. They accept the need for there to be something different, something new. Their drug taking connotes their rebellion against the system; their refusal to be part of the ritual which will punish them for their youth. The film ends with a massive hand rising up out of the ground below the cabin and grabbing the camera. Cut to black. Roll credits.

Of course, this film leaves some unanswered questions for the audience to ponder on. Who are the Ancient Ones?  Perhaps they are The Devil and other creatures from theology that represent evil for the cultures that speak of them? One of the most popular ideas is that the film is a cinematic metaphor for horror films themselves. If this is the case, then who are the Ancient Ones really? Are they us? The cinema audience that likes to watch horror. If we accept that, then the film suggests that watching simulated human suffering has a purpose. What happens if we do not have an outlet to exorcise the darker side of the human psyche? The end of the film suggests that the genre needs a reinvention; perhaps things have become too predictable. Are Hadley & Sitterson basically substitutes for the writers Whedon and Goddard?  They are two middle aged men, who’s job it is to deliver to the director what the audience will enjoy, to figure out how to engineer the right characters and situations, and to include the important genre ingredients. Are the other workers just a metaphor for a film’s crew? Maybe. The film does seem to suggest that contemporary horror has become too extreme and has sacrificed tension and character development for graphic and disturbing suffering. Maybe Dana and Marty are right. Maybe it is time for a change.


Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)


What follows is a textual analysis of a classic of the silent era; Nosferatu. This analysis was written as an additional resource for A-Level Film Studies students. Nosferatu is widely accepted as the first filmed version of Dracula; Murnau’s film is an example of the German Expressionist movement. Filmed on location, it’s use of chiaroscuro and its oneiric, unsettling atmosphere mean that this film is recognised widely as being one of the most important films made during the silent era. This film doesn’t clearly follow Field’s ideas of narrative structure; it predates them. We can apply the three act structure roughly,  Murnau split Nosferatu into five sign-posted acts, similar to theatre.

Act I

The on location shooting of this film leads to an increased verisimilitude (level of believable reality) for the audience. The film starts with intra-diegetic intertitles; pages from a book. The identity of the author, the narrator, is withheld from the audience. The setting and location are established; Wisborg, 1883. Hutter (the protagonist) and his wife, Ellen, are introduced.

Hutter and Ellen happy

Ellen is introduced playing with a kitten, framed by flowers. The characterisation is of a young woman full of life, love and hope. Hutter is characterised similarly; his large, expressive gestures suggest a character with energy and enthusiasm. Hutter brings Ellen flowers; a symbol of his love. Her reaction (‘Why have you killed the beautiful flowers?’) allows key ideas and themes to be established for the audience. Firstly, the idea of death is foregrounded. She is shown to be emotionally sensitive, and we understand that their love, and life in general is fragile.

In the next scene, the estate agent, Knock, is introduced. His physical appearance and performance lead us to be suspicious of him. He is shown to be hunched over, and his appearance is unattractive. He is shown looking at documents that contain symbols that the audience would associate with witchcraft and black magic. He is clearly not to be trusted, and we anticipate he is involved with the threat that will later manifest. He is shown to be Hutter’s boss. The relationship of power is connoted through their relative positions in the scene. Knock is higher up than Hutter. Knock introduces the character of Count Orlock, of Transylvania, who wishes to buy property in Wisborg. This introduction starts the audience anticipating his appearance in the film. The line of dialogue ‘it might take a little blood’ is a knowing, tongue-in-cheek reference to vampires. Knock is the dispatcher (Propp) as it is him that sends Hutter off to Transylvania to help with the purchase.

Knock at work

In the next scene, Hutter is characterised as being unknowing and naïve, as he tells Ellen he is going to the country of ‘thieves and ghosts’. She, like us, is concerned for his safety. The film language in this film is much more varied than in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Weine, 1920), the camera is less static and there is a greater variety of camera angles. The opening and closing of scenes tends to be signalled the opening and the closing of the camera’s iris. Masking is also used to direct our attentions. For example, Ellen’s sadness at her husband’s departure is shown in a vignetted close-up.

The start of Hutter’s journey is shown in a wide shot, with the horse at the centre. Hutter is shown to be small in the frame, suggesting his vulnerability. He is alone, heightening the peril he is likely to encounter. The first shot that has a definable German Expressionist aesthetic is the shot of the mountains on Hutter’s journey. The black mountains contrast with the white clouds and the grey sky. The landscape provides jagged, asymmetrical lines in the frame.

Hutter arrives at an inn in the mountains. This is a generic location. It is the last outpost of civilisation in the remote location. The locals are shown to be connected to this landscape, and are contrasted to Hutter through their traditional and folky costumes. When Hutter mentions who he is visiting, the locals react in horror. Clearly they have knowledge about Orlock that Hutter doesn’t. The innkeeper warns him, and mentions werewolves. An insert shot of a hyena is shown; it represents the werewolf; a supernatural predator. It is juxtaposed with a shot of a group of horses, who seem spooked at its presence. In later shots, we understand that the horse represent humans, as a shot of the horses is paired with a group of scared-looking local women. These shots are used to convey the on-coming night.The audience understand that this is the time when the monsters come out.


We join Hutter in his room. He discovers a book which seems to a compendium of local and Christian superstition. The book helps establish the mythology of the monster for the audience as well as being a warning which Hutter will ignore. This is a convention of the genre. His rejection of the information it contains is shown when he emphatically throws it to the floor. The morning is connoted by the exterior shot which shows the horses returning. This further reinforces their symbolic connection to man, and also establishes that it is the night which brings fear. This links in with Tudor’s ideas about the paired oppositions in horror – day vs. night, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.

Hutter takes a coach for his onward journey to meet Orlock. We see more journey shots of the landscape that convey the remote location and length of the journey. This is further reinforced by Hutter’s line that conveys his worry about the approaching night. An element of a ticking clock plot is introduced. Enigma is created for the audience; what will happen if Hutter doesn’t reach his destination by nightfall? These series of journey shots also show how Murnau is able to find chiaroscuro and violent asymmetry in the natural landscape. After a while, the coach stops and the coach driver refuses to take Hutter any further. This is another generic convention which reflects the knowledge that the locals have over the hapless and unknowing outsider. This reinforces the idea of the threat for the audience.

Count Orlock’s castle is a generic setting for the horror genre; it is ancient, imposing and remote. Orlock’s carriage arrives to collect Hutter in fast-motion to create the impression that he is a supernatural being. It is an effective and creepy effect. Hutter boards the coach, and it moves off, again in fast motion. The audience worry for Hutter as he is no longer in control of his own journey. The use of the negative footage for part of the journey suggests that the world is in complete disequilibrium; the world is inverted by Orlock’s presence in the narrative.

Orlocks welcome

The coach drops Hutter off at the castle gates, which swing open by themselves (again, a generic feature of the haunted house). We are finally clearly introduced to the antagonist, as he emerges from the darkness. The use of chiaroscuro and the Expressionist aesthetic is evident in these shots as the arches and the dark create stark visual contrast. Orlock is hunched over, and his hand rest in a position reminiscent of bats’ folded wings. He is shown wearing all black, and wearing a hat which masks his bald head, which is revealed later on. Orlock beckons for Hutter to follow him into the darkness. Hutter does; the sense of impending doom for our protagonist is foregrounded.

Act II

death clock

Hutter eats, Orlock does not. There is an insert shot of a clock in the dining room, which is topped by a small model skeleton. This signifies death and suggests that Hutter’s life is in danger. There is a close-up which brings the audience’s attention to Orlock’s suspicious eyes. Whilst slicing bread, Hutter cuts himself. This is an iconic moment for vampire fiction. The antagonist’s reaction to his blood suggests his vampire nature. Through dialogue, Orlock indicates he sleeps in the daytime, again reinforcing the mythology for this monster.

The next scene shows Hutter waking in front of the fire-place. There is ellipsis, as we are not shown all of the events from the night before. However, Hutter examines his neck with a mirror, and there are two small wounds. The audience know the cause, Hutter seems oblivious. This is dramatic irony.

During the this and the following scenes, we can appreciate Murnau’s use of depth of field; he creates shots that allow for the German Expressionist aesthetic to be created through the use of the planes of vision; foreground, middle ground, background. Here, we find oblique lines and chiaroscuro in these wide and long shots. These shots also emphasise the scale of the location.

Hutter writes a letter to Ellen; a narrative device which pays homage to the source material. The narrative in the novel is conveyed through letters. This letter also allows the audience to understand that Hutter has misinterpreted the bites, and is a unknowing victim. We anticipate that he will inevitably uncover the truth.

Later, Orlock sees a photograph of Ellen, and his reaction foreshadows the danger she will be put in and also provides more dramatic motivation for Orlock to get to Wisborg. Hutter is shown to be reading through the book he previously rejected in his room. The lighting tells us its night-time. This prop is used as a way for Hutter to start to comprehend the threat. Hutter peers through the door, and we are shown Orlock, now without his hat, stood in front of the fireplace, seemingly aware that Hutter is looking at him. The drama of this moment is emphasised by a jump cut into to a closer angle, to show the audience the monster. The absence of the hat now makes him seem less human. His ears are elongated at the tips, and his countenance is more rodent-like. Hutter steps away from the door in horror, and cowers in his bed. The door swings open by itself, and Orlock slowly makes his way towards the door. The tension is built for the iconic moment when the vampire is framed by the doorway, which is reminiscent of a coffin.

doorway orlock

There is then a cut on parallel action back to Wisborg, and a sleeping Ellen. Similarly to Jane in  Caligari , the setting of her bedroom is to be understood by the audience as a sacred space, where she is made more vulnerable by the juxtaposition of the threat. She wakes from her sleep; enthralled. We understand that Orlock has made a psychic link to Ellen and now can control her behaviour. This is demonstrated as she gets out of bed, leaves the room on to the balcony and starts to sleepwalk, precariously across the balcony wall. This ability to control Ellen, allows a link to be made between Doctor Caligari and Orlock, both characters who are shown to manipulate others. This ties in with the key themes of the movement; manipulation and distrust of authority.

Ellen troubled

We cut back to Orlock and Hutter; the attack and subsequent feeding is made implicit, through the use of the approaching and threatening shadow. This links to Caligari too; the same technique was used to relate Alan’s murder. The shadow in both cases, is used to increase the sense of the insidious threat for the audience.

In the morning, now fully realising his danger, Hutter explores the castle. In one of the lower rooms, he uncovers the sleeping Orlock in a coffin. We are shown Orlock’s sleeping face in a close-up that peers through the broken lid. The jagged shards of wood again give us another Expressionist visual.

In coffin

Hutter flees, and later witnesses Orlock loading coffins on to a cart. The superhuman and supernatural abilities of the antagonist are reinforced through the use of fast motion and then stop motion animation to convey Orlock’s ability to move inanimate objects with his mind. The carriage leaves. Hutter realises his plan. The narrative goal of the protagonist now changes. He must return to Wisborg to save Ellen. This begins the section of the film which utilises a ticking clock plot. It will be a race against time for Hutter to beat Orlock to his wife. There are barriers for Hutter; principally that he needs to escape from the castle. However, he injures himself in the process and this creates another barrier. Enigma is raised for the audience. Will he make it? Orlock sails down a river.


Hutter is revealed to be in a hospital, his injuries were not severe. However, he has been weakened by loss of blood. It is unclear how long he has been there, but as soon as he regains his senses; he stresses his need to get home.

We see the boxes of dirt on a dockside. Sailors open them and rats pour out. The rats are significant, because they are not only part of the conventional iconography of the horror genre; they also connote disease. One of the key themes of the moment is fear of invasion and fear of disease. The rats represent the threat of both. Additionally, they also give us more narrative mythology for the vampire; the ability to shape shift. This idea was later used by the films in the Universal horror cycle when Dracula is shown to shape-shift into a bat.

The next scene seems a bit adrift in the rest of the narrative. A new character, Professor Bulwer is shown demonstrating to students predators in different spheres of the natural world. His character is the substitution for the Van Helsing character from the original novel, but in this version his role is less important to the narrative.


The key idea portrayed in this scene is that of the ways in which predators, which seem to possess almost supernatural abilities capture their prey. The meaning for the audience is, then, that the vampire is more part of the natural world that we would conventionally think. We are shown images of venus fly traps, spiders and polyps. These images also reflect a time when scientific discovery was helping us understand the natural world, and that scientific advancements such as the development of microscopes, were helping reveal the previously unseen natural world. Of course, the image of the spider in its web also becomes part of the iconography of the horror film.

Knock is revealed to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown and is now institutionalised. Again, one of the key themes of the movement is that of madness. We see him in the cell (a set which is much more realist that the one in Caligari) acting in a way that suggests his mental breakdown and also associates him with Orlock. We understand that Orlock is the cause of Knock’s mental state. Interestingly, the physical representation of both Knock and Orlock are similar, again reinforcing the connection between both characters.

Ellen on the beach

We cut to Ellen, sat on a bench at the beach, looking out to sea. She is dressed in black, which reflects her sadness at her husband’s absence and the disequilibrium that Orlock’s psychic connection with her has brought. The act of looking out across the sea has a polysemic reading for the audience. Narratively, we can explain it by reasoning that it reflects her anticipation and longing for Hutter’s return, or perhaps a subconscious waiting for Orlock’s arrival. Symbolically, though water can represent loss, journey, transition, death, the unconscious mind and sexuality. All of these associations can be useful in here when thinking about the narrative, it’s themes and the relationships between Ellen, Hutter and Orlock. In the foreground, we see crosses in the ground. The audience understand these are signifiers of death, and that they are also part of the iconography of horror. Christian symbols are an intrinsic part of the iconography of Western horror as, according to Tudor, horror reflects the conflict of paired oppositions. We can almost universally distil these oppositions down to a battle between good and evil. In Christian cultures, the most potent icons of good and evil are God and The Devil. Including Christian iconography in Western horror films reflects this most potent of spiritual conflicts.

Later, we see Harding’s sister deliver Hutter’s letter to Ellen. These women are constructed to contrast with one another. Harding’s sister is an undeveloped character (she isn’t even named) but she is always shown wearing lighter colours suggesting her innocence and how unburdened she is by the negative emotions that Ellen experiences through the narrative.


We then cut to a shot of the ship, now at sea. This is an impressive shot that reflects both explicitly and implicitly the budget of the film. This large vessel would have needed to be hired for the film, along with the skilled hands to crew it. The camera seems to glide across the waves towards the ship. This suggests that Murnau actually hired two ships and two crews to achieve these shots. The effect is that the journey that Orlock undertakes is epic. We cut between Orlock’s progress across the

sea and Hutter’s progress across the land. Hutter is on horseback, and his journey is shown to be difficult, as he has obstacles to negotiate, e.g. rocks and rivers. In juxtaposition, Orlock’s journey is easy and swift. This raises the tension for the audience. We anticipate the horror that his arrival in Wisborg will bring.

On the ship, Orlock preys on the crew, who like others in this narrative misinterpret the threat to be something natural and that can be explained scientifically. In one scene, a crew member who has become sick and is hallucinating because of blood loss, sees Orlock, ghost-like in the hold. This ghostly effect is created through the use of a doubly exposed shot.

We get further evidence of the impact that Orlock’s arrival will have through the use of intra-diegetic intertitles, a newspaper article, which relate the outbreak of a plague like illness in the port towns where we understand the ship will have likely docked for supplies. This creates dramatic irony for the audience, as we know the cause of the deaths.

As Orlock devastates the crew, the last two crew members try to uncover the threat. One starts to empty out all of the boxes, and prompts Orlock to rise from his sleep. This iconic moment has been much copied, and again is a physical effect achieved through the use of a rig constructed in the coffin to raise the actor up in a way that again suggests his unnatural abilities. Orlock is shown on the deck in a shot taken from below deck to emphasise his power. Orlock then kills off the two remaining crew, and the intertitles relate that the boat is now ‘the ship of the dead’. We see the ship, silhouetted against the sun as a visual metaphor for its dark passenger.

Orlock on deck

The audience is told through the mythological exposition (the book) that vampires cannot go out during the day. However, we are shown repeated shots of Orlock in daylight. There is a production reason for this. At the time, the film stock needed a lot of light to expose the film. This meant that shooting at night on location was impossible. Getting additional lighting sources into the external world at night was just impractical. This means that the audience are asked by the film to willing suspend their disbelief and accept that all scenes that involve Orlock moving around in the outside world are actually set at night.

Act IV

Ellen is shown again in her bedroom, in her nightgown, emphasising her purity and her femininity. Unlike most of the rest of the film, this scene was filmed in a studio. This is why the night sky outside her window is so utterly black. The studio shooting allows for a greater contrast between light and dark that this scene requires. Ellen sleepwalks again; the wind gusting through the open windows that moves the curtains suggests the supernatural disturbance to the audience. She is shown to be in a trance. We cut between Ellen, Knock (whose madness is more evident as he attacks the orderly) and the ship arriving in the port at Wisborg. This is done to increase the tension. The audience’s anticipation is rising for Orlock’s arrival. Stop motion animation is used again to suggest Orlock’s control over the physical world as he emerges onto the deck of the ship.

We cut to Hutter’s arrival in Wisborg. This cutting on parallel action suggests that the two events happen simultaneously. The audience again is asked to willingly suspend their disbelief. The arrival of both is timed to increase the tension. Hutter makes it back to Ellen, and they are reunited, although Ellen seems weaker, more distant. We now question whether Hutter will be able to protect her at all. Enigma is created.

Orlock makes his way to his newly acquired property; an abandoned factory. This setting is also iconographic of the genre. He enters it by vanishing before the door. Again, this effect would have been created through the use of double exposures.

The town officials board the abandoned ship and discover the remaining corpse of the captain. From the use of intra-diegetic intertitles of the ship’s log, further narrative information is conveyed about the sequence of events on the ship. This device also draws inspiration from the original novels, where part of the story is told through the captain’s diary entries. On further investigation, the officials misinterpret the deaths as a plague, and issue warnings to the townspeople. This warning is delivered by a messenger on

the main street. Shots of people (mostly children and the elderly) appear at their windows to hear the message. The emphasis on the children and old people reinforces the threat by highlighting their vulnerability.

Act V

A doctor is shown leaving a house. He marks a cross in chalk on the front door. This use of Christian iconography connotes the death that has occurred within. He then proceeds down a line of terraced houses to check on the occupants, or to mark doors with more chalk crosses. The meaning for the audience is implicit; the vampire is preying on the people of Wisborg. A Dutch angle is used to imply the disequilibrium as the camera pans to follow the movement of the doctor.

In the next scene, we are told that Hutter is psychologically scarred by the events in Transylvania and warns Ellen that she should not look at the book that speaks of the vampire threat. Ellen cannot resist, though. This is a conventional negative female representation suggesting that her will is weaker than her husband’s (obviously we can make links between Ellen here and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Bible, the forbidden fruit actually represents knowledge, as the book does here). However, in looking at the book, Ellen discovers an important piece of information; a narrative plant for the audience; the vampire can be defeated if he drinks from a maiden who gives herself willingly to him. If he hasn’t stopped feeding by the first crow of the cock, then he will be destroyed.

Ellen with book

Ellen and Hutter’s bedroom is actually a studio set; this was necessary so that the silhouette of the property owned by Orlock is seen clearly from the window.

The night-time arrives. Similarly to Caligari, this is signaled through the use of a shot which shows the gas street lamps being lit. This was also a studio set, although one with more authenticity than that shown in Caligari. We cut to Harding’s sister, who clearly has become a victim. She is dressed in white to connote her innocence, and again, the use of the wind moving the curtains suggests the supernatural threat is near.

The next day, Ellen watches the procession of coffins down the main street from her window; the procession moves towards her, foreshadowing her fate. The performance of the actress suggests Ellen’s psychological torment.

death procession

We discover that Knock has escaped from his imprisonment. A conversation between some of the townsfolk reveals that they hold him responsible for the deaths. A mob forms and they chase him through the town and out into the surrounding countryside. This chase sequence is shown in a greater variety of shots that the equivalent scene in Caligari. We have low angle shots of Knock and high angle shots of the mob. This is somewhat unexpected, but can be understood by comprehending that Knock is serving his master by diverting suspicion and leading the mob away from the most vulnerable in the town. The comparisons with the chases sequence of Cesare in Caligari are more than just formal. In both cases, the mob chases a person who is being scapegoated as the cause of the disequilibrium. Perhaps this is a comment on the stupidity of the mob.

2 the chase

We are shown a wide shot of the sunset to clearly signpost the transition from day to night; thus increasing the tension for the audience. Ellen is shown to be asleep in bed. This shot is juxtaposed with Orlock framed in his window. He stares towards the camera, which given the spatial continuity that has been established in previous scenes, we imagine that he is looking towards Ellen. The editing cuts between the two, further reinforcing this relationship. She wakes. The performances of both actors together with the editing illustrate the idea that he is the manipulator and she is the manipulated. She opens the window, symbolically letting him have access to her. Hutter is shown to be asleep in a chair. He is oblivious and unable to protector. Ellen wakes him. She instructs him to fetch Bulwer. He leaves her alone. The audience may interpret this as a wilful act to remove Hutter from the scene, but enigma is created as to why. Is she completely under Orlock’s spell, or is something else going on?

2 the shadow

Orlock’s shadow is shown ascending the stairs towards Ellen. This iconic moment is powerful because it suggests the utter darkness that this character possesses, and in empowering his shadow, the character becomes more threatening. Inside the chamber, Ellen clutches at her heart. This is an expressionist gesture that has a dual effect; firstly it connotes the impact that Orlock’s presence has on her soul. Secondly, it draws attention to her sexuality and her femininity. This concept is important as vampires are often connected with ideas about feminine sexuality and the gender split is conventionally male vampire and female victim.

We cut back outside the room. Orlock is now at the door. His shadowy arm, distorted and elongated by the light reaches towards the door. This cutting between the two characters heightens the tension for the audience. We are anticipating their first encounter.

We see Ellen again. She reacts to something in the off-screen space. His presence is implied. Slowly, the shadow creepy across her body. The silhouette is in the form of Orlock, with emphasis on the attacking, claw-like hands. She recoils. The shadow of his hand crosses her chest and stops over her heart. The hand closes, as if connoting his possession of her soul. Ellen reacts as if she has been physically hurt.

2 the shadow heart

We cut away from these two to Hutter and Bulwer. As usual, this cut on parallel action is an attempt to heighten the tension. We cut back to Orlock engaged in feeding on Ellen. This is a wide shot, and from this angle, Orlock is low in the frame; he is small. We don’t notice him immediately. We cut away again, this time to Harding; more tension is created. We learn that Knock has been recaptured. This information foreshadows Orlock’s imminent defeat.

2 the attack

We cut back to Orlock, still feeding. The next shot is of a rooster, large in the frame. This contrasts with the size of Orlock in his shot, suggesting the impact that the rooster will have on him. The rooster crows. The light behind the bird suggests the dawn. Then there is a cut into a medium close up of Orlock as he raises his head in response to the sound. The shot length allows us to properly see his rodent-like extended front teeth. We see the rooster again crowing, emphasising its significance. Cut to Knock in his cell; his reaction expresses the psychic connection between him and his master. Knock knows something is wrong. We cut back to the bedroom. Slowly, Orlock rises and passes in front of the open window. The studio setting allows control of the levels of light in the background, again used to suggest the morning light. Orlock reacts, again with the hand-clutching-at-heart gesture. He vanishes into a puff of smoke; another early special effect. The antagonist has been defeated, but not by the protagonist, but by Ellen. We could see Ellen, then, as being an early incarnation of what Carol Clover later described as ‘The Final Girl’; a weak, but virtuous young woman who gains strength to defeat the antagonist in the horror narrative, or, at least, is the last to die.

Ellen’s call out to Hutter suggests that her love for him has been fully restored. Hutter arrives in time to embrace her before she dies. This has been an act of self-sacrifice on her part. The antagonist has been defeated but there is no happy ending.

Bulwer, through the doorway, with the camera, witnesses the grief of Hutter at the loss of his wife. Bulwer looks towards the camera – this a extra-diegetic address to camera. He breaks the fourth wall. We cut to the final intra-diegetic intertitles, similar to those shown at the start. The audience may suspect that Bulwer has been our unknown narrator.

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