A group of folks, most likely teenagers or college students--most most likely adults in their late twenties posing as teenagers or college students--decide to get together for a party and/or weekend vacation at a remote cabin/mansion/decrepit building of whatever description. After a usually excrutiating period in which the loutishness and general fucked-upness of their personalities is established, these young funseekers stumble upon an old book/pile of papers/recording/something which can lead to the reading of an ancient incantation. As a lark these kids read the incantation aloud, only to discover the horrible folly of such an action. One by one they die, until only one or two of them are left and the terror has finally stopped. For the moment....
This, my friends, is Spam in a Cabin.
The origin of the term is, quite suitably, attributed to Sam Raimi, who made two of the most memorable examples of the genre withThe Evil Dead and its sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. The spam referring to the characters who serve as the meat required to be pushed through the movie's grinder and the cabin being the single, preferably inexpensive, location where said grinding can occur.
While the above description details what is considered to be the truest form of the genre, one has to be open about these things and accept that variations in the formula must be allowed, lest the critic appear to be too inflexible in his/her evaluations. Thus sometimes demons can be zombies, monsters or aliens, cabins can be spaceships or shopping malls and teenagers/college students can be an assorted crew of mismatched strangers. That said, here are some signs to look for to be sure that what you are watching is the real deal:
1) 90% of the action takes place in one single location
2) Most of the characters are assholes who deserve to die
3) The victims bear at least some small measure of responsibility for their own deaths
4) The punishment is far, far, far worse than the crime
5) The evil may be temporarily vanquished, but it will inevitably rise again (probably in the sequel)
6) Linnea Quigley is in it
7) Ditto Bruce Campbell
8) No matter the location, there will be senseless nudity, most likely in a scene where a dude imagines a demon is a hot naked centerfold
9) The movie's tone is unusually nihilistic
Of these nine signs, the first is the most important and crucial. The other eight aren't absolutely necessary, but if you spot more than two of them along with the first, chances are you're enjoying a canned processed meat product.
Here then are some memorable examples of what I'm talkin' 'bout
While many zombie movies tend to hue to the Spam in the Cabin formula, these three are easily the most important. Night of the Living Dead could even be considered one of the true originators of the genre, while its sequel upped the thematic ante by adding a layer of deliberate satire to the genre, which the 2004 remake managed to run with and turn it into an entertaining movie at the same time (for all of its vaunted reputation, I've never been able to sit all the way through the original, which I considered to be the most overrated film in the fanboy canon). They all also serve as a good examples of the genre's inherent nihilism, thanks to endings that border on the unhappy side of brutal (NotLD's especially being one that is impossible to forget).
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: (All 3 films) 1, 2, 4, 5 and 9
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: NotLD -- Little girl takes a garden tool to her mommy; DotD (Orig) -- *Shrug*; DotD (RM) -- The sad fate of a loving family man.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: (All 3 Films) N/A
Spam on a spaceship is still spam in an inescapable location, so Ridley Scott's 1979 classic definitely counts as one of the classiest examples of the genre. Of the various sequels, I would argue that Aliens isn't spam, but that Alien3 and Alien Resurrection belong straight in the can.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: "Excuse me Mr. Hurt, but we're ready for you now."
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: Has there ever been a moment more inexplicably unneccessary than the one where Ripley strips down to her undies while attempting to escape from the self-destructing spaceship?
Now it don't get anymore Spam in a Cabin-ier than this folks! Not only were these two films directed and c0-written by the dude who coined the term, but they are also easily the most perfect representations of the sub-genre. But what makes them interesting is how different they are in tone, despite essentially being the same film in terms of talent and plot (it's not for nothing that people still debate whether or not the second film is a direct sequel or a remake of the original--Raimi insist's it's a sequel, but this view would suggest that Ash, the protagonist of the series, is the stupidest human being who ever lived, which, admittedly, could be exactly what the filmmaker's intended). While the first film has always struck me as one of the darkest and most nihilistic horror films ever made (one in which the script makes it explicitly clear that the punishment for the kids' unwitting release of demon spirits into the real world is not simply death, but eternal damnation as well), while the second film is essentially a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon, albeit one with a lot more chainsaw action than Bugs or Elmer ever enjoyed. The second film is just as bleak as the first, but its deliberate humour succeeds in making us forget this, while there is nothing in the original that allows us to avoid facing the horrible existential nightmare it presents us with.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: The Evil Dead -- 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9; Evil Dead II -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: ED -- Pencil in the ankle; ED II -- Celler door blood fountain
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: The ED films are pretty light on the senseless nudity (which is their only real fault), but they both make up for it with wonderfully tasteless sequences in which screaming young women are violated by the forest outside the cabin.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Combining the best most obviously exploitable elements of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Short Circuit (1986), Jim Wynorski's Chopping Mall tells the not-so-riverting tale of a group of idiots who find themselves trapped inside of a mall and hunted by a group of malfunctioning security robots. Everyone sing along with me: Lovely spam! Wonderful spam! Lovely spam! Wonderful spam! Spam, spam, spam, spam!
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 2, 3, 4, 8
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding:
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: Didn't I mention that this is a Jim Wynorski movie? In other words, there are far too many to count.
My third favourite film in the franchise (following New Nightmare and the original) is also the only one that fits into the Spam sub-genre, thanks to its central Crazy Hospital location. A year later 24 year-old film school grad Andrew Fleming found himself making an extremely similar film when his script got fast-tracked into production for reasons even he couldn't comprehend. The result is largely considered to be a failure, but it definitely has its own moments. Luckily for Fleming, he was allowed to try again a few years later and made the much more personal and interesting Threesome (1994), which he then followed up with the hit teen witch flick The Craft (1996) and one of the most interesting WWTTF of the 90s, Dick (1999).
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: ANoES 3 -- 1, 4, 5, 8; Bad Dreams -- 1, 2, 3, 4
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: ANoES 3 -- "Welcome to Prime Time, bitch!"; Bad Dreams -- Though it happens tastefully offscreen (BOOOOOO!!!!! HISSSSSS!!!!!!!!), I'd have to say when the horny middle-aged couple gets taken out by the industrial fan, with the result that our lovely young heroine recieves an unwanted shower of blood.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: ANoES 3 -- Freddy Kreuger pretending to be a hot blond nurse who seduces a mute young horndog? Sure sounds like senseless spam nudity to me!; Bad Dreams -- Nada, which probably explains why no one seems to like it.
If Bruce Campbell is the king of the Spam genre, than Linnea Quigley is surely its queen, thanks entirely to the two films named above (along with Nightmare Sisters (1987), which I would have included were it not for the fact that I haven't seen it). Night of the Demons is most memorable for featuring the most actively hateful collection of assholes, bitches and cry babies the genre has ever seen, while Sorority Babes amuses mostly because it has no illusions regarding its own quality and takes active pleasure in being dreck. Plus it helps that its bad guy is nothing more than a malevolent hand puppet, while NotD relies entirely on generic possessed teenagers.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: NotD -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9; SBitSB -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: NotD -- Dude learns never to french a demon; SBitSB -- Same dude's head proves to be a poor excuse for a bowling ball.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: NotD -- Demon Linnea decides it would be fun to insert a tube of lipstick into her breast (an effect made possible due to the fact that her fake fake breasts look just as genuine as her real fake breasts); SBitSB -- If Michelle Bauer (pictured to the right) is in a movie, senseless nudity is pretty much a given, which is why it doesn't come as any surprise that she spends more of this movie naked than she does with any clothes on.
Evil Toons (1992)
Don't make me repeat myself.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: Killed Bill hangs himself.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: Take your pick:
The first and best of the ultimately failed attempts to turn The Crypt Keeper into a movie star, Demon Knight is a seriously underrated horror comedy that is buoyed by a great script, great cast (especially Billy Zane, whose innate hamminess is for once appropriate) and great direction by Ernest Dickerson [who also made the equally underrated Bones (2001)]. At last we have a Spam movie smart enough to include a postal worker as it ones of its characters, thus allowing for a reasonable explanation for a hidden cache of convenient demon fighting weaponry.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 3, 4, 5, 8
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: Billy punches a hole through the sherrif's head.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: Uncle Willy's last hurrah (pictured).
When I got to part in my continuing Cuttin' Down the Pine posts where it became appropriate to say bad things about my first editor, I admit I did feel some apprehension. How could I justify writing something so obviously nasty about someone I hadn't seen or talked to in years? To help me answer this question I googled his (real) name and found a review he wrote for John Gulager's Project Greenlight movie Feast, which he deigned to give only half of a star, writing:
How can 15 minutes of fame last more than 90? This splatter flick won the third installment of Matt Damon & Ben Affleck’s Project Greenlight. With any luck, its brief theatrical run will signal the demise of the concept. A dozen patrons, mostly strangers, barricade themselves in a Southwestern dive bar to prevent half-alien, half-Satanic goat-like creatures from bursting in and feasting on them. Showing their deep understanding of “the genre,” the screenwriters introduce the players with freeze-frame caricatures that provide a catchy handle (Heroine, Bartender), an occupation (“Poor Man’s Tony Robbins”), and a life expectancy (Regular or Extra Crispy?). Such self-reflexivity is only occasionally funny. Mediocre performances, long lags between eviscerations, and misleading clues worsen the pain. All in all, a career-scuttling debut for director John Gulager, who we’re told “has been immersed in the filmic arts since birth.1
Needless to say I had no problem ripping him a new asshole after I read this, if only for his typically prickish use of quotation marks around the words "the genre", which I can totally hear him say in a way that makes me want to punch him. For my money, Feast is easily one of the most entertaining and playful horror movies in the past decade, one that both honors the cliches of "the genre" (seriously wtf is that supposed to even mean? That the horror genre is a figment of our imagination?) while completely turning them on their head. The performances are excellent, especially Krista Allen as the single mother survivor who loses the most and goes all Ripley at the end. Watching the movie I wondered why it failed to make an impact when it was released and my guess is that most of its pleasures are too coded for normal audiences (or "pretentious idiots") to appreciate--the majority of its thrills being most evident only to people who have these films flowing in their blood.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 5, 9
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: The untimely death of little Cody.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: N/A, although the film does contain the only scene in a mainstream film to feature a tied-up, one-legged biker chick spitting out baby monster semen after being mouth-raped by the nasty little critter.
I wonder how many Google hits that last sentence is going to get me.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
I'm getting tired, so I'll let you come up with your own joke involving spam, Samuel L. Jackson and the word motherfucker.
Obvious Signs of Spam in a Cabin-dom: 1, 2, 8
Most Memorable Moment of Spam-Grinding: Good riddance to small yappy dogs.
Most Senseless Spam Nudity: The nipple snakebite scene is the very definition of senseless spam nudity.
So that'll probably it for the Sunday (okay, Monday morning) DVD indexes for awhile. A few may pop up between now and October, but I'm sure they will comes as much as a shock to me as they will to you.
1 From the online version of The Phoenix, a Boston-based alternative weekly. I would have included the link, but doing so would give away the true identity of "Kip Wrangler". Google it, if you must.