Let’s get one thing out of the way: if you like horror and haven’t seen Cube, you should watch Cube.
Now to the point: if you like horror and haven’t seen Cube, you’ve nonetheless witnessed the long tail of its influence throughout 21st century horror. Like the Saw and Final Destination franchises? Prefer meta-narratives like The Cabin in the Woods? Or do you take to puzzle horror like Escape Room, indie fare like The Belko Experiment, or more recent, prestigious genre flicks like A Quiet Place? Check, check, check, check, and check. As in: you can send your thank you checks to Canada, where a micro-budget, indie horror-that-could blew up the world of horror to influence two decades of the movies we know and love.
To set the scene: take a first-time director, a largely unknown cast, and an all-important math consultant and put them in Toronto during the late 90s to shoot a horror film about...a cube full of cubes. Or more precisely, a group of strangers stuck in a series of trap-laden cubes, doors on each side (including the floor and ceiling), in a seemingly endless inception-esque mega-cube. The budget? Roughly $350,000. Nothing about this Canadian debut suggested the ripple effects that it would have on films ranging from billion dollar franchises to critically-adored genre redefinitions.
But let’s back up a bit.
For two decades following John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween, slashers ruled the horror landscape. Friday The 13th (and its sequels), A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its sequels), Scream (and its sequels), Child’s Play (you get the gist here). Even as the box office successes of the 80s made way to direct-to-video exigencies of the 90s, franchises like Urban Legends and I Know What You Did Last Summer continued to churn out new entries.
The model is simple. A group of individuals, often friends, are killed off one-by-one, usually by a villain with some sort of blade. The most iconic character is the villain: Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger, Jason Voorhees, Ghostface. The villains get sequels; the villains get Halloween costumes. Far from completely diverging, Cube took the basic concept and replaced the most important piece. It has the crew: the cop, the ex-con, the engineer, the student, the social worker, the mentally disabled man (a horribly cliche character somehow made worse by his use as plot device, Kazan is and forever will be the worst part of Cube). It kills them off one-by-one. But who is it? Who is doing this? Or, to paraphrase both a fast-food chain and a former Presidential candidate: where’s the beef villain?
That’s the magic of Cube, and the first pillar of its influence: the slasher film without the villain. More specifically, Cube popularized the use of the mysterious, powerful, kafkaesque “well somebody must be doing this.” Final Destination took the idea to its logical conclusion, continuing the other slasher tropes while replacing the villain with nothing but a dose of fate. More recently, movies like The Belko Experiment and Escape Room have added clarity to Cube’s allusions toward corporate villainy, trapping their characters in sadistic situations very clearly dreamed up and orchestrated for a very simple reason – money. Or, if you want to think of it that way: capitalism.
That ambiguity can also likely be credited for much of Cube’s inspirational effect. At various times throughout the film’s breathless 90 minutes, the characters make countless assumptions about who is behind this geometrically sound torture chamber. Quentin thinks it’s a single, sadistic billionaire. Holloway thinks it’s a conspiracy fueled by the military industrial complex. Worth, the only one with a bit of inside knowledge, is positive that the titular cube is the result of a headless bureaucratic behemoth. Cube never fully validates any proposal (though it comes closest with Worth’s), but it tosses up these ideas for future filmmakers, disclaiming any ownership and giving devotees the space to run with each one.
Even a slasher like Cabin in the Woods can trace its origins back to Cube. Rather than replace the traditional slasher villain, Cabin augments it, finding its brilliance in the simultaneous co-existence of both: the famous masked villains we know and fear are merely a tool of the greater conspiracy. And, as those in the cube blithely observe in the midst of the chaos, there’s always someone watching.
The magic of villain removal lies not in how you replace him or her, but in the psychological impact it has on the group. We all know the story: give a group a common villain and they’ll bond. But force them to ask themselves existential questions, and the group starts to turn on each other. Prodded by an escape artist just before he dies, factions arise early in Cube. There are those who want to answer the big questions, and there are those who want to deal with the horrors right in front of them. Eventually, their biggest concerns will be each other.
In this, movies like Circle and The Belko Experiment are Cube’s true spiritual successors. Both force large groups to kill each other off one-by-one, and both mask the higher power that’s thrusting such an ugly ultimatum on them. Inevitably, some members abide while others question the authority, and the sects shift over time as desperation creeps in. The scenarios barely resemble Cube, but the psychological disintegration mirrors the Canadian indie perfectly. Even my beloved Saw franchise owes much of this aspect to Cube: make people do fucked up things, sometimes to each other, and you see what’s at the core of humanity. It’s simple and demented.
Of course, the mythology of Saw draws gore-spiration from another bit of Cube. And thus we have its second pillar of influence: the puzzle box horror. As Rough Cut co-founder Carson Cook has lamented on numerous occasions, the rise of the “A24 horror” - the moody, atmospheric, chill-you-to-the-bone cinema - has left many of us gasping for a breath of fun in a genre that’s historically known for it. And not just horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland - we want to have a blast while being terrified out of our minds. By perfecting the puzzle box horror, Cube invites audiences into the movie to help solve the increasingly complicated problems that face its characters. What do the numbers mean? Which room is safe and which is deadly? What will the next trap look like? What the hell is going on with this cube? And it does it without sacrificing the fear.
The creators of Saw, horror masterminds James Wan and Leigh Whannel, clearly learned from Cube. One need look no further than the series’ most prominent catchphrase: “do you want to play a game?” Saw is fucked up, but Saw is fun. And as the series gets bigger and more ridiculous, the traps follow suit. For better and for worse, it abandons the gripping simplicity that made its first entry more psychological thriller than horror, opting instead to turn the ‘gore’ and ‘complexity’ dials to 11 and see what happens. It’s scary, it’s avert-your-eyes-bloody, and it’s a rip-roaring ride of masochism-cum-logic-games.
The puzzles have gotten more fun with time, but the films have gotten worse. For example(s): Truth or Dare, Would You Rather, and Escape Room all took the wrong lesson from both Cube and Saw - that increasingly depraved and absurd scenarios designed to occupy the most recessed, twisted sections of the human mind are enough to make a good movie. Happy Death Day, on the other hand, almost perfectly melded the old and the new, combining the structure of a traditional slasher with the audience-engaging Matryoshka doll of mysteries that defined Cube. As with all art that makes a splash, we must take the good ripples with the bad.
There are scores of minor quirks and crannies of Cube that subsequent films have mirrored. The aforementioned Saw, along with the seldom-seen 2015 film Circle, follow in Cube’s lead by kicking off with strangers waking up to completely new surroundings, inviting the audiences to figure out the mystery in real-time with those they are watching. Nine Dead (Melissa Joan Hart in a horror movie!) picks up Cube’s “what if we’re all connected” thread and pulls it as far as it can go, and then a bit further. And it’s hard not to think that A Quiet Place screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck didn’t draw ideas from the “sound is deadly” cube, one of the most harrowing sequences of the original Cube. Even the way the cubes grind and glide is reminiscent of the recent Netflix thriller The Platform.
Cube could not have intended this fallout. As with so many good horrors, it started only as a very simple premise: a series of trap-filled cubes. Much of the rest came as the result of a limited budget and a few creative minds. But as a storied genre sees itself in the midst of yet another trope-transforming metamorphosis, we would do well to take a look back not at the big names and bigger footprints, but at the smaller films that had an outsized impact. We would do well to revisit Cube.