13 Meta Horror Movies

Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 1:06 pm

To qualify for this list of the 13 best meta horror movies, a film has to somehow acknowledge that it’s more than a simple work of fiction. The methods used to achieve this vary, but some of the most common include repeated references to other works within the genre or the blatant examination of horror tropes. In some cases, these scary movies may even show the presence of video cameras or feature performers playing exaggerated versions of themselves.

Also known as metafilm or metafiction, this device has been used to great effect for centuries by such illustrious literary names as Cervantes and Homer (look ’em up, kids). But while numerous forms of art have engaged in self-awareness, the horror genre has carved a bloody path into uncharted–and frequently grotesque–territory. If Miguel de Cervantes, for example, were alive today, the chivalrous Don Quixote would likely face his windmills with a chainsaw instead of a lance…and he’d probably be played by Bruce Campbell.

The next time you’re in the mood for a scary flick that calls attention to its basic nature, check out one of these 13 best meta horror movies. (With that transitional line complete, the author pushed back from his keyboard, took a sip of Coke, and immediately began to fret about filling 13 entries with astute observations and pithy witticisms. It was going to be a long day.)

13 Self-Aware Horror Films

Drew Barrymore prepares to meet her maker in "Scream," one of the greatest meta horror movies ever made.

Scream (1996) – When it comes to horror metafiction, Wes Craven’s box-office hit is the undisputed king. Thanks to a Kevin Williamson script peppered with references to other scary movies and unwritten rules (Never say “I’ll be right back”), the ailing horror genre came roaring back to life. Scream also benefits from a cast that’s both attractive and far more proficient at acting than the usual hack-and-slash performers.

From the attention-grabbing opening scene with Drew Barrymore and a trivia-obsessed madman, Scream plays with audience expectations while still delivering plenty of the arterial red that horror fans crave. The lovely Ms. Barrymore may not be around long, but she’s quickly replaced by such future stars as Neve Campbell (the virginal heroine), Courteney Cox (the bitchy reporter), Rose McGowan (the slutty best friend), David Arquette (the goofball cop), Jamie Kennedy (the film geek), and Skeet Ulrich (the suspicious boyfriend).

Everyone’s a suspect, everyone bleeds, and director Craven manages to keep the tension high throughout the final act. Put all these factors together (not to mention a cameo from The Fonz) and you’ve got yourself a horror franchise that’s spawned three sequels and grossed over $600 million. A must-see film that can be enjoyed by both hardcore horror fanboys and more casual viewers.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) – Two years before striking gold with Scream, Wes Craven tested the dark waters of horror metafiction with this inventive effort that went largely unnoticed. Set 10 years after the release of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film finds actress Heather Langenkamp (the final girl from the first and third installments) suffering from terrifying dreams involving a bladed glove. Soon, her nightmares begin bleeding over into reality, and she suspects that Freddy Krueger may not be as fictional as everyone imagined.

Wes Craven plays himself, as do Nightmare vets such as Robert Englund and John Saxon. Freddy also gets a bit of a makeover, including a black trenchcoat, organic glove, and more serious tone. Fans of the franchise are encouraged to give it a look, especially if they’ve endured garbage like A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.

The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (2011) – If you were offended by the initial Tom Six effort about people getting joined mouth-to-anus, then you’d be wise to steer well clear of the sequel. This time around, an obese London resident (Laurence R. Harvey) becomes obsessed with the first film and making his own human centipede. But he has no intention of doing things half-assed. No, his creation will use a total of 12 unwilling victims, including actress Ashlynn Yennie (who starred in the original).

This black-and-white creepfest is filled with hammered teeth, explosive diarrhea, mushed infants, and even a little sandpaper masturbation thrown in for good measure. While it’s not for everyone, the connection between reality and fiction does qualify it for our list of self-aware horror movies. Besides, Six–always the canny self-promoter–claimed that this one would make the first film look like My Little Pony. Oddly, I don’t remember any feces eating in My Little Pony.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) – While Scream gleefully pointed out various cliches of the horror genre, this mockumentary takes things one step further by showing the intense preparations of aspiring slasher Leslie Vernon (the highly effective Nathan Baesel). Set in a reality where Jason, Michael and Freddy are both real and legendary, Behind the Mask follows a group of college filmmakers as they enter the world of a man seeking to gain his own measure of gore-induced celebrity.

And let me tell you, it’s not easy being a movie slasher. There’s lots of cardio to keep up with frightened teens, plus you’ve got to select your final girl, find a nemesis or “Ahab” (Robert Englund), plant stories in the local library, and rig that creepy old house with weapons of self-defense that will malfunction at just the right time.

Leslie takes the film crew (and the audience) through each step with good-natured enthusiasm, and director Scott Glosserman manages to build genuine suspense about how the carefully laid plans will unfold. In addition to the clever and frequently humorous deconstruction of the genre’s conventions, Behind the Mask also tosses in lots of cameos to keep horror geeks happy. There’s Robert Englund, of course, plus Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) and Kane Hodder (Jason in multiple Friday the 13th films). Viewers looking for a break from the usual mindless slaughterfest will be in hog heaven.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg star in "Shaun of the Dead," one of the films responsible for renewed interest in zombie movies.

Shaun of the Dead (2005) – Scream may have brought horror back from the brink, but Shaun of the Dead–along with 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead–revived a zombie sub-genre in dire straits. Edgar Wright helmed the comedy, and he enlisted the aid of his old Spaced pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The duo play slacker roomies caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, and their actions range from the heroic (save Shaun’s ex-girlfriend and his mum) to the downright idiotic (barricade themselves in the local pub and enjoy free booze).

The supporting cast is all kinds of excellent, with Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran, Lucy Davis, and Bill Nighy adding their considerable talents. And any attempt to count the various homages and pop culture references will require multiple viewings, as screenwriters Wright and Pegg include nods to everything from The Deer Hunter to all of Romero’s Dead films. There’s even a zombie battle set to the wail of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” a scene that’s guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most jaded horror fan.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Joss Whedon fancies himself a master of metafiction, and it’s easy to see why with fanboy favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer under his belt. Here, he teams up with frequent collaborator Drew Goddard to offer a unique twist on the old teens-in-a-creepy-cabin story.

Turns out that all these horror scenarios we’ve been witnessing over the years are actually part of a highly ritualized ceremony. The youthful victims–including Chris Hemsworth–are lured to a remote area, given a series of choices, and forced to fit into the mold of certain archetypes (slut, jock, etc.) with the assistance of chemicals and various other stimuli. But what does that have to do with the technicians (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford) who watch their every move from a massive control center?

Learning that answer is half the fun of The Cabin in the Woods, not to mention seeing all the horror conventions and creatures laid bare. The final act will keep you constantly guessing, as the creepy cabin scenario flies off the rails in favor of underground strongholds, rampaging monsters, and a welcome cameo from a horror/sci-fi icon. While the delivery may not be as entertaining as the original Scream, it remains one of the most unique horror films to ever see the light of day.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995) – Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow) is a best-selling horror writer whose novels are known to cause readers to experience hallucinations and other nasty side effects like taking an axe to people. When Cane goes missing, cynical insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is called in to determine if the disappearance is legitimate or simply a publicity stunt for Cane’s upcoming book.

The third film in director John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy–preceded by The Thing and Prince of DarknessIn the Mouth of Madness presents a world teetering on the edge as ancient Lovecraftian creatures strain at the dark corners of reality. Trent’s cool detachment perfectly mirrors that of an audience waiting to be won over, and Carpenter succeeds in slowly revealing more and more of his twisted vision until civilization is in shambles. The title work is presented as both a terrifying literary harbinger of mankind’s downfall and a film-within-a-film, which means you get twice the meta for half the price.

Prochnow is enjoyable as the writer whose creations are not his own, and the film also features Julie Carmen, David Warner, and Charlton Heston in supporting roles (plus Ontario’s totally badass Cathedral of the Transfiguration). The next time you’ve got time for a triple feature, do yourself a favor and watch the Apocalypse Trilogy in order.

Feast (2005) – The character introductions in John Gulager’s horror debut are about as self-aware as they come, with the patrons of an out-of-the-way bar reduced to names such as “Bozo,” “Bartender,” and “Heroine” (only Jason Mewes, playing himself, gets a Christian name). Their chance of surviving the impending attack by horny monstrosities is also commented upon, although the film spends the rest of its runtime trying to invert every cliche possible. The fate of the cute kid–normally untouchable in a horror movie–is a perfect and welcome example.

The gore and monster puke flows freely, and the Marcus Dunstan/Patrick Melton script creates a sense that anything can and will happen. Several sacred cows of the genre bite the dust within the first 20 minutes, and it’s made that much more entertaining by the performances from vets such as Clu Gulager, Henry Rollins, Balthazar Getty, and Eileen Ryan (Sean Penn’s mom). Two sequels would follow, although the obsession with doing the unexpected actually became predictable in later installments. Still, the first Feast remains a self-aware masterpiece and notable cult film.

Seed of Chucky (2004) – The fifth entry in the Child’s Play franchise, Seed of Chucky favors comedy over horror as Glen (voiced by Billy Boyd), the child of killer puppets Chucky and Tiffany (voiced by Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly), heads to Hollywood to connect with his parents. Things get awfully meta from there, as Jennifer Tilly plays herself, Britney Spears is murdered, and John Waters has a cameo as a sleazy tabloid photographer. Tiffany and Chucky continue with their plans to possess human hosts, while Glen grapples with the morality of killing. Oh, and Redman tries his hand at directing with a project featuring the Virgin Mary. It’s not the best film of the series by any stretch, but those seeking meta horror movies will have a tough time finding a film that’s more self-aware.

Tucker & Dale VS Evil (2010) – Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two good-natured country boys who’ve purchased a vacation home on the lake, although it turns out to be the same kind of creepy cabin that horror movie hillbillies frequently live in. So you can understand the confusion when they encounter a group of hapless teens who continually mistake their innocent actions for those of deranged killers. These misunderstandings are played out time and again, but debuting director Eli Craig manages to make sure that they never get old. A horror/comedy/romance hybrid, Tucker & Dale VS Evil is suggested viewing for fans of both Shaun of the Dead and 30 Rock hottie Katrina Bowden.

Unmasked Part 25 (1989) – This overlooked gem of meta filmmaking may prove hard to find on DVD, but your efforts will be well-rewarded…especially if you like love stories between disfigured killers wearing hockey masks and blind girls. Our hero, Jackson (Gregory Cox) is just following in the footsteps of his father, but he’s grown tired of the endless killing. That’s when he meets Shelly (Fiona Evans), and it looks like he may finally be able to hang up his machete for good. Of course, never underestimate the allure of a group of stupid teenagers just begging to get butchered.

When he’s not reading poetry from Lord Byron or engaging in doomed romances, Jackson is throwing out meta dialogue like “There’s no sense in you trying to run for it, really. You’ll get ten feet and run into a branch or stumble over a root.”

The killer in "Peeping Tom" views his latest victim from behind the anonymity of his lens.

Peeping Tom (1960) – Back in the heyday of slasher films, much scorn was heaped on the genre for its use of the POV shot. Critics argued that this made audience members complicit by proxy, unlocking twisted desires that were best kept buried deep inside. Now imagine the reaction to Peeping Tom, the UK film that did much the same thing…only 20 years earlier.

Directed by Michael Powell, the movie follows the life of a lonely aspiring filmmaker named Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm). When he’s not working on a film crew or supplementing his income by taking nudie pictures, he’s attaching a mirror to his movie camera, getting women alone, and then killing them with a dagger attached to the tripod. The mirror allows these unlucky ladies to see their final moments, resulting in looks of utter terror on their faces.

The release of Peeping Tom caused a major shitstorm in the UK, and Powell’s career there was essentially ended. However, the astute parallels discussed in the film weren’t lost on more sophisticated viewers, and Powell and his work have since been lauded by luminaries as notable as Martin Scorsese. It may not have the blood or body count of modern horror, but Peeping Tom remains a landmark achievement in self-aware cinema.

Misery (1990) – Many writers suffer for their art, but poor Paul Sheldon (James Caan) takes it to ridiculous levels in one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever brought to the big screen. After finishing his latest book, Paul careens off the road during a blizzard and winds up rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in a star-making role).

While she professes to be his “number one fan” and nurses him back to health, it soon becomes clear that Annie isn’t quite right. Her behavior only intensifies when she learns that Paul plans to abandon the series that made him a success, even going so far as to kill off long-suffering heroine Misery Chastain (Annie’s favorite character). This leads to a cat-and-mouse game punctuated by fits of rage, Kathy Bates making pig noises, and one of the most painful-looking scenes in movie history (right up there with the climax of Takashi Miike’s Audition).

Directed by South Park favorite Rob Reiner, Misery is highly recommended for those seeking psychological horror without all the gore. No, it’s not entirely self-aware, but it does have plenty to say about the nature of art, its relative value, and the perks and perils of accumulating a fanbase. That’s good enough for me.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 1:06 pm and is filed under Good Movies, Thoughts on Film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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