Guest Post By Michael Duda
All genre movies come with their fair share of tropes that are ripe for self-reference. RomComs have the “grand gesture” scene where the lead sheds all sense of boundaries and accosts their love interest in a public place to profess their love (cue up some Peter Gabriel). Action movies have unfathomably cool macho men utter one-liners like “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker,” Welcome to EARTH,” and “GET OFF MY PLANE” before sending someone flying through a pane of glass (that pane of glass was one day from retirement too).
Yet horror seems to be the only one where a subgenre exists and thrives on commenting on its own tropes and clichés—and there are plenty. Oh you shot the killer and just left him lying there? Yeah, now he’s right behind you. Of course your cell phone isn’t working. Why would it? And the car won’t start? Seems about right. I wouldn’t close that bathroom mirror if I was you. Hey, maybe now’s not the best time to sneak off and have sex (well…I guess it couldn’t hurt). And those just relate to slashers. Ghost stories, zombie movies, and found footage all have their own share of recognizable plot devices. Horror is obsessed with the self-reference.
What sets the genre apart from the others is its inherently dark subject matter. Horror stories deal with death, the unknown, carnal desire, and misery. These subjects need to be handled with care in order to elicit a kind of fear that entertains—rather than simply depress or disturb. When those methods become stale and predictable—meta-films come in to add another layer. These meta-films don’t exist purely to poke fun at tired clichés, they are the culmination of decades of horror movies. Nothing starts off as a cliché or a trope. Hundreds of movies came before and established plot devices that would later be considered standard conventions of the genre. In time, however, they lose their effect on the audience. The meta-films tend to come during periods when horror needs a retooling—like a rusty, dull adrenaline needle straight to its barely beating heart. Ouch.
Hamlet, one of the most famous ghost stories ever produced (and nightmare to high school English students everywhere), was among the first to popularize the concept of meta-storytelling. As you may remember—or completely slept through—Hamlet at one point puts on a play for the character Claudius, the uncle who murdered his father. The play that Hamlet puts on closely mimics the events of the actual murder and Claudius’ subsequent banging of Hamlet’s mom—subtlety was not a strong suit of the young prince. So here we have a play-within-a-play that is essentially a retelling of events that took place in the actual story, not just to us, but to the characters within the main play that directly affects the events of the main narrative. Confused yet?
This was a pretty heavy-handed attempt by Hamlet to trigger a sense of guilt from his uncle Claudius. More importantly, it was a heavy-handed attempt by Shakespeare to comment on his medium of choice—the play. There is scholarly debate whether this play-within-a-play was celebrating the illuminating potential of the medium, or if it was commenting on theater’s inability to accurately portray real life—the jury is still out. Regardless of intent, the most interesting aspect is how Shakespeare was able to recognize the conventions and style of his medium to provide meta-commentary on it—all while furthering the main narrative of the actual play. The Bard did not mess around.
Shakespeare’s use of meta-commentary laid the groundwork for what was to come, but it would take years of growth within the genre to get there. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the advent of the motion picture brought forays into horror film for the first time. French films like Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and Japanese films like Bake Jizo (1898) began to explore themes of the macabre using the infant medium. By the end of the 1920’s, a slew of hugely influential and classic German expressionist films were released: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Man Who Laughs, Golem, and of course, the mighty Nosferatu (which saw its own meta-retelling with 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire). These films were to shape horror for the next century.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the horror genre as we know it began to take its recognizable form. That’s right, I’m talking about the goddamn monster squad themselves: The Universal Monsters. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and The Mummy, and Claude Rains’ The Invisible Man all cemented the genre as a permanent staple of the ever-absorbing cultural zeitgeist. The popularity and impact of these movies was so enormous that the studio did what any good studio would do—they beat the franchises into the ground.
There were six Frankenstein films from 1931 to 1944—only three of which starred Karloff. Bela Lugosi donned Dracula’s cape a measly one time between 1931 and 1945, but that didn’t stop Universal from making two more Dracula films without him. The quality of the films without Karloff and Lugosi range from “good” to “Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula with a mustache.” It was the golden age of Hollywood and money was in the air. What a time to be alive (geopolitical happenings aside).
The flood of monster movies produced from 1931 to 1946 was proof that there was a large audience for horror and that it was financially viable. However, towards the end of the 40’s, Universal was beginning to move away from its classic monsters. Soon, the dawn of sci-fi and creature features would shift focus from the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula to mole people and giant tarantulas. The conventions and style of those early monster movies became too familiar for the audience and they craved change. In Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, a retelling of the making of the famously bad Plan 9 from Outer Space, the Bela Lugosi character laments, “This business, this town, it chews you up then spits you out. I’m just an ex-boogeyman.”
Before that shift was complete, the studio decided to have some fun with the world and characters they had built. In what would arguably be the first “horror comedy” film, 1948’s Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein took the classic monsters and their lore and subverted them by placing it all in the world of comedy. It was a deconstruction of the fledgling genre by looking at it through the lens of what is essentially the viewer: Abbot and Costello. These were two everymen who weren’t traditional heroes and who didn’t behave as normal characters in a horror film would. They were two schmucks haphazardly making their way through a nightmare. This juxtaposition allowed the conventions and tropes of the horror genre—such as the spooky castle and the mad scientist trying to swap brains—to be highlighted and played up for humorous effect. (Notably, the film also marked the second, and last, time Lugosi would portray Dracula. His farewell scene includes Dracula turning into a bat, the Wolf Man diving and grabbing said bat like a fumbled football, and both unceremoniously falling off a cliff to their presumed deaths. Because everyone knows water and blunt force are the only things that can kill werewolves and vampires. Poetry in motion.)
It’s no surprise that the horror comedy has had such success and longevity as a method of meta-storytelling. Robert Bloch, author of the novel Pscycho, once stated that “comedy and horror are opposite sides of the same coin…both deal in the grotesque and the unexpected, but in such a fashion as to provoke two entirely different physical reactions.” They are peanut butter and jelly. The yin and the yang. The winter and the summer. The scream and the laugh are two entirely involuntary physical reactions. While sadness and love usually require some sort of context—fear and laughter do not. If someone jumps out from behind your shower curtain wielding an axe while you brush your teeth—you are going to scream. If you are sitting quietly in a waiting room and the man across from you lets out a slow, quiet fart reminiscent of the cooing of an uncertain pigeon—you are at the very least going to crack to smile. The disarming nature of comedy is the perfect tool to dissect the layer of death and misery that covers horror.
When I was 9 years old, my parents took me to a haunted house along with my sister and all her friends. I was terrified. The whole ride there, I clutched my Vegeta action figure and envisioned being as brave and as strong as he was. We got to the entrance and made it about 12 feet in before I told my mom that I couldn’t do it and begged to get out.
The haunted house was at a nursery with a large field in the back where the main attraction was. My mom paced the aisles of the nursery, looking at all the different tools and plants with her coward son. She tried to downplay the fact he had just chickened out without making it into the actual haunted part of the haunted house. I was finally starting to calm down.
Then Michael Myers walked in.
His white face. His jumpsuit. The cleaver that laid at his side as he made his way through the seed aisle. My heart was still. It would be about two years until I saw Halloween, but that didn’t stop me from knowing who he was. He was bad news and I knew it. He slowly walked up to me—expressionless—and raised his arm. The fake plastic cleaver did not glisten in the light, but when Michael Myers brought it down and playfully chopped my shoulder—I absolutely lost my shit.
I cried and cried and cried.
Michael Myers began to apologize profusely. He took off his mask to reveal that he was not Michael Myers at all, but just some kid in his late teens or early twenties. He smiled—told me that his cleaver was fake—and let me hold it. I felt its light weight in my hand. I stared at the dull plastic blade as I cautiously bounced it across my arm. A feeling washed over me that was simultaneous relief, curiosity, and adrenaline. The initial fear, the subsequent relief, and my mind trying to make sense of the whole experience had my blood rushing. I started to laugh. Really hard. So did Michael Myers. Then my mom. Horror had its hook in me.
That peak behind the curtain is akin to the experience of watching a meta-horror film. There is something strangely satisfying about that mask being partially lifted just enough to see the wink and its accompanying nod. When the director and screenwriter offer a glimpse, it can be a real treat when done effectively. The horror/comedy dynamic is a match made in heaven (or should I say a match made in…no, I’ll stick with “heaven”).
However, by the 1980’s, horror infused with comedic elements became commonplace. There were notable classics such as Evil Dead 2, An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night, and Return of the Living Dead, but the genre—especially the slasher subgenre—became oversaturated with romps that are remembered mainly for their splatters and their camp. The meta-horror movie itself had become stale and in need of that same rusty adrenaline filled needle that it once wielded.
The Italian horror genre has historically operated on a different level than its American counterpart. Films like Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond matched the surreal with the repulsive. Dario Argento’s Suspiria offered vibrant, dreamlike atmospheres for its displays of horrifying violence. And it would be Fulci who would take the Shakespearian method of meta-storytelling and bring it to horror by using it to comment on the genre—and his relationship to it.
1990’s A Cat in the Brain depicts Fulci playing a fictionalized version of himself as a director who is plagued by constant hallucinations of violence from his past movies. These visions cause the Fulci character to become so disconnected from the real world that he is not even able to look at a plate of meat in a restaurant—which triggers horrible images of cannibalism from one of the films he directed. After going to see a psychiatrist, he is hypnotized into thinking that these visions are real and that he is committing gruesome murders.
The film itself is not Fulci’s best, but it is one of his most interesting. The flashback visions that the Fulci character has are actually scenes from the real life director’s own movies—such as Sodama’s Ghost and Touch of Death. This use of footage from his real past movies to construct a new narrative is a commentary on his entire career up to that point. It can be seen as him reflecting back upon a blood-filled legacy. Alternatively, or in addition to, the film is a meditation by Fulci on the effect of the horror movie on the psyche. His character in A Cat in the Brain is essentially traumatized by his own creations, and perhaps Fulci—using footage from his past films as manifestations of these traumas—feared himself damaged from his own time spent in the genre.
The ideas explored in A Cat in the Brain would be built upon in 1994 by Wes Craven. It could be argued that Craven’s first excursion into the meta-horror film, New Nightmare, owes a great deal to A Cat in the Brain. While both have the director playing a fictionalized version of themselves grappling with the violent implications of their own creations, Craven took Fulci’s ideas and made them into a more cohesive and digestible narrative. The resulting film is a proper sendoff to the original Robert Englund version of Freddy Krueger (if we ignore Freddy Vs. Jason). The character had been on a slow decline into the ridiculous (Freddy wearing sunglasses at the beach in The Dream Master, anyone?) and being over exposed—even hosting an eponymous anthology TV show (like a much uglier Rod Sterling).
New Nightmare introduces the idea of Freddy Krueger as a sort of “tulpa”. A Buddhist term, a tulpa is a being that is created and sustained by psychic and mental energies. This is Freddy’s nature in New Nightmare. After Heather Langenkamp—who played Nancy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and a fictionalized version of herself in New Nightmare—begins to have reoccurring nightmares of Freddy, she goes to consult with a fictionalized version of Craven. He suggests that Freddy Krueger is a supernatural being that uses the Freddy character to thrive on the mental energies and fear produced by the audiences of the film—kind of like Pennywise from IT or Santa Claus. These movies have kept him in a psychic cage, but with the wrap of the franchise and Freddy transitioning from boogeyman to pop culture icon, the tulpa is slowly being freed to terrorize the real world.
The film not only uses its meta-commentary to examine the Nightmare franchise in terms of its declining quality and pop culture relevance but, in the spirt of A Cat in the Brain, shows the effect the horror genre has on its creators and its audience. While the fictionalized Craven, Englund, and Langenkamp all struggle with their time in the Nightmare universe and their visions of Freddy, the audience has accepted Krueger as much more than a monster. During a scene where Langenkamp is a guest on a daytime talk show, the Robert Englund character shows up dressed as Freddy and proceeds to hype up the audience like he’s a WWE superstar. This scene is significant because it shows that the horror genre, at this point in time, had lost its teeth. Craven attempts to remedy this by making Freddy Krueger, the tulpa, more terrifying than his previous incarnations—the voice is deeper, the makeup more menacing with a large, furrowed brow, and a long trench coat cloaks his figure.
A New Nightmare was a mild success at the box office, but the nineties trudged along with lackluster horror movies that nearly put the genre in the ground once and for all.
That is until Craven returned with his love letter to the slasher—1996’s Scream. A culmination of decades of slasher movies establishing tropes and clichés—Scream doesn’t just wink and nod at the audience, it wears its influences on its sleeve and its references written on its forehead like it passed out drunk at a frat party. In the world where the movie takes place, slasher movies exist and the characters are aware of their clichés—using them to actively advance the plot of the film. Jamie Kennedy’s character even goes so far as to recite a list of rules that one must abide in order to survive a slasher movie: Don’t have sex, don’t drink or do drugs, and never, ever, under any circumstances say “I’ll be right back.”
Thanks to Scream, horror did come back. The movie reinvigorated a genre that mainstream audiences had deemed predictable and stale. It used established mainstream actors and a compelling script—that was as much mystery as it was horror—to celebrate all the aspects that made slasher movies fun. I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Final Destination all followed in its wake and turned profits. Studios being studios, however, oversaturated the market yet again with too many sequels, copycat movies, and remakes or reboots of their classic franchises. It seemed like horror never truly learned its lesson, always falling victim to the same cash grabs and never advancing past tropes that its meta-films expose.
By 2012, horror needed that giant, rusty needle one more time—and Joss Wedon was all too eager to wield it. Around the time he was about to make the superhero genre one of the most profitable things in the history of things with The Avengers, he co-wrote and directed The Cabin in the Woods. It’s a movie I’m not sure the genre can ever come back from. The scope of its use of meta-commentary is nearly all-encompassing. It uses the “play-within-a-play” of Shakespeare, the everyman of Abbot and Costello, and the effects of the creation on the creator of Fulci and Craven. But where it succeeds the most is in its commentary on the audience and how deep down, maybe horror fans want these clichés and tropes—that we demand them from the films we love.
The film isn’t a spoof and doesn’t spend its time mocking the genre. Instead, it shines light on some of the genre’s redundancies to the benefit of its own narrative. The Cabin in the Woods can be seen as a call to action—for horror fans and creators alike—to push the boundaries of what the genre can do. The film leaves no rock unturned and is a celebration of all that horror has accomplished over the last hundred years or so in film. It is some of the most fun you can have watching a movie (bonus fun points if you go in unspoiled). More importantly, reveling in its own love of the genre, it asks the question: What’s next?
We are currently in a new golden age of horror movies and meta-films have helped get us here by revealing the expected and pushing for the unexpected. Studios like A24 have been putting out films that are not only beloved critically, but that mainstream audiences are starting to embrace as well. The Witch, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary have all pushed the envelope of what an audience is willing to accept from its horror. These are art films that use horror as an effective vessel to convey their themes. Get Out, It Follows, and The Babadook are all recent horror films that used the genre to express poignant political and social subjects using rich, layered subtext. These films are hard to peg neatly into existing subgenres of horror—allowing them to avoid many of the conventions, tropes, and clichés of their predecessors. For now, at least.
Perhaps, over time, the conventions of this now unnamed subgenre will become apparent. Maybe it will be the ambiguity of these films? The overpowering sense of bleakness and despair? The intense prolonged periods of silence? Years from now, we might see a release that comments on these films in a meaningful way—or maybe does so just for laughs. The meta-horror movie has been used for both during its long history. It has always been that extra push when things get just a little bit too predictable. They never seek to provide explicit answers, instead only probing the audience to ask questions about the genre and themselves. And sometimes—just sometimes—the question is simple:
What’s your favorite scary movie?