One of the defining characteristics of our so-called “postmodern” era is the use of metafiction, fiction that comments on or is aware of itself as fiction. While kitchen-sink parodies like Airplane and the silly Scary Movie movies engage with some of these methods, they aren’t quite what is usually thought of as metafictional. The deeper uses of this technique range all over the place, including the sly games Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges played with their readers, Quentin Tarantino’s loving homages of B-movies, and the self-awareness and fourth-wall breaking of shows like Community and American Horror Story and movies such as Adaptation and the Deadpool series.
Much of the popularization of these narrative games (once more or less restricted to Art House fare and experimental novels) can be chalked up to the wild success of the Scream franchise. Here, we had characters in horror movies that were at least aware of the conventions of the slasher, even if they weren’t quite aware of themselves as movie characters. There were earlier examples of horror movies that used metafictional techniques, though, including one by Scream‘s director, Wes Craven. I love these kinds of stories, particularly when they are done by artists with both a knowledge and love of the genre. They can work as scare pieces on their own, of course, but they also often serve to help the genre evolve further by exposing and subverting clichés and by finding innovative new ways of disturbing viewers.
There’s an added level of difficulty in trying to make effective meta-horror: can you create a story that cleverly comments on itself and/or the genre as a whole while still being involving enough on a character and plot level to actually scare viewers? The answer, as the following movies will attest to, is most certainly, although I’ll admit the first entry is much funnier than it is terrifying.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
The first Gremlins is a classic monster movie. It has plenty of humor in it as well as some sly references to earlier genre films, but this, its only sequel (so far), takes that germ of comedy and magnifies it. Gremlins 2 picks up years after that fateful Christmas Eve that almost ripped Kingston Falls in two. Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer have now moved to New York, where both work in the Clamp Center, owned by Daniel Clamp (a sort of alternate universe Donald Trump who is goofy and surprisingly kind instead of malevolent). When these two find Gizmo without a home, it isn’t long before gremlins infest the skyscraper.
Gremlins 2 is filled with movie references both obvious and subtle, managing at several times to rib the first movie as well as comment on the absurdities of its metaphysics. The gremlins even interrupt Gremlins 2 itself before being put back in their place. The film does all this without quite falling into kitchen-sink parody: this isn’t Scary Movie. It also has cameos by several horror-adjacent actors, including Christopher Lee playing a mad scientist, so that’s great.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Now, the obvious and perfectly correct Wes Craven movie to include on a list like this would be Scream. After all, it didn’t just revitalize horror movies, it brought a sense of self-awareness and ironic commentary to a subgenre (slashers) not particularly known for their intelligence. In my mind, though, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is the more metafictional movie of the two. Scream featured characters who were familiar with the genre, sure, but New Nightmare is a horror film about a horror film in which the director and the stars of the first Nightmare on Elm Street play themselves.
In this movie, it turns out that the Nightmare series has actually served as a prison of sorts for an actual malevolent entity who has taken on the character and appearance on Freddy Krueger. Now that the series is over, that being is breaking free of its cinematic shackles, ready to kill for real this time. Heather Langenkamp, star of the first movie, is our protagonist, and the movie has cameos by Craven himself and Robert Englund (who also plays this fake-Freddy). Not only does this movie play with horror conventions and bring up interesting questions as to what horror fiction is for, its “Freddy” is far more menacing than the cartoon-character the previous three or four Nightmare movies had reduced him to.
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Do you read Sutter Cane? In this wild third movie in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” (the other two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness), an infamous horror writer by the same name goes missing just before he was due to deliver his latest novel, also titled In the Mouth of Madness. His publishers hire John Trent, an insurance investigator adept at uncovering fraud, to find Cane and bring his novel back to New York. Cane’s novels are infamous for driving some readers into a homicidal frenzy, though the cynical Trent assumes this is all a gimmick. When he traces Cane’s movements to an unassuming little town in New Hampshire, Trent heads there in order to unravel this publicity stunt. What he finds there, however, will challenge not only his cynicism but also his presuppositions about reality itself.
In the Mouth of Madness skirts the edges of parody, lovingly referencing the works of H. P. Lovecraft in a character clearly based on a darker Stephen King, but there are plenty of real scares here too. Cane’s novels sound so pulpy and twisted that horror fans will regret they are only cinematic inventions. The metafictional aspect to this crazy cosmic horror movie doesn’t stop there, as the film questions the lines between fiction and reality, suggesting that the latter is just a social construct awaiting a stronger imagination able to rewrite it completely.
Funny Games (1997/2008)
Michael Haneke reportedly made this movie as a way to shame horror fans for our sadistic voyeurism. If that was his sole purpose, then he failed and failed spectacularly (at least in regard to this sadist). Funny Games is, though, more than an anti-horror sermon, regardless of what its director intended. The original film (as well as its more-or-less shot-for-shot American remake) is about a cozy little family visiting their cozy little vacation home by the lake when two young men in white summer wear show up and begin playing games with them. The title, in case you haven’t caught on, is ironic, as there is little that’s funny about these games though the guys do pepper their malevolence with wry commentary on the action.
This commentary is where the metafictionality of Funny Games kicks into gear, as one of the men occasionally breaks the fourth wall, asking the audience about their opinions on the plot. Haneke’s movie goes further than this, playing with our expectations, deliberately setting up sequences familiar to horror fans only to cancel them abruptly, and, in the film’s most famous scene, giving literal control of the movie to one of its villains. This is a bruising film but certainly worth watching and also a great entry in the “home invasion” subgenre.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Why is the slasher film so open to parody and pastiche? Is it because the films in this genre so often follow a fairly strict formula? Is it just because there are so many of the damn things that they invite more scrutiny than other subgenres? Whatever the case may be, Behind the Mask does a brilliant job of simultaneously spoofing slashers and setting up a final third of the movie in which things start getting nasty. Taylor Gentry is an aspiring documentarian who receives an invitation to follow a new slasher villain as he prepares for his debut. Here, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and the other infamous monsters of the subgenre are very real, and Leslie Vernon desperately wants to join their ranks. As Taylor and her small crew get to know Leslie, they find he is an amiable, funny, and self-aware budding psychopath, one eager to share the tricks of the mass-murder trade with them.
The movie has a lot of fun poking at the conventions of the slasher, from the horrible backstory necessary for every killer to the importance of cardio in being able to chase down victims. The movie goes even more meta by featuring performances by horror movie character actors like Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, and Zelda Rubenstein. As I said at the top of this review, things do start getting bloody toward the end just as Taylor really begins questioning her complicity in this planned massacre of stereotypical teenagers. After you’ve watched the movie, make sure to look up the cut scenes, as they feature even more witty subversions of slashers.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
I’m loathe to say much about the plot of this movie, as discovering just what’s going on is so much of the fun. Unfortunately, that also restricts my ability to talk about what makes it so metafictional. Let’s just go with a description of the first twenty minutes or so. The movie starts with a couple ordinary office schlubs making their way around a big institute as they vaguely discuss their latest project as well as more banal matters. Then, we switch to a group of college students preparing for a weekend in the woods at the titular cabin. This is a smarter, wittier group of young people than are usually featured in these sorts of movies, a point to keep in mind later. Once there, they encounter some minor creepiness before descending into the cellar, at which point the madness begins.
This movie manages to simultaneously parody and justify the existence of all sorts of horror movies at the same time as delivering it’s own dark variation on a setup familiar to most fans of the genre. If you’ve somehow missed this one, check it out. I’ve noticed too that some people who aren’t typically fans of horror enjoy this movie even though it does get almost cartoonishly gory towards the end, perhaps because of the intelligence of the script, the performances of everyone involved, and the strong element of humor on display.
The Final Girls (2015)
Todd Strauss Schulson
The Final Girls is both a very fun parody of slasher movies and a heartfelt story about grief and memory, a combination unique in the genre. It also takes a metafictional route even more extreme than most postmodern horror films. At the opening of the movie, young Max Cartwright loses her mother in a sudden car accident. Amanda Cartwright was a struggling actress with only one real success to her name, her part in a cult classic slasher movie called Camp Bloodbath. Years after her loss, Max is coerced into attending a screening of the movie with her friends and a frenemy. Not too pleased to watch her mother die on the movie, Max’s night gets even worse when a fire breaks out in the theater. Trying to escape it, the group cuts their way through the screen and find themselves magically trapped in the film itself.
Soon, Max is sitting beside Nancy, the character her mother played, a bizarre and touching reunion that Nancy, of course, is oblivious to. The problem, of course, is that she and her friends are caught up in a slasher, and it won’t be long before a masked killer arrives to murder everyone he can grab. The Final Girls parodies the tropes of the subgenre, of course, with a particular focus on the role of the “Final Girl,” but it goes even further than that, playing with flashbacks, setting titles, and other cinematic conventions. It all adds up to a surprisingly touching story, and one that people who don’t like horror movies may enjoy too, as it keeps the violence at a PG-13 level and focuses more energy on the comedy.
You Might Be the Killer (2018)
You Might Be the Killer was based, bizarrely enough, on a Twitter thread between authors Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes that was itself a parody. This slasher movie opens on Sam Wescott, a dweeby camp counselor, calling his friend Chuck in a panic to tell her he has been caught up in a massacre and is hiding. As Sam recounts his experiences that night, Chuck, an ardent horror movie fan, begins recognizing them as being the hallmarks of a slasher film. Even more disturbingly, she suspects she knows who the masked killer may be.
The central conceit of this movie is, well, kind of spoiled by the movie’s title, but that isn’t where the plot’s metafictional exploration stops. As with The Final Girls, You Might Be the Killer both parodies and engages with the tropes of this subgenre, but this movie is darker and bloodier. Knowing he is trapped in a slasher story may not save Sam or anyone around him, but the balance of self-referentiality and genuine scares makes for an entertaining time. The movie’s two leads, Fran Kranz and Allyson Hannigan, would be reason enough to watch it on their own, in my opinion.
Scare Me (2020)
Scare Me is such a unique, weird, funny, and even disturbing film that I’m hard-pressed to think of anything similar. It is a love letter to both horror stories and the art of storytelling itself that manages to also tell it’s own horror tale in the spaces between. It also has one of the smallest casts I can think of in a horror film (only four actors), depending for most of its length on the interactions of only two of them. It’s a risky venture, loading that much weight on just two performances, but boy does it pay off. The story, at least at first, is seemingly simple: would-be author Fred (played by director Josh Ruben) has rented a cabin in the woods in order to finish his horror novel. That novel currently consists of the following two sentences: “Werewolves have guns… Get revenge?”
On a jog one day, he meets his neighbor Fanny Addie (actress Aya Cash, who played the monstrous Stormfront in The Boys), a woman who has recently published a horror novel to great acclaim. When the power in their rural neighborhood goes out, the two decide to play a game: each will take turns telling improvised scary stories, seeing which of them is the best writer. Scare Me doesn’t just comment on the genre, it also plays games with the viewer, introducing sound cues and glimpses of special effects sporadically as the two dramatically perform their silly, sometimes eerie tales. As the night wends on, we begin to suspect something darker may underlie this interaction, forcing us to question whether something terrible is going to happen or if we are just being lulled into a spooky mood by all the storytelling.
And now for a film that has quickly become one of my favorites from recent years. Censor is set in the England in the 1980’s, an era and location that was dominated by a moral panic over the supposedly dangerous effects of horror movies on their viewers. In England, they were called “the Video Nasties,” and this sharp, visually stunning film is about Enid Baines, a member of the censorship board tasked with protecting audiences from the worst of them.
Enid is prim, repressed, and believes entirely in her mission to stop this flood of cinematic filth. She’s also haunted by the disappearance of her sister Nina when they were children. Enid is already under intensified pressure to do her ridiculous job even “better” when a real-life killer is connected to a movie she let slip by. Then a director requests that she personally oversee his newest project, and when she goes through his back catalogue of B-movies, she finds one that eerily seems to reproduce the story of her sister’s disappearance. What’s behind this mystery? Can Enid find her way through cinematic illusions and creepy moviemakers to the truth?
Censor, along with Funny Games, is easily the most disturbing film on this list, but unlike Haneke’s movie, this one isn’t out to shame you for enjoying horror movies. Instead, it grapples with questions of exploitation, murder, the unreliability of memory and perception, the purpose of the horror genre, and censorship itself. The last third of this movie is one of the best climaxes I’ve seen recently in the genre, and it’ll leave many viewers feeling haunted. Something fun about the movie is that the director filmed all the footage Enid goes to work on herself, lovingly parodying 80’s grindhouse movies in a movie that is otherwise dead serious.