REVIEW: Meta horror films save the genre through creativity, intelligence

October is the time that many dedicate to watching a wide assortment of classic horror flicks. The popular film genre focuses its narratives on scaring the audience and creating nightmare-ish realities that every viewer hopes they will never experience. Through time, however, these movies have become formulaic, relying on the same jump scares and chase scenes to emulate some sort of fright in those watching. Due to this formality, modern day filmgoers see many horror films as more comedic than fear-inducing. Though this might be the objective of some, the ones that try to actually be scary are only embarrassed by their own use of basic gags and outdated techniques for building suspense and killing off its characters.

Within the wide gallery of horror movies over the decades lie a select group that offer something different: meta horror films. These movies benefit off their self-conscious nature and unexpected turn of events. The characters in these films often are well aware of horror movie tropes, and the way the film is structured attempts to poke fun at the average cliché horror film. Others are there to simply offer a new perspective to the way a horror movie can look. To better understand this concept, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most iconic meta horror movies from the past few decades. A spoiler warning for all of these films is in full effect.

Peeping Tom (1960)

In the first half of the 20th Century, the concept of a horror movie was still relatively new. Their extent at the time only stretched to mostly monster and murder movies. Directed by Michael Powell in 1960, however, Peeping Tom reinvigorated the slasher genre by offering a fresh lens into the mind of a serial killer.


The British film follows Mark Lewis, a loner who floats through London with his handheld camera always in tow. Mark suffers from scopophilia, a psychological disorder that causes a person to have an odd obsession with staring at particularly sexual activity, whether it be photos or actual people. Through most of his day, his camera is rolling, capturing almost everything he does throughout his days. Claiming to be filming a documentary, Mark actually uses the camera as a cruel tool to conduct a murdering spree across the town. 

Just in the film’s opening scene, we not only witness Mark killing his first victim but also view the act as though we are watching through his camera. Already, the movie sets itself apart from others of its kind. For one, we are well aware of who the “villain” of the story is within the first few minutes, a secret that is most commonly kept until a horror film’s final act. Also, instead of focusing on the victims, we see the action from the killer’s point of view. These two techniques set up an atmosphere of eeriness and suspense, as the audience is forced to follow a known felon for the majority of the movie as he dodges investigators and struggles to keep his secrets under wraps from intrusive neighbors. Although we may not not intend to, we subconsciously end up rooting for Mark by the film’s end, inadvertently hoping that he somehow gets out of his predicament, gets the girl of his dreams, and overcomes his trauma.

Obviously, none of the above happen.

The way the film is shot is also revolutionary in theory, considering it is a movie, inside a movie, inside another movie. While Mark films his “documentary,” he works on set as a crew member to another film, and we witness both of these projects coming together as viewers. The juxtaposition of a light-hearted comedy being worked on by someone who is simultaneously collecting footage of his horrible homicides adds another unsettling layer that proves the point that you never know what is going on inside someone’s head. Further, the screenplay emphasizes the relevance of the emotion of fear. What is it that makes us afraid? Why do all of Mark’s victims have a look of frozen terror when their bodies are discovered? These questions become the narrative’s full circle moment, as we finally understand the purpose of Mark’s constant and lethal filming in a dramatic conclusion.

Peeping Tom humanizes the dreaded component of the common horror movie by making the villain’s story the centerpiece and his camera the viewpoint through which we see fear, sanity, and psychological distress.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Nearly all horror film lovers are well acquainted with Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, which serves as the home to one of the most memorable villains of all time: Freddy Krueger. The original film is considered a cinematic masterpiece, and Craven since revealed that he felt as though the franchise lost its way within the following sequels. In an attempt to bring the film back to its previous glory, Craven created a New Nightmare that managed to pull on past plot lines while also changing the methods in which the story of Krueger’s psychological terror is told.

The film features Heather Langenkamp — who played Nancy in the Nightmare franchise — plays herself in a reality where the stories of Freddy Krueger are only that: stories. However, when the reality she acted in begins to blend with the reality she lives in, that very line becomes blurred, as the nightmares she thought she would never experience surface in her everyday life in more frightening forms than that which could have been imagined.

Highly regarded as having saved the franchise from an inevitable collapse, New Nightmare sees Craven completely changing the way in which its villain is portrayed. In the original series of films, Krueger is considered discrete, direct, and stealthy with his scares and murders. However, this film sees him becoming much more violent and terrifying, even reimagined as more grotesque and hideous in appearance. As Krueger begins working his way into the real world more and more, the audience quickly realizes that the story that Heather once told in innocence could actually be much more disturbing in actuality. 

The true meta component of this film, however, lies in the overwhelming feeling that everything that is happening in the film is actually real. When watching horror movies, avid filmgoers relish in the fact that these nightmarish existences are only fabrications of someone’s imagination. One would think that watching any movie, regardless of its intention, wouldn’t divert from this thought. Craven builds on that belief, though, to construct New Nightmare in a way that seems almost parallel to our real life. The film’s tagline, “This time, staying awake won’t save you,” emphasizes the fact that the comfort created by the barrier between truth and fiction no longer applies. By removing Krueger from a more approachable, recognizable universe where he relies on stealth as opposed to viciousness, his character and presence in the film takes on new meaning. He seems much more present as he begins to terrify someone who is real in our lives as well, and it creates an illusion that these events are actually taking place in our world. Similar to many social horrors today, Craven establishes a reality where the fantasy becomes reality, and we are experiencing a horror right in front of our eyes rather than through a screen.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare blends reality with fantasy to create a world where horrors once deemed entertaining seem realistic and threatening.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is rated R. 

Scream (1996)

A truly iconic staple in metacinema, Scream follows the infamous Ghostface on his first stabbing spree through the town of Woodsboro. Virgin girl Sidney Prescott, news reporter Gale Weathers, and town sheriff Dewey Riley all make their introductions in this horror franchise’s first chapter, which continues to remain a popular film choice for the spooky season while also enjoying continued critical praise.

With the overused premise of a “madman who wreaks havoc on the teens in a town,” Scream has something notable that makes it distinguishable from other popular ‘80s and ‘90s slasher films. That factor comes in the intelligence and misdirection of its characters. First, on the movie poster, Drew Barrymore is featured to appear like a central character to the story. However, to a first time watcher’s amazement, she is one of the first characters killed off within the first ten minutes of the film. Suddenly, a rising film star that you assumed would be the scream queen of the night is gone before the film has barely begun. Further, several characters seem to realize that they are indeed in a horror movie. In one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, Randy Meeks emphasizes the “certain rules one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie”, listing off things such as sneaking off to make love, drinking, and doing drugs. He even touches on the familiar yet doomed phrase, “I’ll be right back.”

Because you won’t be back.

It’s this mindfulness that makes the film that much more enjoyable to watch. You enter the film thinking that you will have to frustratingly scream at the characters to not go off alone or to not investigate a strange sound they heard. Instead, the characters themselves understand these tropes and continuously mention them. It makes the death scenes that much more entertaining, as all the circumstances could have been avoided if they listened to their own advice. Director Wes Craven has suddenly introduced a way to pass blame onto the character’s stupidity rather than their ignorance, showing that they more than likely have control of their own fate if they don’t succumb to the basic stereotypes they already know.

Scream brings emotional intelligence to its characters while poking fun at the horror genre, and produces one of the most memorable villains to ever appear on the big screen.

Scream is rated R.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

A creative combination of dark comedy and slasher, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is filmed from the perspective of a film crew as they follow a crazed man, calling himself Leslie Vernon, as he prepares for a night of thrills and kills in an attempt to join the ranks of famed serial killers Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. In the film, the cinematic monsters of Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are real people: a crazed killer of Crystal Lake, a neighborhood stalker of Haddonfield, a child molester haunting a square block suburban neighborhood. Leslie plans to lure a group of teens to an abandoned farmhouse and kill them off one by one and has asked a documentary film crew to document what is essentially his origin story. Though conscious appears late, the film crew of Taylor, Todd, and Doug soon realize how immoral their actions are but not before capturing the ludicrous nature in which their subject matter behaves and strategizes.

Leslie himself is, coincidentally, the most aware of how obviously dumb the tropes in a slasher film can be. While constructing his master plan, he reassures his followers that certain events will take place, such as the victims herding together, tripping on stable and even ground, and trying to hide in obvious and dangerous places. He also celebrates the appearance of the “hero” who he will have to stop from rescuing the kids, and a “virgin girl” who will survive the night. Convinced of certain beliefs, like the fact the girl will remain sober and there will be a couple who travels to a bedroom to make love, Leslie’s character is entirely built around the repeated decisions and mistakes that characters make in classic horror movies. The fact that this character can so easily plan an entire night of homicides, most of which are reliant on the choices of his victims, proves how formulaic these plots have become. The film highlights this notion throughout, with the use of dry humor and sarcasm to show how predictable the night of terror actually is.

Leslie’s motive is unclear for most of the movie, though this is likely intentional as it fits into the formula presented by the films it mocks. It doesn’t really matter why Leslie has decided that this is the path he will take in life. It is easy and fun for him, and that is all he needs to pull off such terrible acts of violence. Even so, he tries to explain his wrongdoings as his “calling” and “purpose.” This disconcerting attitude towards the “why” of the killing spree is probably the greatest takeaway from the entire movie. Our hunt for a motive doesn’t distract us from the film’s narrative and fails to stop us from enjoying and appreciating the film for what it is. Unlike complex psychological thrillers and social horror films, the classic slasher film has become one without substance and reason. Does this really matter though? Do we still enjoy these movies? Are we willing to sacrifice meaning for the sake of blood, gore, and entertainment? The answers to these questions will vary based on the viewer, but the film brings to light the evolution of the common slasher film and how its place in the horror genre is one of peculiarity.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon thrives in its mockumentary nature while exposing the flaws and humor of the horror genre.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is rated R.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Werewolves. Zombies. Mermaids. And mer-mans.

The premise for the 2011 horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods sounds basic at first glance: five college students spend the weekend at an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere and are subsequently attacked by vicious creatures. However, the narrative has much more substance, even if it is somewhat complicated. Though the main characters are oblivious to the fact, a group of staff members in an underground facility are controlling the environment around them. By implementing mind-altering fumes and electric shocks in various items, the group is led right into a trap, an annual ritual that impacts all of humanity. This trap is not without accountability on the teens’ behalf, since several initial decisions are required by them in order to trigger the night’s events, such as them exploring a mysterious underground cellar.

The film’s opening sequence is the first indication that this is not a typical horror flick. Two men, dressed in formal attire, are walking through a spacious building while going on about middle-age jargon. Suddenly, as their conversation wavers, the title card pops on the screen, accompanied by a high-pitched shrill. Drew Goddard, the film’s director, reveals that this choice was intentional, as he genuinely wanted the audience to think they walked into the wrong movie before scaring them with a typical loud scream. Those watching are thrown off by this, but soon understand that there is more to the story then some kids looking to get away for a weekend.

The storyline incorporates the basic structure of chase scenes and fight sequences while sneaking comedic crosscuts and ironic moments into the narrative. While the teens fight for survival against the undead, the staff in the facility continue on normally while watching, including having a bet on which creatures will appear and celebrating with alcohol and laughter as the “final girl” is being attacked. The crew frequently references the production of the film as being predictable and staged, as this is imperative to the ritual’s success. As far as the characters themselves, they seem to have a sense of how familiar the night is but are continuously manipulated into proceeding in an illogical manner. The film points out the evolution of characters in a horror movie by creating people who seem to know what’s going on but simply can not stop themselves from making bad decisions, a choice that indirectly mocks the naïveté of characters in other horror pictures.

Established from a simple title but a complex premise, The Cabin in the Woods takes strides to modernize metacinema with irony and humor.

The Cabin in the Woods is rated R.

Just as with any genre, there are set stereotypes and expectations as far as characters, plot, settings, and cinematography techniques in a horror film.

Metacinema provides an escape from this regularity by not only changing the game but making fun of the stereotypes they are avoiding. It should be noted that simplicity is key to a film’s success, as trying to get too fancy could cause a distracting message to be presented.

Still, meta horror films should be appreciated for their ability to bring awareness to a long-lasting film genre and revitalize it with new and interesting takes on its common traditions.

Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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