This piece is absolutely dripping in spoilers. I suggest you proceed with caution and watch your every step – you never know what could be lurking in the next sentence…
Horror has the innate ability to articulate and lay bare our deepest anxieties and darkest fantasies; and over the decades with the use of blood smeared murky mirrors, horror has hauntingly reflected how humanities fears have changed over the years. The 1950’s was all about damaged psyches and the possibility that the seemingly average Joe and Jane could secretly be an ax-wielding maniac, the 70s had a morbid taste for gore and fixation with the unstoppable evil, whilst the 80s was a long flirtation with the supernatural. Perhaps inspired by a contemporary society increasingly becoming more self-aware and cynical thanks to the internet, the post-millennium horror scene has evolved to suit this by introducing to the world and our personal nightmares the meta-horror film. These type of films are all about scaring you witless, whilst at the same time taking the genre you’ve grown accustomed to and flipping it on its head with a knowing wink wink, nod nod. Below are my top five:
5. The Final Girls (2015)
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson
“I know in the movie you’re supposed to die, but that doesn’t mean you have to, right?”
Would you say you’re a horror expert? I can see you’re nodding your head. I guess that means you know everything there is to know about horror films, right? Such as the black guy always dies first? Or in a scary movie being a virgin is as good as wearing a bullet proof vest? What makes The Final Girls so incredibly meta is how it explores our modern day horror literacy and then flips it on its head. In the film a group of horror fanatic teens are literally sucked into a slasher film in the vein of Friday the 13th, but can’t be killed by the masked figure because all horror films are governed by the same cliché story and as long as everything stays by the book, the group will be safe. But when the final girl unexpectedly dies, the book isn’t enough to save them… The Final Girls offers a hilarious commentary on the predictability of slasher films in the most obvious sense. Schulson really invites you as the view to test your horror knowledge and then surprises you with some unexpected twists along the way.
4. Dale & Tucker vs. Evil (2010)
Directed by Eli Craig
“You’ve gone Hillbilly on me Alison.”
Have you ever considered that the evil, twisted and incest loving hillbillies of The Hills have Eyes or Wrong Turn were merely misunderstood and weren’t as murderous as they seem? Perhaps they prefer spending Sunday nights painting pretty pictures of beautifies and braiding each other’s hair, rather than butchering teens and feasting on their rotting carcasses, as you’ve been led to believe? Then again probably not. But that doesn’t include Dale and Tucker, who actually are really nice guys. On the surface they may look perverse and demented, but beneath it they’re like Winnie the Pooh except in search of love rather than honey. So when teens eventually start dying all around them please don’t jump to conclusions, It’s not their fault, Dale and Tucker were just trying to help. Is it their fault that these crazy kids keep running into wood chippers and sharp pointy things? The premise of Eli Craig debut feature is a big what if – what if it wasn’t the hillbillies doing the killing, but was in fact the teens accidentally killing themselves because they’re so afraid of the hillbillies? Craig cleverly turns on its head the traditional view of horror movie heroes and villains, giving you a film brimming with self-referential humour and plenty of ‘OH SHIT!’ moments.
- Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Directed by Drew Goddard
“These fucking zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?”
The token minority. The dumb Jock. The slutty Cheerleader. The stoner. The nice guy. The final girl. Upon watching the trailer or even the first twenty minutes of Cabin in the Woods, you could be forgiven for assuming that it would be just another cliché and predictable teen horror. But that’s when Goddard gets you! Just when you’re about to yawn in boredom, Goddard rips the air out of your lungs and leaves you reeling in SHOCK as he completely subverts everything you thought you knew about his horror film. From two-way mirrors and aphrodisiac mists to a basement with ancient objects that will determine your fate, with Cabin in the Woods expect the unexpected because nothing is as it seems… Behind the scenes every move the group makes is being seen and manipulated as part of a ritual by sadistic scientists before using the teens as sacrificial lambs to offer to demonic creatures that lie beneath the earth. Goddard uses every trope and pitfalls from previous teen horrors and weaves them into something entirely unique, whilst still paying homage to the genre he obviously still idolises.
2. Scream (1996)
Directed by Wes Craven
Not quite 2010’s… but could I really leave out the godfather of the subgenre?
May it be from the glowing lights of heaven or the wretched flames of hell, either way Scream erupted onto the horror horizon and gave the much needed kiss of life to the genre, just when it was being suffocated by increasingly irrelevant and laughable Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. With Scream Craven ingeniously dismantles and subverts the very genre he helped build with Freddy Krueger. What makes Scream so special and wonderfully meta is how all the characters are fully aware of the tropes of other horror movies, “There are certain rules, one must abide by in order to survive a scary movie,” muses one character. However, little do they know that the killer is much smarter than they are and just when they thought they had the whole horror thing sussed out, the ghost faced killer was already a mere knifes inch away.
- It Follows (2015)
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
“It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”
This may be a controversial number one, considering Scream was undoubtedly the godfather of all meta-horror films, however it will be impossible to argue against the bone chilling genius of It Follows. Like a slowly moving silent serpent, It Follows crawls up your spine and burrows deep into your subconscious. Then when it deems the time right, it sinks its thangs into you and release a fear inducing venom that leaves you paralysed in your seat. Mitchell’s masterpiece is one of the few instances where a horror film can continue to haunt you long after the title credits have rolled and the years have passed. Like a curse, after you watch It Follows you will never be the same again – no longer will darkness be just for sleeping, it will also be for fearing what lurks within the shadows and what might be creeping towards you when your back is turned.
What makes it meta?
It is well known the BIGGEST sin anyone can commit in a horror film is to succumb to the carnal pleasures. simply put – sex equals DEATH. So when your parents are preaching to you about the perils of sex before marriage, it’s not yet another attempt to kill your vibe, they’re actually trying to prevent you from actually being killed. The moral of all horror movies is, if you want to avoid having your head hacked off by Jason Voorhees or your torso being sliced in two by Leather Face, then wear a chaste belt or say I do.
Effectively Mitchell harnesses this old horror trope by expertly utilising it as the central premise of the entire film – literally having sex will get you killed. Ironically, the only way to prolong the evitable of death is to have sex again and again until there is no one left to have sex with. Hold on, wait… in It Follows, sex is both a saviour and a condemner? Pretty much yes. Mind fuck, I know. So ingeniously was Mitchell mythologizing of casual sex, upon release critics even considered it as a parable of the aids epidemic that erupted in the 80s. It Follows – both scary AF and gets you thinking, that’s what I call a DAMN GOOD meta horror film.