This weekend sees the release of two self-aware takes on the horror genre: Cabin in the Woods and Detention. So this is a great time to pay tribute to the long tradition of meta horror films that have winked at the audience and poked fun at the tropes of the genre.
There are plenty of great horror movies that our current crop of self-referential scary movies owe a debt of gratitude to. Here's our list of the greatest meta horror movies of all time. Note: These are horror films that broke the fourth wall or looked outside of their own lens for inspiration, not straight-up parodies. So don't expect to see Scary Movie on the list.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
After six Nightmare on Elm Street movies, we were certain that the monster Freddy Krueger was deceased (especially since they killed him in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare) but Wes Craven wasn't done yet. Writing himself into the 7th installment of the Elm Street franchise , Craven brought Freddy back by writing a movie about a movie. In this new nightmare, the actual cast from the Elm Street franchise return playing themselves. Actress Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy) and her son are both haunted by Freddy Krueger. Craven's new screenplay becomes her guide as her son is kidnapped by Krueger.
It's ridiculously clued in to its own shenanigans — especially any scene where Craven talks about writing or when Robert Englund is seen painting disturbing images of his character Krueger in his Hollywood mansion. The movie is invading the real world! The whole thing is essentially Craven's dry run for Scream.
The Entire Scream Franchise (1996-2011)
The reigning champion of meta horror movies! Wes Craven's Scream can't help but comment on the rules of the horror genre — only to turn around and turn the knife on each cast member. The method was simple: Have your characters expressly lay out the horror movie commandments, have them break said commandments, and then punish them for doing so. This pattern follows the franchise all the way to the latest addition. But perhaps our favorite moment besides the original statement of the Horror Movie Rules (in this clip) are in the "all bets are off in a trilogy" monologue from Randy. Randy is always, always right — it's delightful to watch this character basically hand the entire plot to Scream 3 over to Sidney, and yet they still don't get it... until the final Scooby-Doo reveal.
Night of the Comet (1984)
An inspiration to Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, Night of the Comet could very well be the first instance of the sassy clued-in female hero. The basic premise? "A comet wipes out most of life on Earth, leaving two Valley Girls to fight the evil types who survive." IMDB says "Valley Girls," but we call them self-aware heroes who deliver clever lines such as this: "The burden of civilization is upon us." "Bitchin', isn't it?"
Shaun Of the Dead (2005)
Possibly the most aggressively hyper meta horror movie we've ever seen, until Cabin in the Woods. Director Edgar Wright utilizes every trick in the book to launch meta joke after joke at the audience. Even the throwaway lines are dripping with symbolism that's directly aimed at the viewers. When Ed shouts, "We're coming to get you Barbra" to Shaun's mother, it's an obvious tribute Night of the Living Dead, "Ash" is sick and can't come to work (an Evil Dead nod.) Dancing zombies, the way characters are ripped apart by hordes of zombies — almost every element is a jab at something beyond the lens. It's a love letter to past horror movies, but thankfully perfectly capable of standing on it's own two feet if all the references go over your head.
Being genre-savvy saves almost every character's life in Zombieland, and those who ignored the tropes meet the nasty end of a shotgun. Main character Columbus establishes his zombie survival rules by narrating and animating them for the audience. It's almost a homage to ageneration of zombie contingency planners, and undead maniacs. Which is pretty hilarious when this real-life zombie survivor blasts the biggest star cameo off the screen. It feels like horror is taking back its monsters from the glitz of Hollywood.
Fright Night (1985/2011)
Sad late night TV host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) comes face-to-face with his own shtick when he's called upon by his biggest fan to help stake a suburban vampire. Thankfully the movie keeps its self aware charm in the 2011 remake, where Peter Vincent is a hokey Criss Angel-esque magician played by David Tennant. Watching both late night TV host and Vegas Magician being forced to overcome their douchery and disbelief offers a chance to comment on the action in a delightful fashion.
Sure it's a music video, but Michael Jackson's "Thriller" had a massive impact on horror moves everywhere. The movie within a movie, within a music video, loosened up the constraints of horror forever. Shooting three movies in one allowed director John Landis to make zombies dance and sing, without making it an all-out comedy. Framing the story inside itself facilitates shock and awe — but also allows for a lot of great choreography.
Urban Legend (1998)
Piggy-backing pretty hard off of the Scream success, Urban Legend has its own little meta moments — literally telling the audience how each character is going to die, in an urban legend storytelling session, and then enacting said deaths on each cast-member.
Seed of Chucky (2004)
Cashing in on the meta movement, 1980s super villain Chucky from Child's Play goes meta by crashing his own Hollywood movie. In order to make a baby, Chucky (the evil child's toy with the soul of a serial killer trapped inside of it) and Tiffany (his doll bride) kidnap actress Jennifer Tilly, who is starring in the latest Chucky movie, and is also the voice of the evil doll Tiffany. There's lots of strange Tilly-on-Tilly-Doll action. I would also like to point out that Billy Boyd — Pippin from Lord of the Rings — is the voice of Chucky and Tiffany's doll child. The more you know.
Funny Games (1997/2007)
Two very polite young men, take a family of three hostage and force them to play a collection of disturbing survival games for their own enjoyment. It's completely brutal, and just when you think there's hope at the end of the tunnel for beaten and bloody victims, director Michael Haneke has one of the villains physically rewind the scene and start over. Thus erasing the helpless family's tiny victory. Breaking down that fourth wall forces the viewers to experience the same kind of helplessness as the victims. Stamping out all hope (even for the viewer) drives home Haneke's point about society's desensitization to violence. It's the movie equivalent to finding cigarettes on your kid, and punishing them by locking them in a closet until they've smoked the whole pack.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Underneath the glitter, lipstick and wild glamour of the musical Rocky Horror Picture Show is an intimate story being delivered straight from Dr. Frank-N-Furter to the audience. Possibly most apparent at the end of his beautiful solo "I'm Going Home" when Tim Curry raises his arms directly to the audience seeking applause. True, most musicals tend to reach out to the audience, but none directly connect with their viewers in the same manner as Rocky Horror. Heck, there's even a break down during the Time Warp, so the viewers can follow along.
So ridiculously meta that the director, Quentin Dupieux, takes a break from his central plot line (about a car tire that murders people with its telepathic powers) to bus in an actual audience to comment and watch the madness. Thanks for the tip Krakenstein2, and yes, it certainly does count.
Tucker & Dale Vs Evil (2010)
UPDATE: Added thanks to commenter suggestion. Too much genre knowledge can be a bad thing when it causes a pack of teen campers to run into bloody danger as opposed to dealing with the creepy hill people Tucker and Dale.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
UPDATE: Another addition thanks to popular demand (thanks everyone). A documentary crew captures one mad man's ambition to rampage on the town of Glen Echo.