Written by Dr. Jose
Horror films are no strangers to gettin’ a little meta from time to time. From straight spoofs like Student Bodies to the twisty April Fool’s Day to the skillful Scream, these clever flicks all approach how they play with the genre in different ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as a referential character name, and sometimes it’s a complex callback to other films that preceded and inspired it.
Another familiar gag is the “movie within a movie” bit, wherein characters in a horror film watch a fake horror film made specifically for said original film. (Still with me?) More often than not, that phony film within the film pokes fun at the horror genre in one way or another, playfully pointing out many of horrors ridiculous tropes.
Below is a short collection of these meta “horror movies within horror movies”. Have a favorite? Perhaps one we’re missing? Let us know below!
Italian horror maestros Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava teamed up in 1985 to bring audiences the punk-rock zombie flick, Demons – but there was more to the movie than just the undead running amok in search of warm flesh. In the movie, a select group of people are invited to a special screening of an unnamed horror film featuring a possessed mask that causes those who come in contact with it to turn into zombies. Not so coincidentally, the mask prop from the movie is on display in the lobby of the theater, and a girl admiring the mask accidentally cuts herself on it. And wouldn’t you know it – she turns into a zombie! Soon, the action on the big screen parallels what we’re watching happen in the theater from our own screens. (Adding to the meta-factor: apparently the theater in the film – The Metropol – would later screen Demons. What a trip!)
Writer Shane Black (Last Action Hero) and director Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) are no strangers to infusing their films with lots of winks and nods, and their joint effort, the kids-versus-monsters flick The Monster Squad, is no exception. At one point early on, our lead Sean (Andre Gower) is forced to babysit on a night he had planned to go to the drive-in. Being the clever kid he is, he improvises: he gets on the roof and watches the movie through a pair of binoculars. The movie in question? Groundhog Day 12, of course. Faithful readers might recognize the title: we’ve covered it before!
The under-seen and little talked about Spanish horror film Anguish may be the trippiest movie on this list. The first third of the film follows an overbearing mother (Zelda Rubenstein) and her serial killer son (Michael Lerner), an optometrist by day who removes his victim’s eyes by night. But just as soon as we start getting hooked by that story, the camera pulls back to reveal that it’s actually a movie entitled “The Mommy”, and it’s being watched by an audience of theater goers. Upping the meta-ante, there is a serial killer among the crowd, and the storyline that we the viewer are following bounces back and forth between what’s on the movie theater screen and what’s in the audience. And the most meta moment of them all? When the end credits start rolling, the camera pulls back yet again, revealing an audience who has watched a horror movie…about an audience watching a horror movie.
“Wait a minute…hockey season ended months ago!” These are the last lines uttered by the bespectacled geek before he’s killed by the goalie mask-wearing maniac brandishing a hedge trimmer in the fictional “Garden Tool Massacre”, from the 1988 remake of The Blob. This is another instance where we the audience know something bad is about to happen to the unsuspecting fake audience in the movie, as the titular monster soon overtakes the inside of the theater.
When Brian De Palma’s Blow Out opens, we’re following a knife-wielding slasher as he stalks college girls through their dorm room windows. He finally corners one in a shower, and just as he’s about to attack we find out we’re actually watching an ADR session for a fake movie called “Coed Frenzy”. Blow Out may not be an outright horror film, but it’s definitely the type of suspenseful thriller you could expect from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
If the plot line of your movie centers around a group of film students having an all-night horror movie marathon at a local theater, you gotta have some fake films in it. Underdog cult favorite Popcorn goes above and beyond the call of duty by offering four phony films: Mosquito (seen above), The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, The Stench, and Possessor. Once again, a madman runs amok in the theater as the movies play. Just a few years later, Scream 2 would replicate the madman in the theater bit; it’s clear that the meta Popcorn was ahead of its time.
Matinee is director Joe Dante’s love letter to the atomic b-movie era of films he grew up on and which would later directly inspire his own work (Piranha; Gremlins). Here we see John Goodman playing “Lawrence Woolsey”, a gimmicky William Castle type who brings his latest movie – Mant! – to a small town in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The faux footage of Mant! that we’re treated to is a perfect take on the black and white horror films of the late ’50s and ’60s, and makes me wish there was an actual full length Mant! movie.
John Carpenter’s ode to H.P. Lovecraft, In the Mouth of Madness sees John Trent (Sam Neill), an insurance investigator, tracking the whereabouts of a missing horror author. After a lot of mind-bending bouncing between fantasy and reality, John finds himself approaching a movie theater, of which the marquee reads: “In the Mouth of Madness with John Trent”. After grabbing a seat, the movie begins – and it’s everything we’ve watched the Neill’s character experience throughout the entire film. *Cue Twilight Zone theme music* (Carpenter would tackle the film-within-a-film trope once again in his Masters of Horror episode, “Cigarette Burns“.)
How do you top the uber-meta, super successful Scream when making its sequel? Simple: open on a movie theater audience watching a film called Stab, which is based on the murders which occurred in the first Scream. It’s a bit mind-bendy, but in terms of creating a realistic, all-inclusive universe, it doesn’t get better than the Scream franchise.
While we never see the titular fake movie, we hear plenty of it. That’s because Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a sound man working on the assumed giallo picture, creating all the squishy, gory sounds to compliment the celluloid murders we never get a chance to witness. Through mix of work pressure and being incommunicado with his Italian co-workers, the English-tongued Gilderoy starts to lose it, and pretty soon he becomes suspicious that perhaps there is a sinister conspiracy in the works – and so do we, the audience.
Last but certainly not least – and perhaps the most meta entry on this list – The Final Girls. When young Max (Taissa Farmiga) goes to see a revival screening of Camp Bloodbath, a fake Friday the 13th-type spoof (replete with masked maniac) that stars her late mother, a fire breaks out in the movie theater sending everyone into a frenzied panic. When Max awakens, she and several of her friends have been sucked into Camp Bloodbath, and they have to figure out how to get back to reality – or at least, try to survive until the end of the movie. It’s like a horror version of Last Action Hero – and yes, it’s as awesome as that sounds.