With the second season premiere of MTV’s Scream just a few days away, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on its place in the canon of great meta-horror films. When the first Scream hit theaters in 1996, it was applauded for its dark humor, rooted in a smart self-awareness — this was a horror movie that knew it was a horror movie, and through a variety of nods and winks at the audience, some more subtle than others, it pulled off the tricky feat of playing with the genre’s tropes while remaining legitimately scary.
While the film is responsible for popularizing the genre of meta-horror for a wider audience, it’s certainly not the first — or the last —scary movie to employ these kinds of postmodern devices. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest self-aware horror movies of all time!
Scream – 1996
We may as well start here. People who complain that Scream is too cheesy for its own good are missing the point. This is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing throughout. Scream takes place in the small town of Woodsboro, where a group of horror film-obsessed teenagers is stalked by a fellow horror movie nerd. The movie toyed with the conventions of the genre in a number of ways, even going as far as explicitly laying out the ground rules of a horror film in a particularly ironic scene, which you can watch above. By the end, all of the boxes are ticked, and the story plays out almost exactly as the town’s know-it-all teens expect it to.
Man Bites Dog – 1992
This classic Belgian mockumentary is equal parts chilling and darkly funny. Under-appreciated on its initial release, this film gained cult-status years later. In Man Bites Dog, a documentary crew follows a nihilistic criminal as he commits ruthless acts of violence around Paris. After a while, the once-impartial crew begins taking part in some of the killer’s murders, implicating themselves and making a bold statement about the media in the process: neutrality, no matter how hard one tries to maintain it, might actually be impossible.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – 1994
In this movie about the production of the latest installment of the Elm Street series, Wes Craven gets past the fact that Freddy Kruger was killed in the hilariously titled Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Craven, who went on to direct Scream a couple of years later, even plays himself in the movie — there are a couple of hilarious scenes in the movie where he describes the idea of writing a movie within a movie. It’s movie inception all around as the actor’s dreams are routinely infiltrated by the razor-gloved serial killer.
Peeping Tom – 1960
In Peeping Tom, a sadistic serial killer uses a movie camera to film the looks on the faces of his victims as they die in the hopes of putting together the ultimate document of terror. This experimental take on the genre included a number of segments in first-person of the titular killer murdering his victims. While the approach has since been applauded as visionary, audiences and critics at the time found it a bit too visceral, and the movie ended up, well, murdering director Michael Powell’s career. In the age of the gruesome realism of Saw, the murders in Peeping Tom seem relatively tame, but you have to appreciate what this early meta classic managed to pull off.
Funny Games – 1997
Soaked in black humor, Michael Haneke’s psychological horror classic Funny Games breaks the fourth wall a number of times during its irresistibly gruesome 109 minutes. A pair of psychopaths holds a family hostage, torturing them with a variety of sadistic games. In the end, the movie almost explicitly tells the audience that Hanake isn’t sick for making a movie like this — the audience is sick for enjoying it. For those philistines among us who can’t stand subtitles, a shot-by-shot remake, also directed by Haneke, was produced in America in 2007. Either is worth your time, you sicko.
Shaun of the Dead – 2004
More of a lighthearted comedy than any of the other movies on this list, Shaun of the Dead is very obviously the product of someone who knows their stuff about horror films. This movie, based on an episode from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s genre-spoofing sitcom Spaced, doesn’t try to hide its self-awareness in the slightest. Nearly every shot and line in the movie pays homage to the institution of horror movies, from countless references to The Evil Dead to its naming of a restaurant after Italian horror director Lucio Fulci.
Drag Me to Hell – 2009
In Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, our protagonist, a young banker trying to make a name for herself in this cruel world, denies an old woman an extension on her home loan. The woman retaliates by putting a curse on our poor hero, threatening her soul with eternal damnation. Campy, hilarious, and terrifying, Drag Me to Hell is one of the best self-aware horror films of all time, a playful breath of fresh air from all of the “edgy” sadism prevalent in contemporary horror.
Cabin in the Woods – 2011
No list of self-aware horror movies would be complete with mentioning 2011’s raucous Cabin in the Woods. This movie plays with horror movie tropes like a baby plays with an iPad, recklessly exploiting the audience’s expectations to provide viewers with a totally weird — and totally refreshing — slasher flick. Complete with some of the craziest CGI special effects from recent memory beautifully interwoven with low budget scares harkening back to slasher movies of old, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s 2011 film is a classic of both meta-horror and horror period. Repeated viewings might not have the same dizzying effect as your first time, but it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it remains entertaining even after you’re privy to its devious set of tricks.