I Never Meta-Horror I Didn’t Like

by Lindsay Miller

Why do I love horror movies so much? Partly, of course, it is because I am emotionally unwell: I really enjoy being afraid. I have spent most of my life searching for the Perfect Scare, the Holy Grail of nightmares, that ineffable something that will truly, deeply, life-ruiningly terrify me. (And no, you guys, it is not The Exorcist. People need to stop suggesting The Exorcist. It’s a perfectly good movie, but it didn’t scare me when I was thirteen and it doesn’t scare me now.)

But beyond the adrenaline-on-crack thrill of a really good scare, one of the things I love about horror is that it’s so darn predictable. There are so many rules governing who will die, and in what order, and what the Shocking Twist will turn out to be. To some people that won’t sound appealing at all, I know. But to someone who compulsively identifies patterns, who finds guidelines deeply satisfying, who always wants to know how the magician does the trick — to me, in other words — a horror movie is like a big gory puzzle just waiting to be put together. (Wait, normal people don’t find puzzle analogies exciting, do they?)

At some point, filmmakers figured out how much fun it can be to dissect horror, and they started doing it themselves, giving rise to a generation of hybrid meta-horror comedies, scary movies that play with and undermine horror movie tropes. Sometimes they’re not all that scary, but they’re often very funny and occasionally smart too. Start with these:

Scream. This is the classic, the point in history at which horror movies first became self-aware. I should admit to some bias, given that my relationship with this movie is deeper and longer-lasting than almost any friendship I’ve ever had, but for real, Scream is spectacular — consistently funny while still delivering scares, or at least jumps. If you don’t know the drill, a killer who’s really into horror movies puts on a ghost mask and starts hacking people to bits. Everyone involved is pop-culture savvy enough to understand what’s going on, so they’re making an effort to play by the rules — don’t have sex, don’t ever say “I’ll be right back,” and for God’s sake don’t run up the stairs when you should be going out the front door. (Oops.) In the sequels, the events of the first movie inspire a series of flicks called Stab, which serve as inspiration for each new generation of Ghostfaces. Art imitates life imitating art; the layers of meta quickly become impenetrable.

For all Scream’s playfulness, though, there are a few horror tropes it doesn’t joke around with. For one thing, it’s not coy about inhabiting the everything-happens-for-a-reason moral universe beloved by earlier slasher movies. Nothing is random, even the most violent dismemberment or death by garage door. Ghostface doesn’t just go out and start stabbing — like Michael and Jason before him, he believes his actions are justified. Also, as in almost all horror, the Final Girl is utterly sacrosanct. No matter how many sequels you make, you cannot kill Sidney Prescott. After the nuclear apocalypse, it will just be Sidney and the cockroaches chowing down on some Twinkies.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil. In some ways this movie is the anti-Scream. Instead of everyone knowing that they’re in a horror movie, the joke is that the ostensible villains are the last to figure it out. Tucker and Dale are just a couple of hillbillies hanging out, with occasional flashes of homoeroticism, at their falling-down vacation home in the woods. Unfortunately, a group of teenagers camping nearby have started dying in mysterious ways, and believe that Tucker and Dale are murderers picking them off. While the two buddies are trying to figure out where all these bodies keep coming from, the college kids are preparing for a fight to the death.

Tucker & Dale is not as clever as Scream, having pretty much just the one joke. It’s barely a horror movie at all — there are no real scares and not much tension, just a series of gory, improbable, thoroughly accidental deaths. Really, it’s more like a romantic comedy full of wacky misunderstandings and hijinks, along with chain saws and gore. But we do still get the requisite third-act plot twist where we find out that someone has a dark past, and all of this is happening for a Deeper Reason, which is standard (though subverted) horror fare. The climactic showdown is goofy but satisfying. And for once, in the end, the hillbilly gets the girl.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only slasher movie villain mockumentary in existence. If I’m wrong, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me about it. While the eponymous murderer prepares to go on a rampage, an aspiring journalist and her film crew follow him around, interviewing him and his friends to get the inside story. Leslie selects a virginal Final Girl (whom he calls the Survivor Girl, but come on, that’s not the preferred nomenclature) and does “so much cardio,” because he has to be able to do that thing where it looks like he’s walking slowly but he can still catch up to someone fleeing in terror. He also demonstrates his ability to feign death, which will definitely not become relevant later on in the movie.

This is, from a “take it apart and see how it works” perspective, one of the most satisfying scary movies I’ve ever seen. Everything that happens Leslie has carefully coordinated, and its significance is explained. As he sets up the house where his bloodbath will occur, for instance, he points out the tunnel of trees through which his Survivor Girl must emerge before their final confrontation, which will symbolize her rebirth via suffering. And when the film finally turns from a documentary into a straightforward horror movie, the fact that the heroes know exactly what’s coming only makes it scarier, because Leslie has thought of everything. (Including what will happen if the Final Girl, who has to be a virgin, is caught in flagrante hella delicto with some dude.) Whatever they try to outsmart him, he’s already expecting it and has planned for it. Even an “Ahab,” or nemesis, played by Robert goddamn Englund can’t derail his diabolical machinations.

The Cabin in the Woods. If you don’t know, act like you know. It is both the funniest and legitimately scary, plus it involves Joss Whedon, whom you may have heard is the most important thing to happen to movies since the invention of the close-up shot of someone’s face that pulls back to reveal that something creepy is behind them. Five college kids (no horror movie synopsis has ever started with “A group of retired airline pilots…”) drive out to the titular cabin, which belongs to somebody’s cousin. After the requisite truth-or-dare, they go exploring in the basement and inevitably raise a bunch of creepy zombies who want to torture them to death. Always fun!

The twist — well, sort of a twist (spoiler alert?); the audience knows all along, though it takes the protagonists a while to figure it out — is that all their actions are being monitored and controlled by a massive, sinister organization. The puppeteers intend to offer up the kids as a ritualistic sacrifice to appease ancient, evil gods, as they’ve done annually for countless generations. All the horror tropes (the gnarled old dude who warns them away from the cabin, the gratuitous sex scene, the strategically unsound decision to split up) are carefully manipulated, because the hell-gods are old and cranky and like things to be a certain way. The virgin has to die last because the gods command it to be so, which is slightly more of an explanation than “that’s just how we do.” In Cabin, unlike the other movies listed, the Final Girl does actually die — but she takes out every single son of a bitch who helped kill her, along with the entire rest of the human race, so I feel like we can count that as a win.

Enjoy your movie night! Just remember: stay with a buddy, don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, stay out of the woods, don’t go into the cellar, don’t pick up the phone, don’t run with chain saws, and whatever you do, do not read the fuckin’ Latin.

Lindsay Miller refuses to go into the basement, because that’s where the murderers are.