Horror is custom-tailored to scare you. A thriller aims to get under your skin. But what does a work of meta horror do to its viewers? It gets inside your head, makes you question reality and, perhaps, your own morals. The meta horror film is aware of the conventions of the genre, and knows that you are the one doing the watching. It morphs and adapts based on your expectations, often turning the narrative on its side for an even more uncomfortable twist.
The best meta horror films tend to leave you with all kinds of thoughts, quandaries, and an all-encompassing feeling of unease long after the credits have rolled. If that sounds intriguing, we’ve rounded up some meta horror must-sees for your very own viewing pleasure!
Kill List begins like any ordinary mercenary-for-hire narrative. Well, except for the fact that the first few frames of the film are dedicated to an odd, cryptic icon that ominously flashes onscreen before disappearing.
A British soldier returns home after a disastrous military mission in Kyiv; trauma affects his home life, and it doesn’t help that money is running low. A fellow ex-military friend reaches out, and soon the two soldiers are working as hitmen sent to take out a “kill list.”
Things get more bizarre with every kill on the list. It’s disturbing to see that our soldier loses his cool more and more frequently. And why does every name on the kill list give him praise and thank him as he pulls the trigger? By the end of Kill List, you’ll feel like you’ve just viewed documentary footage that should have never left the vault of the occult.
The Cabin in the Woods
You've likely already seen this popular and fun-filled send-off to horror movie tropes. And with good reason! It’s a perfect example of meta horror.
A group of teenagers plans on partying in the middle of nowhere, which usually means either a cabin in the woods, or down by the beach. This group chooses cabin, and it doesn't help that they are spitting images of the horror slasher tropes—the jock, the stoner, the final girl, etc. The film dials the meta aspect up a notch by being overtly self-aware and offering another perspective: a group of seemingly bored scientists watching the teenagers via hidden cameras and betting on their progress.
The Cabin in the Woods is meta horror at its most satirical. It's a nice refresher from the usual genre fare, which tends to drag you to hell and back.
Okay, actually this is the one film on this list that you’ve almost undoubtedly seen. Wes Craven’s 1996 film was a runaway slasher hit, remembered for Neve Campbell’s starring role and the iconic mask-wearing, knife-wielding killer who goes around gutting teens while quizzing them on their favorite scary movies.
The setup is simple and familiar: a small fictional town called Woodsboro is on high alert after a string of murders. A nod to genre staples Halloween and Friday the 13th—along with Wes Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street—the movie becomes overtly self-aware by way of the killer reenacting the gory details from the aforementioned horror classics. It’s fun and even a little frightening. The sequel is worth watching a few times too. It revolves around a horror movie that's based on the events of the first film, taking the meta element and managing to, well, make it even more meta.
Michael Haneke is one of those auteurs known by film aficionados as an uncompromising and often unpredictable director. He can go from something like Cache to the White Ribbon, all the while exploring violence and deviant behavior in unforgettable films like Benny’s Video and The Seventh Continent. Funny Games is one of his more disturbing films, managing to be quietly unsettling as it builds, scene by scene, game by game, until it leaves viewers feeling guilty.
The film begins with a family venturing to their summer home for the weekend, expecting some time out on the lake and lounging in the sun. Upon arrival, it doesn’t take long before someone’s at the door. Two teenage boys dressed in white introduce themselves, claiming they are guests of a next door neighbor’s and that they ran out of eggs. Seems harmless enough, until one of the boys drops the borrowed eggs before they can leave the front door.
The more outspoken of the two insists that it wasn’t their fault and demands replacement eggs. When the mother protests, things only get worse. Cruel little games usually reserved for children come into play, inevitably resulting in the teenage boys asking the viewer numerous times what we think should happen next. Who are you betting will survive, and who will die? Haneke makes the viewer complicit in the gore, and wow, is it effective and horrifying.
In the Mouth of Madness
John Carpenter’s sendoff to all things Lovecraftian, In the Mouth of Madness tells the tale of one John Trent, an insurance investigator on the case of a claim on Arcane Publishing. The work of an immensely popular horror novelist named Sutter Cane is believed to be a possible cause of recent violence and mass hysteria. It’s every bit a tale questioning the content we choose to consume, and it uses the paranoia and “otherworldly” terrors reminiscent of classic Lovecraft mythos.
Related: 11 Books for Fans of H.P. Lovecraft
Trent seeks out the elusive and supposedly missing author, losing his mind in the process. The film is endlessly self-referential, with the effects of madness directed onto the viewers themselves.
In Rubber, a spare tire gains consciousness and the ability to cause explosions. A stand-in audience watches from nearby through binoculars, playing the role of the would-be theater goers—right down to eating popcorn, providing commentary, and wondering what the spare tire will do and where it will go next. We promise it isn’t as stupid as it sounds.
Writer and director Quentin Dupieux manages to take an absurd and impossible concept and literally run with it. He plays with viewer expectations and the very essence of what suspension of disbelief entails, all the while showing the viewer that you need to venture into the territory of “meaninglessness” to break new ground.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Long before mockumentaries and shaky cam horror became the spare change of the genre, there were a few films (not just The Blair Witch Project) that took to the concept of peeling away all layers of film production so that the narrative itself looked, felt, and played out like a real documentary. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon uses the technique to follow one Leslie Vernon as he begins an exciting new career as a serial killer.
The camera and crew follow him as he plots his modus operandi, hunts his victims, and goes in for the kill. He frequently consults the camera, and therefore the viewer, about his work, joking about how he's still a newbie serial killer. As the film continues, we see a transformation in both Vernon and the role of the viewer, with the audience becoming both an accomplice and perhaps a point of competition for Vernon. It’s chilling stuff, and over a decade later, it still holds up remarkably well.