Have you always wanted to make a horror movie? These 7 meta horror films about horror filmmaking will make you think twice about that!
There are a number of tough professions to have in a horror movie. You probably shouldn’t be an innkeeper or a babysitter. It’s also pretty dangerous to be a scientist or a detective. But by far, if you’re looking for true blood-splatting, head-‘sploding misery, you absolutely should NOT go meta!
Making a horror movie is by far the best way to tempt the horror Gods. If these films are any indication, the cast and crew are putting their lives on the line every goddamn take. Whether it’s serial killers, dream demons, or the terrifying abominations in your own mind, these 7 horror movies will prove that the filmmakers are the true victims of their own creations.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to inspire a movie. Maybe you’ve dreamed of your heroic exploits becoming a hit film—even a successful franchise? If so, you might want to remember poor Sidney Prescott…
1. SCREAM 3 (2000)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: Stab 3
The Scream franchise is known for being the most self-referential of horror series. The original killings in the world of Scream have inspired the successful movie franchise Stab, first referenced in Scream 2. But in Scream 3, the terror really comes to Hollywood. Actors on the set of Stab 3 are getting killed in the order they are killed in the script, and mysterious photos left on the bodies seem to suggest a connection to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the traumatized final girl of the previous two films.
The Scream franchise has more than a couple of famous cameos and plenty of funny moments—actress Jennifer Jolie (Parker Posey) follows her real-life counterpart Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) in hopes that the killer will choose the real McCoy if confronted with both of them.
But the heart of this installment is about trauma, the way that pain can echo through the years, and the way that this pain can bubble up in unexpected ways. When Sidney sees her childhood home recreated on the soundstage, the moment is both heartbreaking and surreal. In Hollywood horror, you’re never quite sure who—or what—to trust. Guns can be props, voices can be faked, and your bedroom door can open into… nothing at all.
(FURTHER VIEWING: Scream, Scream 2)
Maybe you’ve always fancied yourself an actress? A Scream Queen with a whole franchise under your belt? Except some of the parts you play have a way of following you home…
2. WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Actress Heather Langenkamp (Heather Langenkamp), the star of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, is having nightmares. Trouble is, they seem to be spilling over into Heather’s life, and particularly into the life of her young son Dylan (Miko Hughes). Freddy Kreuger, the otherworldly killer of the series, seems to have leapt off the screen and into her life. After meeting with horror director Wes Craven (Wes Craven), Heather learns that Freddy is so angry he was killed off in the previous Nightmare film that he has broken through to real life. Craven says that Freddy can only be contained if he’s revived in another movie, and (in a classic director move) if Nancy agrees to star in it. As Freddy puts her son in ever-growing danger, Heather must fight against this nightmare as her own sanity is increasingly called into question.
It’s been suggested that New Nightmare started the trend of self-aware horror movies, beginning with the Scream series (see above) and continuing all the way to Cabin in the Woods. The opening set piece of New Nightmare is particularly fun, as the iconic glove apparatus takes on a life of its own on a film set. This film is also much more true to life than the others. Freddy’s significantly scarier too: his signature one-liners are gone from this film, and his trademark red-and-green sweater is covered with a dark trenchcoat. When not actively fighting Freddy, Heather deals with some very grown-up terrors. Dylan is first classified as schizophrenic, then threatened with foster care as it’s suggested Heather’s horror career makes her an unfit parent.
While the Nightmare movies have always been a lot of fun, New Nightmare is in a class above the others in the series. New Nightmare represents Wes Craven’s return to the series after being absent for several years, so it’s interesting that New Nightmare is about the characters you create invading your reality. And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the earthquakes Wes wrote into the film were shot just a month prior to the infamous Northridge Earthquake….
(FURTHER VIEWING: A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors)
Maybe not a scream queen, then. Maybe just a really good actress with a great reputation, your million-dollar smile lighting up the screen, and a chance for an Oscar to boot! But be careful you don’t get lost in your work…
3. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: On High in Blue Tomorrows (47)
Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is an actress who just got cast in a mysterious new movie. The film, we learn, has a reputation of being cursed. As Nikki gets further and further into character, she begins to have an affair with her co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux). At that point, things kind of begin to get… weird.
If you don’t think of David Lynch as a horror director… well, you’re wrong. Like its cousin Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire mixes surreality with the fragility of the human consciousness. Inland Empire loops through different timelines, weaving in and out of TV shows and rehearsals and through doorways to lost snatches of memory. Throughout, there is a persistent feeling of dread, as Nikki seems to weave in and out of any grounding reality. Clocking in at three hours, watching Inland Empire is an investment, but one that is truly worth it. This film will unsettle you to your core.
(FURTHER VIEWING: Starry Eyes, Mulholland Drive)
Okay, so being an actor is out. But what about being a director? That’s the true base of power. What if you lived in the 1920s, back at the very beginning of the medium? You could be one of the pioneers of horror, on your way to making a true classic and sacrificing everything for true authenticity. Just make sure your star doesn’t eat the crew first…
4. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: Nosferatu
F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is a German director on the cusp of making his masterpiece: a Dracula story that, to avoid legal rights to the novel, he’s calling Nosferatu. He’s hired a mysterious new actor called Max Schreck (Willlem Defoe) to complete his vision, and he’s warned his crew that Schreck is an extreme method actor. In actuality, Schreck is real vampire, and Murnau has promised Schreck the leading lady, Greta Shröder (Catherine McCormack), if Schreck agrees to act in the movie. Unfortunately for Murnau, the vampire is not controlled so easily.
Starting with the art deco artwork over the titles, Shadow of the Vampire is gorgeous. Like Nosferatu, it glories in darkness, creating gorgeous chiaroscuro in every scene. It eschews classic structure and establishing shots for a more disorienting, unsettling feel. But Shadow is also a hilarious send-up of the film industry. As Murnau finds Schreck harder and harder to control, Murnau and Schreck begin to negotiate. Murnau explains which crewmembers are needed and which can be sacrificed to curb Schreck’s appetite. Schreck’s erratic behavior is excused for so long because, as everyone knows, actors can go to crazy lengths to stay in character.
Every performance in this film is pitch-perfect, from Eddie Izzard to the always-extraordinary Udo Kier. Malkovich is riveting as the driven, myopic Murnau, but Willem Defoe is the clear standout. In one scene he goes from delivering a heartbreaking monologue on the nature of loneliness to devouring a bat he plucked from the sky—and it is completely, utterly believable. From pathos to slapstick, obsession to darkness, this one is a must-see.
(FURTHER VIEWING: Nosferatu, Gods and Monsters)
So as long as you stay away from evil actors, you’re free and clear, right? Just keep your head down, work on your movie, and everything will be okay. And if the constant gore is too much, if things get really bad, you can always see a shrink…
5. A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: The Touch of Death, Ghosts of Sodom
Italian “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci (Lucio Fulci) is in the midst of directing two of his iconically bloody horror films when he finds himself more and more affected by the gore. He can’t handle the sight of beef tartar. A man chopping wood with a chainsaw becomes a blood-soaked maniac in his mind. Eventually, Fulci seeks out psychiatrist Professor Swharz (David L. Thompson). But Swharz has plans of his own. Swharz uses hypnosis to make Fulci believe he committed a series of murders, allowing the maniacal Swharz to kill with impunity.
One of the reasons A Cat in the Brain is so interesting is because it’s a semi-fictional account of Fulci’s actual career, incorporating scenes from his other films as visions. Even the films he’ shooting in the film are real films from Fulci’s oeuvre. Fans of Fulci will notice segments from The Murder Secret, Bloody Psycho, and of course Touch of Death and Ghosts of Sodom.
However, this film also exists on its own; you can come in as a Fulci newbie and still thoroughly enjoy it. As in New Nightmare, the film deals with how a career of horror movies can have a lasting effect on its creator. Unlike New Nightmare, the horror is goofy and over-the-top. There is gore galore and buckets of blood. The ending is particularly entertaining: with a double or triple fake-out depending on which ending you see.
(FURTHER VIEWING: The Beyond, Touch of Death)
So maybe you shouldn’t be on set. Maybe it’d be safer if you wait until the movie’s all in the can. There’s a lot of fun in editing, too. Working with actors, watching hours of gore. When you’re an editor, you’ve got to make every cut count…
6. THE EDITOR (2014)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: Unknown
Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks) was a brilliant film editor before an accident took his hand. Now, he’s a broken man with a history of mental illness—and a terrible actress wife—working on just another Italian gorefest. That is, until the cast and crew start dying one by one, each with their hands mutilated just like Rey’s. Rey has to keep cutting around the dead actors while avoiding the suspicious inspector (Matthew Kennedy) and hunting down the killer himself.
Giallo fans are going to love this one. The Editor is a perfect spoof of the likes of Bava, Argento, and Fulci, with deep red lighting, intense gore, and ludicrously casual nudity. The creators even went so far as to overdub their audio so all the sound is ever so slightly off.
Though technically a horror film, don’t expect to be scared. This is the Naked Gun of giallo. It should also be mentioned that The Editor is the result of a successful Indiegogo campaign. Budding filmmakers, take note!
(FURTHER VIEWING: Deep Red, Bay of Blood, Opera)
If cutting doesn’t appeal to you, there’s always foley and sound design. Recording steps and screams, making the sound of cracking bones… That sounds fun, doesn’t it? Of course, some projects can really bring out the darkness inside…
7. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
FILM WITHIN A FILM: The Equestrian Vortex
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a British sound engineer who is hired to work on a film in Italy. When he arrives, he discovers that what he thought was an innocuous horse picture is actually a sadistic horror movie. He is further disoriented by the actions of his charming yet volatile director (Cosimo Fusco). As Gilderoy works, he at first resists then succumbs to the violent sadism of the film.
Berberian Sound Studio has no psycho killers, no vampires or ghosts. There’s no body count in this movie. But the film perfectly portrays the irreversible destruction of a delicate soul.
Gilderoy is a sweet, unassuming, typically British character who finds the Italian studio a severe culture shock. His only tether to reality is the letters he writes home. Gilderoy tries to keep a stiff upper lip, but the façade cracks and cracks further as he watches the horrifying imagery on screen. One is reminded of the early Norman Bates scenes in Psycho; the man seems so kind, so gentle, that for a moment, you wish the story would stop and end a different way. But of course, both fates are inevitable.
(FURTHER VIEWING: Psycho, Frenzy)
Hopefully this will prove that for those who value their lives, they may want to stay away from filmmaking for a while. Maybe take up a book instead. I found a strange looking one at this cabin in the woods…