The Cabin in the Woods, the wickedly funny and winkingly knowing horror/comedy from director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon, hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, after a long-delayed theatrical run last spring that sent cinephiles spinning with pleasure. You see, Cabin is the latest example of our old friend the “meta-movie,” the films in which the act of moviemaking (and movie-watching) is part of the experience, and part of the narrative. After the jump, some thoughts on Cabin and nine more of our favorite self-aware motion pictures.
The Cabin in the Woods
“We love horror movies,” Joss Whedon explained at this year’s SXSW festival, where Cabin made its long-awaited premiere. “We also are very curious about what makes them tick. So we wanted to get behind the horror movie, and deconstruct it while at the same time celebrating how much fun they are.” And that’s the joy of the film (which he co-wrote with director Drew Goddard): it manages to simultaneously embrace, spoof, and analyze the tropes of the modern horror movie — and the bloodlust of cinema in general.
Whedon and Goddard were far from the first filmmakers to examine the clichés of the genre within a comic construct. In 1996, Wes Craven was handed a clever screenplay by newcomer Kevin Williamson (originally titled Scary Movie, ha ha) that asked a simple question: what if the protagonists of a horror movie were themselves connoisseurs of horror movies, and thus aware of what to do and not do? Scream raised the usual stakes — and made the audience experience exponentially more participatory — by explicitly stating the “rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie,” and then tinkering with our expectations. The wildly successful film spawned three sequels, and while the third and fourth installments were rather underwhelming, part two also featured some inspired riffs on how the rules are revised for (inevitably disappointing) sequels.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Craven came to Scream after his own experimentation with self-reflective horror two years earlier. The increasingly cartoonish Nightmare on Elm Street series, which Craven had bowed out of after part three (and then only as an executive producer), had concluded with 1991′s Freddy’s Dead. But Craven returned to the character of Freddy Krueger for New Nightmare, both directing the film and writing its screenplay, in which he and several of the original film’s actors — including actors Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and John Saxon — play themselves, haunted by a Freddy who crosses over from the fictional world they’ve created to the real one they inhabit. Craven’s most personal film to date, it finds the filmmaker asking some fascinating questions about what draws us to horror films, and what responsibility their makers hold when the lights come up.
Nobody writes meta better than Charlie Kaufman, whose scripts have taken us inside the brain of John Malkovich (and dumped us off in a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike) and onto a never-ending to-scale stage production of a life in progress. But his most self-aware project — to date, anyway — is Adaptation, he and director Spike Jonze’s film version of the seemingly unadaptable nonfiction book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Kaufman makes her a character in the film, along with himself and his fictional twin brother Donald (who shares a screenplay credit); they’re there presumably to keep him from having to “cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end,” all of which happens, of course, partially due to the insistent advice of screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), after a blocked Charlie reluctantly attends one of his workshops. In the film, that is. And maybe in real life, too?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
“And you? How ’bout it, filmgoer? Have you solved The Case of the… Dead People… In LA? Times Square audiences, please don’t shout at the screen, and stop picking at that, it’ll just get worse.” So goes one of the many pieces of wry voice-over in Shane Black’s funny and stylish neo-noir action/comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which amateur sleuth Robert Downey Jr. narrates with a sly blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation. The film’s mystery plot (a good one) is played fairly straight; the film’s wit comes from Downey’s running commentary, which critiques the filmmaking, warns of storytelling pitfalls (“I saw the last Lord of the Rings, I’m not gonna have the movie end, like, seventeen times”), and ends with a sincere apology for being a “bad narrator”. Co-star Val Kilmer even pitches in during the last scene, with a message for Midwest moviegoers: “Sorry we said ‘fuck’ so much.”
David Fincher’s ruthlessly cynical and uncomfortably funny adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel presents a dizzying array of unreliable narration and self-aware filmmaking, but his most “meta” touch is in his representation of one of Tyler Durden’s part-time jobs. Durden (Brad Pitt) works as a projectionist, and our narrator (Edward Norton) carefully explains how he spices up that busy work by splicing in single frames of pornography during family films. You can see the payoff to this set-up coming a mile way, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless: as Fincher brings the film to an end with an orgy of anti-capitalist explosions, there’s a splice of the male member right before the credits roll.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 was a huge hit and popular success, and although its 2004 sequel made plenty of coin, a good chunk of moviegoers weren’t crazy about it — and they seemed particularly put off by its rather wild and unexpected move into self-awareness in the third act. With most of the Ocean gang behind bars, remaining members Linus (Matt Damon), Basher (Don Cheadle) Saul (Carl Reiner), and Turk (Scott Caan) draft Danny’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts) to help out — by playing Julia Roberts. She almost pulls it off, and gets to pal around with Bruce Willis (playing himself) in the meantime, but audiences seemed to react unfavorably to Soderbergh’s sudden switch in the planes of reality: here we’ve spent a movie and a half in a movie universe, in which all of these celebrities are these characters and not these celebrities, but then suddenly it’s a universe where those celebrities exist. That said, we admire (as always) Soderbergh’s daring, and the wit with which he pulled the stunt off.
Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof has an infectious, anything-goes spirit, nowhere more than in its insane climax, which literally breaks the fourth wall. In the midst of the big brawl at the film’s climax, the characters bust out of the movie’s frontier town set and take over the Warner Brothers lot, barreling through the production of a musical number on an adjoining soundstage and starting a piefight in the studio commissary. The film concludes with villain Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) being shot outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre — which is hosting the premiere of Blazing Saddles. (Brooks went similarly self-referential in Spaceballs, with his character Yogurt taking a moment midway through the picture to introduce the film’s promotional materials.)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python’s uproarious 1975 take on the legends of King Arthur ends in a similar — though more abrupt — fashion; though Holy Grail followed Blazing Saddles into theaters, its long lead time indicated that the proximity in their conclusions is probably less a case of ripping off than one of parallel thinking. Either way, it’s still awfully funny: after a quietly funny subplot in which the occasional documentary inserts into the tale result in a murder and police investigation, a massive, epic battle for the castle that holds the grail is interrupted by the arrival of (modern day) police, who round up the whole lot and shut the production down. The cops knock the film out of the camera, the screen goes to black, end credits are skipped, and audiences are left either chuckling appreciatively or scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Cabin wasn’t the only meta-movie with the Whedon name to hit theaters this spring, and just go with us on this. The Avengers is the story of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who must somehow wrangle together The Avengers, a disparate group of superheroes with their own personality quirks and cooperative issues, and unite them in a common cause. The film was made by Joss Whedon, who must somehow wrangle together The Avengers, a common sequel to a disparate group of superhero movies with their own styles and backstories, and unite them in a common narrative. Both missions are a little bumpy at first, as Fury and Whedon struggle mightily to mesh the seemingly incompatible elements, but they all finally come together in the end, with the heroes/characters using each other’s strengths and compensating for their weaknesses as the group becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Totally makes sense, right?
Those are some of our favorite meta-movies — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!