Sunday 4 February 2024

How Meta Horror took the 90s by Storm

If you think ‘Scream’ in 1996 and its sequels opened the creaking doors and led us into the spooky world of meta - horror, think again! Meta cinema was a staple of horror before Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson’s newest slasher franchise splattered onto  the big screen, and is soon to be explored by writer/director/producer David Weiner in a new ‘In Search of Darkness’ chapter. After a successful crowdfunding campaign in October last year (2023), ‘In Search of Darkness: 1990 -1994’ is currently in production and promises to lift the veil on the so-called ‘lost decade’ of horror. What does it mean to be meta and how did it shape the evolution of the horror genre in the 90s? Before we look at the two films that started the 90s Meta horror trend let’s briefly look at the rise of this reflective storytelling phenomena. Numerous films put meta at the heart of their productions and is thought to have started with the 1940 musical ‘Road To Singapore’. 

Many more filmmakers explored the metaverse including Billy Wilder with ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and its oh so classic closing line. Mel Brooks’ earlier works in the 1970s, put meta at the heart of much of his work in that era -  what could be more meta than 1976’s ‘The Silent Movie’ about three film makers pitching to make the first silent movie in 40 years, filmed as a silent movie? Other filmmakers delving into meta concepts included: Brian De Palma (‘Blow Out’) Tom Holland (‘Fright Night’), Robert Altman (‘The Player’), Joe Dante (‘Gremlins 2’, ‘Matinee’) all the way to Ben Stiller who pushed the meta boundaries with the hilarious ‘Tropic Thunder’. Midway through all of this the horror genre joined the party a little but when it did the scares, humour and love quickly ramped up to 11.

Dom De Luise, Marty Feldman, and Mel Brooks get meta
in 'The Silent Movie'

What is Meta Horror

Meta horror, like other forms of expression, is the art of self-reflective storytelling whereby the art either in homage, parody (even both)  points a discerning finger at itself. Parody and homage are key ingredients of meta films directing their expressions towards other films, either through self- referential content or the film within a film story line. Meta horror is highly self referential and like comedy, can use paradoxes or oxymorons to create contrary or absurd situations. However its limitations lie in one undeniable factor; the audience needs to be in on the joke. ‘Scream’ can still be enjoyed as a slasher flick packed with gnarly kills and gruesome scares but unless you’ve grown on up a cinematic diet of gory slashers and supernatural scares through which classic horror troupes formed as much of an education as calculus, then the character of Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), will hold little affection for you. As I mentioned earlier, although ‘Scream’ and its sequels are synonymous with 90s meta horror it didn’t start there. 

The 80s gave rise to meta horror with Tom Holland’s ‘Fright Night’, through the character of horror film nerd Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale), and former horror actor Peter Vincent (Roddie McDowell) whose name is an amalgamation of horror starts Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Fred Dekker’s ‘The Monster Squad’ was an affectionate homage to classic gothic horror matinee monster flicks. Meta horror, however, grew more popular in the 90s, a decade that was more cynical and reflective, in contradiction to 80s’ excess. After the 80s horror explosion, a time of craziness and innovation, it was time for a cooling off period. This ushered in the ‘lost decade’ of horror, and in this time two independent films opened the door to horror’s own metaverse, a move often attributed to the ‘Scream’ franchise’ 

Look out for part two of our dive into the world of Meta horror.

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