Horror movies are about a lot of things -- psycho killers, demons, evil children, things that go bump in the night, people making unfortunate choices and virgins screaming, among other tropes. But once in a while Hollyweird gets deep and makes horror movies ABOUT horror movies. Here are some notable examples.
Every day this month we're bringing you a different Top 13 list from the world of horror. You can find them all here.
How To Make a Monster (1958)
This unsung movie from the glory days of American International Pictures is one of the earliest horror movies about horror movies. It tells the tale of Pete Dumond, a makeup artist at AIP renowned for his brilliant monster effects. A couple new studio heads proclaim the death of monster movies and plan to switch to musical spectacles. After they fire Dumond, he goes berserk, drugging and hypnotizing the AIP teen stars that play Teenage Werewolf and Frankenstein’s monster to exact vengeance on his bosses. The scene in which Dumond tells an embittered young actor that Teenage Werewolf is a profoundly rich and rewarding role will bring a tear to any horror fan’s eye.
Bobby, a psychotic, All-American Vietnam veteran, murders his family and becomes a sniper, hitting random people all around Los Angeles. His last stop: a drive-in theater playing Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), at which star Boris Karloff is set to make a guest appearance. Bobby’s rampage of violence is intercut with Karloff’s mid-life crisis, brought about by his feeling that the horror movies he makes have lost their relevance in such a brutally violent world. Peter Bogdanovich’s filmmaking debut is a true tour de force: at once a chilling character study, a brutal satire of violence in American culture, and a delicious depiction of a major transitional period for the horror genre.
House of Seven Corpses (1974)
A narcissistic director of a horror movie about witchcraft, and his cast and crew, move into a gothic old house. Its previous inhabitants were a witch and a family whose members met gruesome deaths. They find a Tibetan Book of the Dead, and—in spite of warnings by crusty old caretaker John Carradine—decide to use it to film a real life occult ritual. Naturally they summon a ghoul, and slowly everybody gets murdered. The 1970s, when authenticity mattered in films! The movie has some wonderful gothic atmosphere. However, it makes less and less sense as it goes along (a good thing, to some). According to the commentary on the new Blu Ray, even its makers weren’t totally sure what it was about. Here's an extremely weird, yet bizarrely appealing, montage from the movie:
Fade to Black (1980)
One of the taglines for this film read: “Meet Eric Binford, the ultimate movie buff. If you know someone like him... run!” Rude. In popular culture, horror fans always seem to get a bad rap. However, Fade to Black, one of the classic “pathological cinephilia” movies, shows some compassion towards its maniac. Eric Binford has a seriously crappy life: his aunt abuses him and his co-worker is a bullying Mickey Rourke. His only happiness comes from obsessively watching, quoting, and collecting memorabilia from movies. A Marilyn Monroe look-a-like sends Eric over the edge of sanity when she flakes on their date. In response, he begins dressing up like movie characters (including Dracula and The Mummy), and murdering those who oppress him. On some literal or figurative level, we’ve all had such days.
The Last Horror Film (1982)
Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro, who played the star-crossed lovers in the romantic tearjerker Maniac (1980), get postmodern in this slasher film/mental breakdown melodrama, which was shot guerilla style at the 1981 Cannes film festival. Spinell plays Vinny, a cabdriver who must make a film with the object of his obsession, horror movie star Jana Bates (Munro). Vinny stalks her through the festival, trying to pitch his project. Soon, her friends fall victim to a brutal killer. Is Jana the final girl in Vinny’s snuff film? Spinell’s loony yet scary performance is the highlight of this oddly ahead of its time film. Look out for a poster of Cannibal Holocaust (yes, it played at Cannes)!
An evil horror movie about Nostradamus turns its sneak preview audience into ravenous cannibal zombies. A gang of motorcycle punks unwittingly come to the rescue of the few remaining survivors. It has been rumored that similar events took place at a screening of The Sound of Music Sing-a-long, leading to the current epidemic of reality TV talent shows.
This film includes the first and only leading performance by Saint Zelda Rubenstein (Poltergeist), which is a crime. She plays a crazed, overbearing mother who makes her son, an optometry intern, kill his patients and bring her their eyes. This narrative turns out to be a movie within a movie titled Mommy. In Anguish’s second half, we follow a killer who becomes so obsessed with Mommy that he begins killing his fellow theater mates. Not surprising, as we all know that Zelda Rubenstein is extremely powerful. At one point, you are watching a movie within a movie within a movie. One IMDB reviewer describes seeing it in a theater in which the manager hired actors to re-enact the events of the film, so that audience members were living the movie within a movie within a movie that they were watching. It’s enough to confuse anybody, except for Carol Anne Freeling. She’s been through more chaotic multimedia immersion. Just to add to the weirdness, the above trailer is in Spanish. :
The Black Cat aka Demons 6: De Profundis (1989)
Long before Mother of Tears (2007), Luigi Cozzi (Dario Argento’s best friend) directed this little seen film, about a director daring to make the third movie in Argento’s legendary Three Mothers trilogy (which began with 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno). The film’s production accidentally brings Levana, the unspeakably evil third mother, into the real world. Only the actress playing Levana can stop her from world domination. An astounding premise is given a somewhat middling execution, but you will find some cool sequences here. Who knew that a gothic Three Mothers yarn could benefit from visuals involving laser beams? Above is an important montage of scenes from the film set to late 80s metal:
A group of film students try to rectify severe budget cuts to their department by reviving an old movie palace and holding an all night horrorthon/costume party. In the theater, the crew finds a lost avant-garde horror movie called Possessor, directed by a cult leader named Lanyard Gates. Gates made the film before setting his cult members ablaze in the theater. On the night of the big event, a killer knocks off our heroes by screwing with their attempts at William Castle-style showmanship (during the movie Mosquito, someone gets impaled by the gigantic insect that was to fly over the audience, etc.). Aspiring director Maggie (Jill Schoelen), who feels a strange connection to the theater, thinks that Lanyard Gates might have returned. The only thing more fun than watching Popcorn would be living in it. Even Dee Wallace (The Howling; E.T.) makes an appearance as Maggie’s mom. Above is a memorable death scene from the movie.
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
Craven’s pre-Scream attempt at meta-horror sent many Nightmare on Elm Street fans into raptures. Saint Heather Langenkamp makes her triumphant return to the series, this time playing herself. She good naturedly satirizes Freddy Krueger’s tendency to dominate her life and her career: Fans only remember her for the NOES series (stupidly forgetting Just the Ten of Us and her startlingly accurate turn as Nancy Kerrigan), and most of them care more about Freddy. New Line wants her to make yet another entry in the series. Craven allegorizes Krueger’s refusal to let the star get on with her life and career by having him literally come out of the movies to stalk her. In one of the most profoundly moving scenes in horror movie history, Craven (playing himself) tells Heather that the only way for her to exorcise Freddy from her life is “to play Nancy one last time.” New Nightmare would make a great double feature with Langenkamp’s terrific documentary I Am Nancy (2011), in which the actress examines the role that her NOES character has played in her own life, and the lives of many others.
What more is there to say about Scream? It is the blockbuster horror movie about horror movies. The one that everybody has seen. For years every horror movie had to endlessly comment on its own conventions, because of Scream. Such self-reflexivity did not usually lead to good scares. Instead, it inspired a lot of “above it all” attitude towards the genre among non-horror fans who thought that they knew everything about the genre, because they had seen Scream. It was a dark time. Since the film carries so much baggage, one might be tempted to write it off. However, 17 years later (!) it holds up beautifully, and has proven itself as a contemporary classic. It still inspires real laughs and scares. Thanks to Wes Craven and Neve Campbell, Sidney remains one of the great horror heroines. Scream never condescends to the horror genre. It makes the clever point that, when actually put in a terrifyingly cinematic scenario, people might find that they’re not more intelligent than horror movie characters after all.
All About Evil (2010)
The great horror aficionado Joshua Grannell (better known as drag queen legend Peaches Christ) directs this catnip for horror lovers. Natasha Lyonne began her comeback as Deborah Tennis, a mousy librarian who inherits her father’s failing movie house. In order to save it, she uses her literary knowledge to produce gruesome short films with titles like Slasher in the Rye and The Maiming of the Shrew, and soon develops a legion of fans. They don’t realize that the victims in Deborah’s films are real, and that they might be next. Let this column be an open letter to filmmakers everywhere that we need, need more films about mousy librarians who kill. During the reign of torture porn, All About Evil brought back the sense of twisted fun that we remembered from 1980s horror comedies like Re-Animator (1985), Parents, and Society (both 1989). However, Grannell has a sensibility all his own. The film features cameos by Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson and Mink Stole. Even if the movie stunk, the cast would make it perfect.
The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence
Director Tom Mix definitely out-grosses himself with this sequel. Martin, a mentally disabled, horrifically abused man with a maniacal love of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), decides to rent an abandoned warehouse and create his own 12-person human centipede (including, in an unlikely turn of events, one of the actresses from the first film). However, since he’s not a doctor, Martin must rely on items like crowbars, staple guns, string, laxatives, and rusty needles to create his...project. The result is like an extremely depraved version of the fan film Star Wars Uncut. The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence is truly disgusting. It’s also kind of boring. However, it benefits from its admirably bold lack of taste and weird, gritty style.