The Curious History of the Meta-Horror/Exploitation Film

Mention the term meta-horror to horror fan’s and a significant number will probably first think of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) or more recently Cabin In The Woods (2012). This is not unsurprising as Scream was viewed as an original film on its release, that did very much breath much-needed fresh air into the genre, and is indeed a well made film that successfully explored and defined the tropes of the previous era’s dominant slasher film. Upon a deeper analysis and my own exploration of the topic though I believe we can we can identify a degree of these elements throughout much of cinematic history. When exploring this we must first ask, how do we actually define a meta-horror/exploitation film? To me, a meta-film is that which portrays filming or film-making. A meta-horror/exploitation film is one that is therefore specifically referential to the horror genre. Importantly we must also make a distinction between this and a film that extends more towards a parody/spoof.

Though it we may not immediately attach such a definition to it, it is arguable that King Kong (1933) is one of the earliest forms of a meta-horror film. Foremost, it features a director as the main character, giving an impression of a film within a film. In certain aspects, Carl Denham can be seen as having the same character traits as the American exploitation ‘carnie showmen’ – as described by Kim Morgan in American Grindhouse – of the 1930’s. They were named by law enforcement officials and motion picture exhibitors alike as the ’40 thieves’. One of the most notable of these so-called thieves was Dwain Esper who produced Narcotic (1933) in the same year as King Kong and Maniac (1934) a year later. These independent filmmakers and distributors operated outside the framework of the motion picture industries Hayes code – in effect from 1930 to 1968 –  and peddled sensationalist content to audiences. Like our character Carl Denham, they had limited regard for business or general ethics. Carl Denham seeks to capture the giant beast and subsequently a lucrative prize, no matter what the highest of costs to his companions or the creature. It was therefore not beauty that killed the beast at its closing credits, as he remarks, but the carnie showman character within Carl Denham. Indeed his description of King Kong as the Eighth Wonder of the World is not too dissimilar to the same sensationalist promotional techniques used by the 40 thieves. Example include the following tagline used for 1935’s Forbidden Adventure; Wild Women Wild Beasts! or the sensationalist titles of Dwain Esper.

Released in the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom (1960) is an interesting example of the concept of a meta-film. The film invited audiences to see through the eyes of its protagonist Mark Lewis and share in its voyeuristic vision. Here, the need for our damaged protagonist to seek and destroy his victims reflects the audiences own psychological desire to explore such dark and titillating subject matter. The use of the film camera as a murder weapon, from which we also see his murders, also forces the viewer to try to identify with him. Equally, it allows us to confront our own feelings as we view the fear of Mark’s victims through the camera lens. It is, therefore, a film that allows the viewer to enact their own self-introspection and also comments on the growth of pornography amid relaxed attitudes to sex in society during the late fifties and beyond. Interestingly we can also link this to the developments within exploitation film-making in America. ‘Nudie cuties’ such as Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr.Tease (1959) – developed from previous nudist pictures – and burlesque pictures were particularly prominent in sexploitation cinema during this same period. These also preceded a trend of films known as ‘roughies’ that drew from men’s pulp magazines. Like Peeping Tom these combined graphic concepts of violence and sex.

Peeping Tom - Pamela Green
Pamela Green as the character Milly in Peeping Tom.

Indeed the burlesque stages of inner city red light districts, notably New York’s notorious 42nd Street, are where the origins of the term grindhouse comes from. Specifically, it refers to the ‘bump and grind’ of these stages and their transformation to ‘grind-house’ movie theatres. In Peeping Tom Pamela Green, whose character Milly poses for pin-up photographs found in these men’s magazines was an actual glamour model in real life. She starred in her own nudist film Nature as Nature Intended (1961). Unfortunately, such a realistic depiction of sexual themes effectively ended the career of its director Michael Powell as it seems that despite these changing attitudes there was a still a sizeable section of society who didn’t want these themes to be shown on film to the public. 14 years later Madhouse starred true horror icon Vincent Price alongside Peter Cushing as a veteran horror actor who previously played a ‘Dr Death’ – not to be confused with his real-life portrayal of Dr. Phibes in another AIP production, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) – in a series of fictional horror films. This preceded Wes Craven’s own post – modern horror film New Nightmare (1994), concerning Freddy Krueger’s entrance into the real world of his creator as the vessel of a demonic force, by over 20 years. 1974 also witnessed the release of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Despite the excellent cinematography of Gerald Hirschfeld that captures the atmosphere of Universal’s classic Frankenstein films of the 1930’s so effectively this can be more accurately described as a spoof/parody. It does, however, convey a clear respect and adoration for its original source.

Vincent Price as 'Dr Death' in the Amicus/AIP co-production; Madhouse (1974)
Vincent Price as ‘Dr Death’ in the Amicus and AIP co-production; Madhouse (1974).

During the 1980’s they were also several homages to classic horror in Fred Dekkers excellent Night of The Creeps (1986) and Monster Squad (1987). Unfortunately though under-recognised by more mainstream genre critics they are loving homages to Universal’s classic horror from the 1930’s/1940’s and 1950’s science fiction horror films respectively. It is Craven’s Scream series that is perhaps the most discussed contemporary ‘meta-horror’ series. In its most recent instalment some if its narrative reflects on the large number of remakes that have saturated the horror market since the new millennium and the large number of sequels to contemporary franchises such as SawBehind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) for this fan is a better film than Scream as a clever deconstruction of the slasher sub-genre of the 1980’s. One of its stronger elements is the development of a character story for its killer, with particular reference to Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees . This clever and well-made film uses this story structure to provide multiple and clever twists for its audience. In 2010 we also saw Tucker and Dale V Evil (2010) which uses the ‘red-neck’ sub-genre to develop its own comedy. In contrast, this is a film that leans far closer towards a parody much like the earlier Shaun of The Dead (2004). In an attempt to emulate classic exploitation cinema we have also seen a slew of films such as Tarintino’s and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) double feature; Planet Terror and Death Proof, Rodriguez’s own Machete (2010) and Dear God No! (2011). One of the best, however, is Jason Eisner’s Hobo with A Shotgun (2011). This succeeds in capturing the lurid attitude and Technicolour look of films showed within New York’s exploitation theatres of 42nd Street such as Street Trash (1987) very effectively. The most critically acclaimed meta-horror, or indeed horror film of any sub-genre of recent years, however, is Josh Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods (2012). The title clearly references the sub-genre of the same name that to a large extent originated with The Evil Dead (1981). Yet, despite praise by some quarters which rank it as one of the most original horror films since Scream, as we can see, it finds itself within a rich vein in the history of the horror and broader grindhouse/exploitation genre.

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