I have always loved discovering films that make me feel smart. Whether it’s a complicated thriller where I’m able to figure out the “twist” ending before it occurs or an overly academic art film where I get all the random references to Elizabethan playwrights, I love feeling slightly smarter than the other people in the audience. This might be because I’m a bit of an egomaniac with an inferiority complex (remind me that I’m intelligent or otherwise I’ll feel like a moron!), but I think it’s more that I like to feel rewarded for being an alert and active viewer.
And I know that I’m not alone in wanting to feel smart.
For years, writers have used meta-narrative devices to encourage audiences to feel smarter than the average bear. As many people who like to feel brainy can attest, the word “Meta” refers to something that looks at itself, pointing out its own limitations, weaknesses and strengths. Therefore, a “Meta-Narrative” is a story that looks at itself, is aware of being a story and can make fun of its own conventions or use them to its advantage. Audiences are often able to recognize when these meta-narratives appear, and they feel smarter because they can see how the story is looking at itself with mocking pride.
Traditionally, this device of storytelling was primary used in comedies, mostly in a parodic nature. Unlike in traditional parodies, which seek to make fun of something outside of itself (i.e the “Movie” series, such as Scary Movie, Epic Movie and Date Movie, all make fun of other films), a meta-comedy would want to make fun of its own story or the system in which that story is told in order to point out what was wrong with the system in general, such as The Player (1992) making fun of the greed of the film industry or The Muppets (2011) making fun of the fact that they haven’t been popular in years. By pointing out what was wrong with the system, they are able to point out the need for change.
Since the late 1990’s, however, meta-references seem to pop up in the horror genre and in horror-comedy hybrids more than in just straight comedies. Wes Craven brought meta to horror with his 1996 hit Scream in order to counter his audience’s expectations. The most famous example is when Randy (Jamie Kennedy) points out the “rules” (conventions) that traditional slasher horror films followed, and which Scream itself had followed up until that point in the film. Once the rules were spoken, however, the film rewrote the conventions under which it was operating. If this horror film had continued to play by the “rules”, then some of the characters that lived to the end of the film would actually have died. It told the audience the rules so that it could break them and to provide a much better final scare.
Since that time, meta has appeared in more and more horror films. The Blair Witch Project (1999) featured three filmmakers who were making the film in which they appeared, and referred to the filmmaking process consistently throughout the story. Scream 2 (1997) featured a film version of the events that took place in the first film, thereby creating a film within a film. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) featured a documentary crew who was interviewing a serial killer. This serial killer informed the audience how the action of the film would play out before it occurred. Paranormal Activity featured a couple that films their bedroom at night in order to capture the dangers that haunt them on film, and the actors use their real names on screen. Katie (Katie Featherston) even complains of feeling like she is constantly being watched (referring to the demon) as the camera prowls over her. By the time Scream 4 was released in 2011, it made sense that the film was so hyper aware of meta-devices that one character proclaims, “How meta can you get?” After this movie hit box offices, many critics began to think of “meta” as a dirty, four-letter word.
And so the more obvious meta-devices may be coming to the end of its cycle. But what would happen if a couple of filmmakers decided to use more subtle meta-references that are mostly hidden from their audience? Do those devices still have the same impact, showing the need for change? In the case of the Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard film The Cabin in the Woods, the answer is a resounding YES!
I went into this film with a specific expectation of what kind of film I was going to see. Based on the little that I had heard about the story and based on the limited amount of information that the trailer gave me, I thought that I was entering into a standard horror film. To be honest, if I wasn’t such a big fan of Joss Whedon (the mastermind behind such jewels as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog), I probably wouldn’t have bothered going to this film at all since I really feel like I’ve “seen” enough of the horror genre to last me a while. But it was a Wednesday night, and I wanted to see a movie. And I had no interest in seeing The Lucky One.
When the film began, I honestly thought for a moment that I might be in the wrong theater. I may have even ran out to the hallway to make sure that I wasn’t an idiot if it hadn’t been for the appearance of Amy Acker, an actress who can credit the majority of her career to Joss Whedon (Angel, Dollhouse, the upcoming Much Ado About Nothing, etc.). The opening scene features Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins complaining about “women problems” in a very corporate environment. What does this have to do with teens getting sexed up, drugged up and slashed in a cabin in the woods?
And so the meta-adventure began. Without giving away too many of the details of this surprising and ultimately hilarious film (oh yes, it’s a horror/comedy hybrid), I will say that the genius of this film comes in the form of pointing out the conventional nature of horror films but placing it in a context that keeps it from being so obviously meta as to leave a bad post-Scream taste in audience’s mouths. In a nutshell, The Cabin in the Woods reads like the love child of Halloween, The Hunger Games and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog.
Don’t get me wrong. This film is a horror movie. It has its share of scares and a few very bloody death scenes, but it executes its plot and pays off the expectations that the film sets up in a way that is both hysterical and extremely enjoyable. The film both uses the classic American horror characters (dizzy blonde, testosterone fueled athlete, virginal heroine, egghead academic and goofy stoner) and conventions (evil creepy dude who announces their arrival, isolated location, talisman that invokes the evil that shall destroy them all, etc.), but it also points out the overused conventions in other countries and the ridiculous nature of horror monsters as a whole. The way that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (writer of Lost, Cloverfield, Angel and others) builds this story uses meta-storytelling devices in a way that is unique and masterful, helping to morph the film, as you watch it, from horror to comedy.
As a writer, I think that it’s important to recognize that what audiences/readers will receive as acceptable is always a changing notion. Seeing how this film adapts the meta storytelling device is exciting for me because I can see how the craft of writing for the screen is working to redefine itself again and again. As audiences grow tired of seeing kids running through the woods with a handheld camera and talking about how they can only live if they are virgins, masterminds of writing like Whedon and Goddard are taking those same kids and making them awesome.
And I also felt very smart for recognizing the meta devices, despite how well integrated they may have been.