People in movies often refer to movies. And why, not? They are a big part of our world. However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in that movie be unaware of the original. For example, in the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the characters exist in a world much like our own with one notable exception: it is a world in which no one has seen the original movie.
Remakes aside, sometimes the ignorance of the characters in a horror movie about movies is laughable. The very title of the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre. And yet, when the law enforcement officers are perplexed about the nature of a recent murder, Pepe the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff), having looked at a photograph of the murder victim, tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf. Stanley acts as though he has never heard of such a thing, and Pepe has to explain to him what a werewolf is. In real life, Stanley would have said, “Oh yeah, there was a wolfman in the Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”
I can’t say that An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first movie in which people have an awareness of werewolf movies, but it is the first one to do so in a big way. Two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking through England. They stop at an inn called the Slaughtered Lamb, and one of them comments on the pentangle on the wall, saying, “Lon Chaney Jr. at Universal Studios said that’s the mark of the wolfman.” After they leave, they are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed, but David is only wounded. Jack comes back from the dead to tell David that all that stuff about werewolves is true, and that David has become one himself. It is interesting that though these two characters are Americans, yet the setting is in England. In other words, in the Old World, there really are werewolves; in the New World, there are only werewolf movies.
In Fright Night (1985), a teenager who regularly watches an eponymous late show, one in which movies about vampires are featured, gets the host who starred in some of those movies to help him deal with the vampire that moved in next door. Information gleaned from those movies helps them in their efforts.
The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991). Several teens decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods. One of them, Mike (Craig Peck) has seen every horror film that has ever been made, and he begins to notice all the warning signs typical of such movies. He enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping.
It eventually becomes clear that there is an alien creature intent on mating with one of the girls. After all, it is a given in such movies that human females are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe. At first, Mike begins using his horror movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.
The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996). The movie begins with a scene in which a Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone at night in a fully-lit house that almost seems to have more windows than walls. She receives an ominous phone call, and instead of hanging up immediately, she keeps talking to the caller. This is typical of women in such movies who receive such phone calls, where they say things like, “Why do you keep calling me while I’m naked?”
But instead of the creep on the phone asking her what color her panties are or whatever, this guy asks her trivia questions about horror movies. And this is just the beginning of such allusions. As audiences of Psycho (1960) were said to be shocked by the fact that a major star like Janet Leigh was killed off early in the movie, so too is Drew Barrymore’s character Casey likewise killed off earlier than one might expect for a star of her standing.
Casey and her boyfriend are killed by a character that eventually came to be referred to as Ghostface, who is both scary and funny. When thwarted in his attempt to stab someone, he takes what might be called variations on pratfalls. And yet we are brought back from these scenes of mirth to horror when he succeeds in plunging his knife into one of his victims.
Though seemingly a minor character, the most essential person in this film is Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films. He is like Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so. His expertise in this area allows him to correctly identify one of the two killers early in the movie, and he further acts as a guide through the movie by drawing inferences from horror films to the situations the teenagers find themselves in. In the sequel to this movie, he draws inferences from sequels, and in the third film he draws inferences from trilogies. But Randy is not the only one doing this. The two killers, who take turns dressing up as Ghostface, are also guided by their study of horror films. One of them says that they even took notes while watching them. And just as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There wonders if he and his friends are actually in a horror movie, one of this killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney (Neve Campbell), protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”
Going one step further, the sequels of Scream include as a plot point a movie called Stab, which is based on what happened in the movie Scream, and it has sequels paralleling the sequels of Scream.
It is possible to go even further with this principle of people in horror movies referring to horror movies, shaping their behavior according to what they have seen in horror movies, and even believing they are in a horror movie. The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a good example of that. But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea. I don’t think so.