People in movies often refer to movies. And why, not? They are a big part of our lives. However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in those movies 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 the original movie does not exist. Of course, the 1978 version alluded to the original when Kevin McCarthy was seen running down the street screaming, “You’re next!” But that was just an inside joke with the audience. No one in the movie said, “Isn’t that the actor who was in that body snatcher movie?”
Remakes aside, the characters in a horror movie are usually unaware of horror movies in general. The very title I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre. And yet, it appears that no one in this movie has ever seen a werewolf movie. When 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 and crossed himself in terror, says he knows what killed the boy. He tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf. Speaking with an East European accent, Pepe tells of a how in the Old Country, when he was a little boy living in a village in the Carpathian Mountains, there was a story, passed down from generation to generation, of men who became like wolves when the evil eye was upon them. 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 wolf man in that Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”
In defense of this decision to make characters in a horror movie seem to exist in a world where no one has ever seen a horror movie, the reason is that it would be like breaking the fourth wall, which interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief. Had Officer Stanley alluded to having seen a werewolf movie, it would have reminded the audience that what they were watching was also just a movie, which would undermine the movie’s ability create an atmosphere of terror and suspense. When this happens, the movie tends to also be a comedy.
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 wolf man.” 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, much in the way that the Lon Chaney character, Lawrence Talbot, in the movie referred to above, The Wolf Man (1941), returns from America to his ancestral home in Wales, and it is there that he first learns about werewolves. In other words, in the Old World, they know about werewolves from legends they are told from the time they are young; here in the New World, we know about werewolves from the movies. Unless we are in a movie, and then we might be oblivious.
In Fright Night (1985), teenager Charley Brewster suspects that his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire. That would be scary enough, but the real dread is oedipal. Vampires in the movies always seem to have sexual implications, and Charley’s mother, who is divorced, is attracted to Dandridge. It is not uncommon for a teenage boy to be disturbed by the prospect of his mother having sex with another man, especially an attractive mother who tells her son in the middle of the night about a dream she had: “I was at this white sale and suddenly realized I was stark naked.”
Now, you may be thinking I’m going overboard with this Freudian interpretation. And indeed, if such a thing happened in real life, a mother telling her son about a dream she had in which she didn’t have any clothes on, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything. But writer and director Tom Holland, who also was the writer for Psycho II (1983) and Child’s Play (1988), a couple of other movies about a boy and his strange relationship with his mother, deliberately wrote that line into this movie. He could have had Charley’s mother tell her son any one of a hundred other dreams, but Tolland, with malice aforeplay, decided to have her tell her son about a dream that encourages him to imagine her naked.
Anyway, Charley consults his friend, Evil Ed, who knows a lot about vampires from watching movies on the eponymous late show. One item on Evil Ed’s list of vampire traits is that a vampire cannot enter your house unless invited in. Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner does Charley get back home than he finds Dandridge in his house, having been invited in by his mother, who seems to find Dandridge quite charming. In Freudian terms, the house represents her vagina, which Dandridge has entered after having been invited to come inside.
But while Charley is apprehensive about his mother’s fondness for the vampire next door, Dandridge is smitten by Charley’s girlfriend Amy, who reminds of his lost love. Charley’s unconscious desire to keep his mother to himself is recapitulated openly by his jealousy over the fact Amy also desires Dandridge, even to the point of having sex with him, something she never did with Charley. Of course, that was actually Charley’s fault. Just as Amy was taking off her clothes so that they could finally have sex for the first time, Charley lost interest in her when he looked through the bedroom window and saw that a vampire was moving in next door. Dandridge’s sexual relationship with the two women in Charley’s life, merely suggested in one case, fully consummated in the other, establishes a psychological identity between Charley’s mother and Amy.
As informative as Evil Ed has been, Charley turns to Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), former actor in vampire movies and host of Fright Night, which features vampire movies. He also claims to be a vampire killer. He is a Van Helsing character, except that in the old movies, Van Helsing’s knowledge about vampires came from books, but now such knowledge comes from the movies. Vincent helps Charley kill Dandridge, allowing Charley to regain possession of both his mother and Amy.
The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991). The movie begins in a video store in which Sally, a teenage girl that works behind the counter, is all alone. There is a television in the store featuring a movie in which a girl is apparently being chased by a mad slasher, since the store seems to feature almost nothing but movies of mad slashers chasing pretty girls. Someone enters the store and begins chasing Sally. It turns out that she is dreaming, having fallen asleep at the wheel, and the car crashes in the woods.
Presumably, she does work in such a store, which has led her to have a dream in which she is threatened by a mad slasher, just like all those movies she is surrounded by every day. This scene makes us aware of the interaction between art and life, between dreams and reality, something that has always existed, but by this time has become intensified by the invention of the videotape recorder.
By coincidence, a large space frog has fallen from the sky and lands right near her car. It further damages the car trying to get to her so that, as we later find out, it can mate with her; for it is a given in such movies that teenage girls are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe.
Meanwhile, seven teenagers decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods, owned by the parents of one of the teens. As they pass by Sally’s deserted and demolished car, surrounded by a police car and an ambulance, Mike says it’s a shame that this has spoiled their plans, but they must turn around and go back home. The others in the car think he has just been spooked by the scene itself, but Mike points out that it is suffused with meaning that he has gleaned from renting every horror video that has ever been made. The scene with Sally’s car, he avers, is what is technically known as the warning stage. It is worth noting that the other six teenagers are couples, and that Mike is the only guy without a girl. This is significant for two reasons: first, only a nerd who can’t get a date would have the time to see all those horror films; second, virgins stand a better chance of surviving a horror film than their sexually active companions. Anyway, they ignore his foolishness and press on, with Mike saying, “There’s mistake number one.”
When they arrive at the house, Mike enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping. Later, another group of teenagers arrive. They appear to be low class and scroungy, all doped up on marijuana, and they go skinny dipping in the pond. Turns out they thought they had arrived at the “camp by the lake,” undoubtedly an allusion to Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th (1980). They leave when they realize their mistake. Mike declares that this is a foreshadowing, saying, “Those kids were born to be murder victims and just paid us a visit.” As for Mike’s friends, one couple does go skinny dipping, and another couple does wander off into the woods, all destined to become victims of the space frog.
At first, Mike uses his horror-movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.
In the end, Mike comes up with the idea of using mirrors to confuse the space frog, allowing him and two remaining companions to trap the frog in the oven. And thus it is that by reflecting on horror movies, Mike kills the frog through reflections in the mirrors.
The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996). The movie begins with a scene in which 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 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 attempts 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, a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films. He is like a combination of Sally and Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so. He enunciates the basic rules for surviving a horror film: don’t have sex; don’t drink or do drugs; and never say, “I’ll be right back.” But even he fails to take advantage of his own expertise in such matters, as when he is is drunk, watching a horror film, presumably Halloween (1978), yelling at Jamie Lee Curtis to “Look behind you!” while he fails to look behind himself, where he would have seen Ghostface standing behind him, holding a knife. Nevertheless, 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 the killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney, protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”
Going one step further, the sequel to Scream includes 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 to Scream. So, not only are the characters in these movies aware of the horror movies that came before, but they also live in a world where there are movies based on what happens in this movie, not external to it, like Scary Movie (2000), but within the movie itself.
I suppose 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. But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea. I don’t think so.