Meta Horror Explained
Before Scream there were simply Horror films with meta-commentary. After Scream Meta-Horror had become a genre in and of itself.
It’s a question all horror fans have quoted and thrown around since it was first uttered back in 1996 when Wes Craven’s Scream first premiered. The self-referential and genre-deconstructing slasher not only breathed new life into the horror genre at the time, but it also restructured how we view horror films from that point forward. It was a horror film about horror films–and how we consume them. It may not have been the first meta-horror title to grace our screens, but it marked a notable trend that would follow for the decades to come.
Before Scream, there were a handful of horror films with meta-commentary. Audiences were already being shown the tropes and clichés of the time as far back as when Abbott and Costello met the various Universal Monsters in the 1950’s. Wes Craven had already made a masterpiece of horror cinema with New Nightmare (1994) just a couple of years prior to releasing Scream. Whereas New Nightmare housed Craven’s views on the horror industry, Scream contained commentary on the genre as a whole.
Ever since (spoiler alert!) Billy Loomis and Stu Macher terrorized their peers with horror convention as their blueprint, the jig was up. The audience was more in on the joke than ever, which resulted in a slew of films to join in on the fun–and the success. Bride of Chucky (1998), Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010), and The Cabin in the Woods (2011) all took note of horror tropes as they developed over the years, gleefully holding them up to the spectator’s noses to show that they knew what we knew.
The Next Stage in the Meta-Morphosis
Let’s take a step away from the Scream franchise and its imitators to broaden our view on the genre somewhat. The goal of this article is to spark discussion on a new form of meta-horror, or a meta-morphosis, if you will. We no longer live in a time when we need to unpack the basic structures of genre convention to celebrate it. On the contrary, we are now taking the next step in the meta commentary process.
Horror filmmakers are taking the knowledge garnished from commentary and have turned it all into action. The new meta is to look at convention and take a step away. To create a new convention. Two films from this year, 2020, that I feel demonstrate this move from commentary to action are Shudder exclusives, La Llorona (2020) and Host (2020).
On the surface, these films could not be more different. La Llorona is a quiet folk horror art house film predominantly focused on the real-life genocides of the indigenous people of Guatemala. Host is a fun found footage flick that plays on the limitations and insecurities of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from them both being, in my enthusiastic opinion, very good horror films, they don’t share a lot of qualities.
They have different tones, different subject matter, different settings, and even vastly different cinematic styles. Yet, when I watched both of them back-to-back earlier this year, I could not help but feel that they both displayed the same level of understanding of horror themes and tropes.
Both Films Have a “Been There Done That” Sort of Feel to Their Overall Premises
La Llorona tackles a well-known and frequently adapted Latin and South American legend. Just a year before the film’s release, the figure of La Llorona had been popularized in the widely released The Curse of La Llorona (2019) as part of the Conjuring universe of films. Audiences had already familiarized themselves with the basic idea of the legend either through the 2019 film or by knowing the legend.
Host had a similar issue upon its release, as its structure and appearance match other popular titles such as 2015’s Unfriended. Again, audiences had previously become quite familiar with the pacing and possible surprises in such a film. Both of these titles took the risk of familiarity and converted it into a strength.
With La Llorona, director Jayro Bustamante preys upon audience expectation in order to present an important socio-political issue within a surprising tale of dread and terror. He has taken the familiar structure of the “weeping woman” motif and flipped its conventions on its head. Rather than the titular La Llorona figure being a distraught and rageful entity out to drown any child that is not her own, Bustamante’s take on the character is that of a quiet, calculated indigenous woman out for revenge against the war crimes committed against her and her people.
From the onset, the film adjusts the rules on how La Llorona is most often depicted in tales and cinema. She is most commonly depicted as a wandering soul that one would likely encounter out near the place where she died. In the Shudder film we are locked inside the confines of General Enrique Monteverde’s home during his house arrest as a trial rages on against atrocities he had committed when in power.
Normally it is us who run into La Llorona on her path. In Bustamante’s world it is La Llorona who finds us. While we are bound to a handful of isolated locations throughout the film, she wanders the Guatemalan landscape to make her way to her murderer–although this is not shown on screen explicitly. Bustamante further flips the script with the motivation and themes surrounding La Llorona.
Perhaps the Most Striking Change Made to the Legend by Bustmante is La Llorona’s Agency in the Story
Whereas La Llorona is traditionally depicted as a woman who is eternally tormented by her own actions, this film shows her as a woman who was abused and murdered by a tyrant. Furthermore, as I briefly mention in my review of the film, the traditional portrayal of La Llorona can still be found through the figure of Carmen, Enrique’s wife.
Carmen fulfills the role of the scorned, vain woman who takes her rage out on her “children” –in this case, her “children” being the indigenous population of Guatemala. She resents how her husband had turned many of the women his troops came into contact with into concubines. Their abuse and rape, to Carmen, are signs of her failure to be appealing to her husband. Thus, when the time comes to stand up for them, she instead encourages Enrique to decimate them all. She wanders about in agony and shame while seeking some semblance of forgiveness, but she cannot find a way to forgive herself or grow beyond the anger she has latched onto for so many years.
By having the familiar tropes of the legend apply to Carmen instead of La Llorona herself, it allows La Llorona to behave in unexpected ways that are satisfactory for the viewer. She is given far more agency as a spirit, as she has been transformed from a guilty party to a hapless victim in life. This fuels her rage in a more relatable way. It allows for far more speculation and tension around her actions.
Alma, the name of the woman who embodies the La Llorona figure in the film, is clearly the spirit, but her behavior is wildly unpredictable. She is quiet, yet visible to the whole family. She is subservient and patient. She bides her time as she prepares the different family members for the oncoming onslaught she has prepared for Enrique. Her stillness keeps our breath caught as we await the spine-tingling jump scares prevalent through The Curse of La Llorona, but they rarely make an appearance. When they do, it is most often due to some real-world occurrence either at the trials or by protesters lurking outside the house.
Jayro Bustamante has done more than simply make an unexpected film. He has taken tropes and convention from both the legend of La Llorona and horror cinema, and made clear deviations from them to better get his message through. The horrors of the film emerge mostly from the horrific war crimes featured and the suffering that the Guatemalan public are shown to harbor all these years later. I would argue that La Llorona is an active meta-horror film. It makes the same observations about the horror genre that most meta-horror titles comment on while putting that knowledge into action. Host does this as well, but in a way that is more in line with our expectations of meta-horror.
Host Takes Horror Knowledge and Applies It
Host revolves around an ill-fated Zoom call between a few friends in the UK. They have assembled to perform a séance. The scene is set impeccably. We know each character’s quirks and major desires by the time the séance begins.
Although the tone of Host is much more casual and upbeat than La Llorona, it never drifts into the realm of satire or comedy the way most meta-horror titles do. Rather, it takes the events being presented rather seriously. Everything is set up to look genuine. From the playful behavior between the group of friends to the eerie silences when they hear something in their apartments, all of the elements of Host are designed with effectivity in mind.
What makes this film a meta-horror, though? In my view, if you were to take the characters from Scream and put them into a found footage format, the events in Host would play out in a similar way–perhaps minus all of the wonderful 90’s flair, though. What I mean is that the characters in Host are all designed to be real people living in our world. They have seen horror films. They make just enough mistakes to allow for the film’s narrative to take shape, but they are otherwise very cognizant, film-educated people. Often, they tend to behave just outside of our expectations.
A good example of this is Teddy, who, as the only man participating in the séance, one might expect to be a thirsty, sexist idiot that ruins the whole thing for everyone. He’s funny, loud, and garish. Yet, he’s also quite laid back and friendly. He does eventually leave the séance unexpectedly, but, in a nice twist, he is forced to leave by his partner who is not at all interested in him spending time on Zoom that night. Likewise, it is one of the people actually participating in the séance that ends up kicking everything off.
Jemma is a fascinating example of how Host steps away from your expectations with its characters. She is just disruptive enough to believe that she would make the sort of prank she does during the séance, while being cognizant enough to believably race to her friend’s aid at the end. We are presented with Haley as our major protagonist and “final girl” from the get go. She is the literal host of the Zoom call, she has done a séance online before, and she is the voice of reason throughout the film. It is through her interactions with Jemma that we get the idea that Jemma might be a bit much to handle sometimes. There’s tension there. This is where I feel Host implements most of its commentary on the genre.
Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd have crafted a script that makes active changes to familiar clichés, stereotypes, and tropes. Rather than blatantly explaining to the audience that certain moments are different from other horror films, they merely let the moments speak for themselves. Jemma could have been a deeply obnoxious character designed to be a clear problem for the group.
In most films with this sort of setup, Jemma would be so intolerably annoying we would likely be awaiting her comeuppance with bated breath. The team behind Host went a completely different route with her. She can be a little pushy and annoying, but she is generally kind, sweet, and loving towards her friends. Furthermore, she is not given the same send-off a really annoying character is often awarded. She is taken out swiftly and unceremoniously with a bottle of wine to the head. It almost feels merciful when we consider the long, drawn out fates of some of the other characters.
Another Way Host Treads into Meta Territory is in How it Handles its Scares
Rob Savage has developed a rightful reputation as a prank savant with his continued, masterful scare tactics in interviews and in a prank that lead to the creation of the film. His ability to direct our eye away from the source of a scare, or to give us exactly what we were afraid is second to none.
Savage shows a deep understanding of the rhythmic flow of the jump scare. Host is party to a fair few sudden frights, but none of them feel cheap. There’s a certain psychology to a good scare. Unfortunately, many films rely on mimicking the patterns set up by other films, as opposed to crafting their own rhythms. Savage dances around this throughout Host with skill. He keeps us on our toes with the timing of certain scares, as the timing is never the same.
In some cases, there is no scare where it is so clearly supposed to arrive–only to arrive a few beats after the setup. In other cases, the camera lingers on a moment that delivers just a bit sooner than we would usually be prepared for. Make no mistake, this is not accidental or lucky. These scares are all deliberately paced to make Host rise above its predecessors.
Final Thoughts On Meta Horror
There are far more films I would have loved to discuss here, but I wished to provide two strong examples for the sake of time and clarity. My goal with this article has been to share with you all a bit of my perspective. You may be thinking that simply applying twists to a film does not make it a meta-horror film. To which I would strongly agree.
What I hope to have made clear is that what La Llorona and Host have done goes beyond simple twists and turns. Both films deviate from the norm in a manner that is calculated. Each step away from expectation is done so as a small commentary on the expectation itself. They’re both side-stepping tropes while creating new ones. The result is not only a more surprising final product, but also a doorway that allows us as viewers to contemplate where our expectations may have stemmed from and to what conventions we might have become accustomed.
With filmmakers now taking the steps away from simply commenting on horror and, instead, acting on their knowledge of the genre, I believe we are on the brink of a new evolution for meta-horror. I simply can’t wait to see how the genre develops from here.
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