The Curious History of Meta-Horror / Exploitation Films

Maxwell Dean

If  the term meta-horror is mentioned to horror fan’s a significant number perhaps may first think of Wes Craven’s Scream released in 1996. This is not unsurprising as Scream was viewed as a original film on it’s 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 first we must 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 a 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 distributers 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 such as the following tagline used for 1935’s Forbidden Adventure; Wild Women Wild Beasts! or the sensationalist titles of Dwain Esper.

Peeping Tom - Pamela Green

Pamela Green as the character Milly in Peeping Tom.

Released in the same year as Psycho Peeping Tom (1960) is a interesting example of the concept of a meta-film which 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 see his murders also forces the viewer to try to both identify with him but equally 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 where ‘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’ from that drew from men’s pulp magazines and which like Peeping Tom combined graphic concepts of violence and sex. 

Indeed the burlesque stages of inner city red light districts are where the origins of the term grindhouse comes from – referring to the ‘bump and grind’ of these stages and their transformation to ‘grind-house’ movie theatres. In Peeping Tom Pamela Green stars as the character Milly who poses for such pin-up photographs found in these men’s magazines was an actual glamour model in real life who starred in her own nudist film Nature as Nature Intended (1961). Such a realistic depiction of sexual themes also 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, much like the conservative elements who opposed American exploitation cinema who didn’t want to 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 Cravens own post – modern horror film New Nightmare (1994), which concerned Freddy Krueger coming 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 it’s narrative, for example, 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 de-construction of the slasher sub-genre of the 1980’s with particular reference to Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees within the development of a character story for its killer. 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 but this is a film that leans far more closer towards a parody much like the earlier Shaun of The Dead (2004). In an attempt to emulate classic exploitation cinema we have 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) that succeeds in capturing the lurid attitude and Technicolor 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 is in fact within a rich vein in the history of the horror and broader grindhouse/exploitation genre.


Our policy for commenting is simple. If you troll or post spam or act like a child we will send you to your room without dinner and take away your posting priviledges. Have fun, be polite!

      1. Tiago June 18, 2013 at 12:03 am

        Very nice article. Learned a lot from this.
        I think one thing of moder cinema, in general, is self awareness. Is something every writer have to deal with, and we see it in super heroes movies and horror a lot this days. It is not exactly meta-language, is like zombieland, where the movie takes place in a world that everybody seems to know everything about zombies. So, more and more, writers explore that expectation we already have, trying to twist that, playing with clichês and expectations.
        and I don’t think the first Scream was a meta-horror, but the sequels were a lot. Scream was self aware. but some may consider self awareness as some kind of meta comment.
        Thanks for the article.

      2. Jenn June 18, 2013 at 1:53 am

        I agree this is an excellent article because it takes a deeper look at the history of our genre; it wasn’t all exploitation so much as it was a wink and a nod. I think all 80s slashers eventually became self-aware. You don’t release a movie like the final Nightmare on Elm Street that follows the “actors” around as Freddy attacks from beyond the movie set. Scream came on the heels of that movie because it realized how much fun it could be to fall victim to your own knowledge. Shadow of Vampire with Cary Elwes and Willem Dafoe deserves a mention here too. It played on the urban legend that Max Schreck was such a good method actor, he must have been a real vampire. It took that urban myth and said, What if?

      3. Vasquez June 18, 2013 at 10:24 am

        Thanks guys. I always aim to write as enjoyable and informative articles as I can. It was fun for me finding out about half the stuff by doing the research. Good call with Shadow of the Vampire Jenn. I forgot to mention that one. Its a decent film.