Meta-fiction is a highbrow literary term to define the kind of literature that’s self-reflexive about the whole process of narrative and fiction, like Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The technique is well-known in films, too, even that “low brow” favorite—the horror genre.
Two recent independent films are worthy of reflection in this self-aware genre: YellowBrickRoad (2010) and The Final Girls (’15). Both are extraordinary in quite different ways, a difficult accomplishment for a horror film.
Written and directed by Jess Holland and Andy Mitton, YellowBrickRoad has an intriguing premise. In 1940, every single person in Friar, a rural New Hampshire town, walked into the wilderness, leaving everything behind. A few were found, frozen to death, others gruesomely butchered, but the majority were never located. Decades later, a research team tries to solve the mystery. Big mistake, natch.
Teddy Barnes and wife Melissa (Michael Laurino, Anessa Ramsey) start an investigation with their friend, psychologist Walter Myrick (Alex Draper). Five more recruits, each in a specific area of expertise, round out the team.
After getting previously withheld information and background on the fatal exodus, Teddy is told by a mysterious official to “Enjoy your picture show.” Unable to find the starting point of the townspeople’s trail to nowhere, he learns from a local theater employee that the path’s entry is marked by a boulder inscribed YellowBrickRoad. Curiously, the projection room in the same theater had an exhausted print of The Wizard of Oz.
Shortly into the woodland odyssey, things get weird. Compasses go haywire, GPS settings indicate the travellers are at random places around the globe. Most maddeningly, ’40s Big Band music begins to alternate between odd humming and blaring throughout the woods. Hopelessly lost, the researchers begin to entertain dangerous fantasies that soon escalate into the real thing.
The plot is obviously inspired, at least in part, by The Blair Witch Project, but YellowBrickRoad wisely abandons the technique of found-footage, enabling a far wider range of narrative possibilities. And no one leaves the multiplex thinking, “It could happen.”
Concluding with a nod to Kubrick’s The Shining and an atypical movie-within-a-movie, YellowBrickRoad offers no rational explanations for its mind trip. A brief summary in Variety, one of the few national reviews to even notice the film, absolutely nails its appeal: “Underwhelming finish explains zilch, but good performances, atmospherics and use of backwoods locations make YellowBrickRoad an intriguing cipher.”
In a radically divergent vein, The Final Girls (2015) wreaks comic mayhem with the tropes of the horror genre without resorting to broad parody, like the Scary Movie franchise. When a fire breaks out at a special anniversary showing of the ’80s classic Camp Bloodbath (a thinly disguised Friday the 13th), five teen friends slash their way through the screen to escape … only to find themselves trapped in the movie itself, with all the usual horror gimmicks.
They quickly cross paths with the film’s goofy, horny camp counselors, knowing that all of them—except “the final girl,” the only virgin in the group—are doomed to die at the hands of Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris), a machete-wielding hulk who haunts the woods. Now part of the action, the kids must convince their movie counterparts what to do if they hope to survive Billy and the horror plot.
That definitely means no stripping and no sex, the least suggestion of which triggers the ominous music warning them the killer’s coming, as in Friday the 13th, Halloween and just about every horror movie since the ’70s.
Things are even more complicated since Max (Taissa Farmiga) is the only virgin of the five filmgoers; her dead real-life mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) plays Nancy in the movie, the good girl who loses her virginity to the dumb horny jock. Thus Max is forced to best friends with the actress who’ll become her real-life mother, if they can both survive (of course they must; otherwise, Max wouldn’t exist, right?). Remember, kids, there can be only one “final girl.”
The writers—M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller—and director Todd Strauss-Schulson deserve props for the movie’s comic energy and imagination. Struggling for their very lives, the teen moviegoers trapped in the-movie-within-the-movie cope with flashbacks, slo-mo and the ever-present offscreen musical cues, like theme music. And just like Jason Voorhees, monstrous Billy Murphy keeps movin’ and machete-ing.
One’s haunting, one’s funny—but YellowBrickRoad and The Final Girls both credibly tweak their genre.