The weekend before last I enjoyed watching Goosebumps on Netflix. A blend of comedy with thriller-horror, the film was weirdly delighting and a fun surprise for someone whose only entry into the series was Say Cheese and Die.
The premise was unusual as well; high school student Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move to Madison, Delaware so his mother can take a new job. Initially with no friends of his own, he bonds with his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). But concern for his new friend leads Zach to investigate her father, whom is the reclusive (to say the least) writer R.L. Stine, portrayed by Jack Black. His reason for hiding from society? Stine’s original manuscripts are gateways to unleashing the monsters he wrote. And when Zach accidentally unleashes them, Madison pays the price for his mistake.
Goosebumps is another addition to the growing genre of “meta-movies,” mildly self-aware films that make use of unusual source material in a way that acknowledges cultivated clichés and tropes, yet integrates them with care. These films are not parodies like Meet the Spartans or the Scary Movie series, but rather they walk a fine line between taking themselves seriously and having fun. The Lego Movie is another such meta-movie, telling the majority of its story before acknowledging its characters are, in fact, toys. Also Wreck-It Ralph, which portrays its eclectic cast of video games characters more as “actors” on a stage of digital lights. These films accept that telling a dramatic tale with the toys and games would difficult, and their approach vastly differs from other product-franchise adaptions like Battleship and Transformers which take themselves seriously (although the latter had considerable source material to draw from).
But products aren’t the only source of meta-movies. Entire genres too can fall in this category, such as with The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than avoiding them, Drew Goddard’s movie dives into the clichés, embracing and wrapping them around a “second tier” plot twist that changes the dynamic from traditional horror to a pre-apocalyptic tale. And it works very well.
An important distinction however is that they do not totally breach the fourth wall, but may create avatars for the audience and make them somehow integral to the story. For The Lego Movie, it was the child played by Jadon Sand and The-Man-Upstairs, Will Ferrell’s live counterpart. Goosebumps had Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee), while The Cabin in the Woods relied on Bradley Whitford and his team of voyeurs.
Wreck-It Ralph differs however. It has no audience-avatar character, but still acknowledges that it takes place within a world hidden in the hardware, using props rather than a person to construct the stage and uses many gaming references to “speak” to and for the audience.
So where did the ideas for all these movies come from? A good question.
Goosebumps likely borrowed from The Cabin in the Woods, which was likely written based on critical reaction to patterns in horror films as a whole. The Lego Movie likely took a cue from Toy Story (which used a few brand toys but was mostly archetypal). Wreck-It Ralph could trace its origins to the Canadian animated show Reboot which in turn may have taken a hint from 1982’s Tron— all of whom take place within the hardware world.
These earlier films are not “meta-movies” but rather the forerunners, phenomenon that either immediately or in time altered pop culture as we know it. The ideological tree whose fruit gives us the very tropes to twist.
Still, the cats out of the bag and the pattern has emerged. Meta-movies are ultimately a kind of gimmick, a clever idea that will likely become more and more telegraphed until meriting retirement. But I’m not one to declare that any good idea should ever entirely be discarded. After audiences tire of them, the concept will probably be set aside until audiences forget they exist, before they make a resurgence. Just as Star Wars is the modern space opera and Indiana Jones is the archetype adventurer mixed from King Solomon’s Mines and similar but pulpier tales, no good idea goes unremembered for long.