Maybe a filmmaker wants to tip their hat to the slashers and psychos who thrilled and chilled them in their youth; perhaps they want to make a post-modern comment on the nature of watching violent entertainment; maybe they just want to scare us good and proper with a moment of sheer blood-curdling terror. Whatever the reason, there are some pretty good horror movies about watching horror movies; here are seven (admittedly skewed towards the modern and the domestic) for your perusal.
1) Scream (1996)
Kevin Williamson's sly, self-referential script exploded every slasher-flick cliché ... and picked some darkly glimmering moments out of the rubble. Starring Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, a girl beset by a masked killer, Scream paved the way for a host of imitators, but the original is a surprisingly fresh and remarkably well-structured mystery -- plus, Williamson and director Wes Craven's commentary on the DVD is like a master-class on the history and methodology of slasher film. When the blood-stained climax sees our heroine suggesting our killers have "seen too many movies," the reply comes back fast: "Now Sid, don't you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!" It's a great line -- and you also wonder if it's true. Scream's killer famously asked "Do you like scary movies?" Scream itself asked why you like scary movies, and left you to puzzle over your answer. (Bonus question: How many times did Scream show up on a Cinematical Seven throughout the month of October?)
2) My Little Eye (2002)
Five contestants sign up for a reality-TV-style contest; they spend six months locked together in an isolated home. If you stick it out for the duration, everyone wins a cool million dollars; if one person leaves, though, everyone loses. Much of My Little Eye is shot with distorted web-cams and a you-are-there queasiness -- we're the audience for the "show," and we get to witness as things start to go very, very wrong. Eventually, the truth comes out -- and we feel ourselves becoming a very different kind of viewer, watching something very different than the 'contest' in the film's set-up, seeing the film's events through very different eyes. My Little Eye may not be perfect, but it has one grim, chilling moment that's among the scariest, creepiest scenes I've ever seen in a horror movie. 3) The Ring (2002)
I know that for some people it's heresy to suggest that the Americanized re-make of Ringu was better than the Japanese original, but I actually prefer the Gore Verbinski remake; it's a little leaner, a little cleaner, and just as scary. (Of course, it also has 40 times the budget of the original. ...) Naomi Watts is a reporter tracking down the urban legend surrounding a cursed videotape -- after you watch it, you get a phone call telling you you're going to die in seven days. Ridiculous stuff -- until people start dying. The Ring may have plenty of jolts and bizarre visual moments, but what gets it a place on this list is the way it raises a series of interesting questions -- about what we're willing to bring into our homes in the name of entertainment, and what sort of long-term effects the things we watch might have on our minds. ...
4) Fright Night (1985)
This horror-comedy hybrid has a special place in your heart if you grew up with low-rent local TV creature-feature programming. When horror fan William Ragsdale realizes that his new next-door neighbor Chris Sarandon is, in fact, a vampire, he turns to the only person he can think of ... The host of the local channel's horror-film night. As played by Roddy McDowall, 'Monster Hunter' Peter Vincent is, it turns out, the worst possible candidate to stop a monster -- and Fright Night gets plenty of tension and laughs out of showing horror-flick clichés and demonstrating how they'd be no help in a truly paranormal circumstance. Written and directed by Tom Holland (Thinner, Child's Play), Fright Night is a great mix of laughs and scares.
5) John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (2005)
Yes, this "Masters of Horror" tale from John Carpenter may have run on cable, and it may be only an hour long ... but it also gets under your skin in creepy, effective ways. Norman Reedus is a down-on-his-luck theater owner with a sideline in finding rare film prints who's hired (by b-horror titan Udo Kier, no less) to track down a long-lost legendary film that supposedly inspired the audience at its only screening to unhinged acts of violence. ... Grim and surreal, Cigarette Burns is a little uneven, but it also nails the bizarre obsessions that film can inspire, as Reedus's quest for the lost print takes him over the edge of madness.
6) Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
Long before the Scream series, Wes Craven went wildly post-modern in this Freddy Kruger flick that followed and commented on the numerous sequels to Nightmare on Elm Street. Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon and Robert Englund play themselves alongside director Wes Craven, as the past participants in the Kruger films begin to realize that Freddy's taken on a life of his own as a supernatural being powered by collective fear and terror ... and they have to get their collective creation back to the realm of the fictional. A weird hybrid of slasher flicks and 8½, Wes Craven's New Nightmare put paranormal chills and pop culture in a creepy new light, while giving a breath of fresh air to a character who'd worn out their welcome.
7) Funny Games (1997)
Ten years later, a central device (or is it a gimmick?) in Michael Haneke's film is as divisive as it is disturbing; expect further controversy when the English-language remake starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth is released next year. I don't want to go into too much detail for the benefit of those who haven't seen Funny Games, but the film's plot, as a family on holiday is terrorized by two mild, gentle young psychopaths, hinges on a single freaky moment where we're forced to think about how we watch horror films in the modern age -- and about who we're really rooting for.
Honorable Mentions: Popcorn, Peeping Tom, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Matinee, Fade to Black and Ringu.