A Brief History Of Meta Storytelling In Horror Before The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent

Met·a: (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

In "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," meta storytelling becomes mainstream accessible. Writers Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten not only allow Nicolas Cage to play himself — well, a version of himself born from the "Memeification of Nicolas Cage" — but they shoehorn a self-referential plot about predictable blockbuster narratives ... by cheekily following a predictable blockbuster narrative. Humor exists because Cage and Pedro Pascal — the latter plays a ruthless drug lord's connected screenwriter relative — banter aloud about theatrical studio formulas they want to subvert in the movie they're unwittingly living in real-time. It's a balancing act between winks at the audience amidst actual plot development, something that's been gaining household popularity given how Marvel's Cinematic Universe incorporates smaller meta gags as multiverses explode (or on larger scales "Deadpool").

"The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" opens the door to meta understanding since Lionsgate, a formidable studio presence, greenlit what'd probably be deemed "too weird" elsewhere. Although, here's where the horror fan in me comes out and asks if "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" would exist without "Scream?"

In 1996, Wes Craven shattered the horrorsphere by introducing a would-be slasher franchise that directly subverts long-standing slasher trademarks. Craven and writer Kevin Williamson allow audiences to chuckle at the subgenre expectancies they love while remaining in a suspended state of slasher excellence. Every studio clamored for the next meta reinvention in this new frontier, with "Scream" getting most credit even though Craven's own "New Nightmare" and Joe Dante's "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" hit the '90s first.

Fans who worship names like Romero and Carpenter have forever been roasted as disciples of a "morally bankrupt" or "thoughtless" art form. Still, consciously fluent meta storytelling is something that horror writers had perfected long before "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" was a thought bubble. "Scream" sparked a movement that spread like wildfire, piquing with brilliant highs that pushed back against "horror is gross torture porn" biases coined by upturned critical noses. Milestones like "Cabin in the Woods" and "The Final Girls" are on the tips of most genre aficionado's tongues, but examples run rampant throughout the late 90s, remake-heavy 2000s, and as strongly now. I've always mused how "Scream" ran so "Bride of Chucky" could sprint right alongside, permitting Chucky the opportunity to humorously skewer his voodoo killer's absurd existence while perfecting its "Bride of Frankenstein" homage. Only two years later and the influences of "Scream" spawned both a teen slasher revival and meta brilliance abound.

In a post-screening Q&A, "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" creators leaked that Lionsgate cut specific sequences before they ever saw rehearsal. One such scene would have involved Nicolas Cage dueling with his younger, wild-at-heart "Nicky" — a figment of his past arrogance in spiritual form — through classic Cage action beats from Face/Off, The Rock, and more. Explained reasoning lightly pointed toward producers not being comfortable getting that "weird" because broad appeal is still the prime directive. Let Cage caress his imaginary self's own rump, and howl his vulgar catchphrase, but Cage going toe-to-toe with himself amidst Alcatraz explosions or John Woo shootouts was too much. That's the thing about mainstream studio projects — there are usually hesitations or cutoffs.

Meanwhile, horror's ambitious zero-rules environment allows its creators a no-breaks mentality that has evolved meta storytelling beyond what's thought possible. It's why my allegiance will always skew towards such a renegade genre.

In 2006, "Feast" flashed text cards as distractions before each character's introduction with life expectancies that teased horror character archetypes — "Losers and dorks go first ... and he's both." — only to throw the rules away as children are devoured and vomited on their mothers. The following year, "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" hilariously joked about slasher villain tropes via a behind-the-scenes mockumentary while still including a third-act massacre for the ages. Keep going, and examples like "Detention," "You Might Be the Killer," and too many more would continue to push boundaries as viewers prepared for subsequent buck wild subversions to swing even harder. The foundation for meta storytelling has always been in the horror genre, whether or not that recognition is rewarded.

All hail the continued exploration of meta massacres

I intend not to come off as a pretentious horror fan who'll chew your ear about the genre's off-putting stigmas and negative press. "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" is as enjoyable a theatrical comedy as you can ask for and strikes a wholesome balance between Cage the Madman and Cage the Very Good Actor. This feature spawned from a healthy post-screening conversation with another Los Angeles critic who asked the filmmakers about the current "modern meta" boom within superhero cinema and mass-released films like "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent." My thoughts immediately jumped to "Scream," "Cabin in the Woods," "Scream 4," and a few other horror titles that held their ground years prior as theatrical releases alongside blockbuster competition. The question again became about why horror wasn't being mentioned and why the genre's only publicly credited when someone takes issue with "nasty" gore, "perverse" storytelling, or other complaints from afar.

Again, that's not a dig at the question-asker! It's just the starting point for a conversation within my mind, given how "Cabin in the Woods" rewrote the book on meta execution. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon ingeniously rationalize horror tropes left and right using their approach of tie-wearing bunker technicians being responsible for increased hormonal urges, unleashed killers, or any other overused slasher norm that's been at least once mocked as ridiculous. April of 2013 was a momentous month between Joseph Kahn's meta Breakfast Club slasher comedy "Detention" ushering in 90s nostalgia and "Cabin in the Woods" going for broke as meta monster perfection — nearly a decade ago. Without acknowledging films like the "Scream" series and titles mentioned above that were released before "Cabin in the Woods."

Perhaps there's a discussion here about how meta-humor in screenplays can wrongfully be labeled as "unserious" takes on material versus the over-seriousness of blockbuster productions at times. Horror fans can be a prickly bunch when challenged, but we're also immensely fun-loving and comprehend how what we love can be considered ludicrous (well, most of us). Something like "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" pokes fun by reversing recycled slasher structures where backwoods hillbilly murderers hunt teens in a way that says, "isn't this all a bit goofy?" Which yes, it is! Horror has found evolutionary success through these obscure reinventions where, say, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are seen as your garden variety "Wrong Turn" buddies by stupid-ass youngsters who keep killing themselves in fits of panicked defense. It's sensationally silly even to type out the premise for "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil," and yet the idea stands as one of the funnier horror comedies since its 2010s release because of horror's ability to laugh at itself remains unparalleled.

One might be able to argue that horror films are the easiest to "meta-tize" given how tropes quickly become egregious or content commentaries can be easily depicted through violence. ​Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" was ahead of the 70s/80s slash-and-kill popularization after O.G.s "Black Christmas" and "Halloween." In 1960, Powell implicated the audience by giving his killer a video camera weapon that captured women's last expressions of fear before death. It's a repulsive and affecting mechanism fashioned later by the 2013 "Maniac" remake that uses nothing but a perspective flip to voyeuristically comment on viewing habits that include such sinister obscenity. Powell executes a damn-sharp narrative about a genre he excels within, where meta storytelling becomes a superbly wielded double-edged sword.

As a boiled-down conclusion, I'm here with another story about how the horror genre holds more value than some might predict. Suppose you're not into Ghostface's diabolical games, carnivorous mermen, or Cinderhella's high school copycat. In that case, there's a reason you might not be aware of how horror filmmakers have been normalizing meta storytelling to rebirth fresh genre trends. Popular culture will always recognize the mainstream over outcasts, which doesn't make horror's impact any weaker — there will always be ones who share its triumphs. In this instance, let's not forget how Wes Craven made "meta" happen with the slice of a hunting knife into Drew Barrymore's ill-fated introductory victim. Before Robert Downey Jr. suited up as Iron Man, Nicolas Cage stared down a crazed fan's trophy room of Cage movie props, and Schmuckerberg insisted the Metaverse would be our future reality. Once again, we must recognize horror for being a few bloody footsteps ahead of the game — all hail the continued exploration of meta massacres.