Five Great Movies: Metaphysical Horror

Before you bend your mind with The Cabin in the Woods, question the nature of reality with these trippy classics.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


The Cabin in the Woods is opening in theaters today, and all the reviews you will encounter will be necessarily vague, as the film contains several twists early on, and even more twists later. In addition, the film is thick with a few healthy bouts of postmodern self-awareness, and genre deconstruction that will make horror fans wiggle in their seats. From what I understand of the film, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard are attempting to deconstruct the very notion of horror film clichés. Most critics will, if they’re tactful enough, leave the surprises to be discovered.

Metaphysical horror films are nothing new, though. Over the years, a few playful filmmakers have prodded at our sanity with self-referential horror films that argue that it’s not our bodies in danger of harm, but our very minds. Fear can be more than the fear of being stabbed or ripped apart by a monster. It can also extend into a nightmare world of eternal darkness. True, being stabbed or eaten or torn open is still a legitimate fear, but, in a way, losing our sanity can be the most terrifying thing of all.

In the spirit of losing one’s mind, this week on a slightly-late Five Great Movies I propose the following list of films to ponder. Here are some horror films that will have you questioning the very nature of reality.


12 Monkeys (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1996)

Mr. Cole (Bruce Willis) is on a mission. He has been sent from the future, after a plague has wiped out most of humanity, and forced the survivors to move underground into dank cages that look less like sleeping cubicles, and more like a gigantic chicken coop. He was sent back to the 1990s to find a pure sample of the virus, so that his bosses can extrapolate a cure. In the 1990s, though, his ranting about the fate of humanity, paired with his bullish social skills and slovenly appearance, pigeonhole him as a typical raving street person. After spending time in the 1990s with a pretty psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe), Cole begins to suspect that he might actually be mad, and that his home in the future may be a complex delusion. His odd behavior (he eats spiders, and pulls out his teeth, thinking them to be tracking devices) and lack of physical evidence certainly doesn’t help his case.

Terry Gilliam’s extended remake of Chris Marker’s famed experimental short film La Jetée ups the action quotient (the original was told in nothing but still images, save a single moving shot at the end), but still comes across as a strange examination of sanity, and the mechanical functions of causality. More than a mere ironic loop (which you see in time travel films all the time; when the hero causes the future to change, a la The Terminator), 12 Monkeys is so chaotically directed that it begins make you dizzy, and question what the hell is going on in your head.


Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (dir. Wes Craven, 1994)

Every kid knows who Freddy Krueger is. He’s the knife-fingered demon who appears in your dreams, and kills you. If you die in your dream, you die in real life. We’ve seen the movies, and the series ended when New Line cinema reached Part 6. Wes Craven, however, with the seventh (and arguably best) film in the series, cast his famous movie monster in a new light. Now the original film’s star, Heather Langenkamp (playing herself), is being stalked by Freddy, whom she only thought was a movie character. A monster literally stalking its creators. It’s enough to make your head spin.

In New Nightmare, Wes Craven explains that Freddy (played by both Robert Englund and himself) is this ancient thing that can only be bound by scary stories. If we scare ourselves, the demon will remain content. If the story is forgotten, it will move to another story. If it can find no story, it will escape into reality to get the stories started again. There is now a tenuous connection between what we tell each other, and the effect the words can have on us. It may be presumptuous of the filmmakers to assume that Freddy is culturally iconic enough to warrant a Freddy-heavy film to remain bound (you’d think the demon could find a different form in a different story), but, well, as a young horror buff, I could see that Freddy was important. This film is whacked out and rather scary.


In the Mouth of Madness (dir. John Carpenter, 1995)

John Carpenter’s 1995 freakout remains one of my favorite horror movies. The film follows John Trent (Sam Neill), a cynical and realistic insurance investigator who is hired to find a missing horror author named Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), who holds the superstar status of Stephen King, but writes like the unbalanced H. P. Lovecraft. As Trent investigates, he finds himself in a small New England town named Hobb’s End which had previously only existed in Cane’s stories. When he finally confronts Cane, Cane explains to him that his investigation is actually a story he is writing and that the man named John Trent is just a character. Cane’s fiction has become so powerful that it’s recreating reality. Trent, by the way, is telling this story from inside an insane asylum. His own existence is now in question.

The film is chaotic and strange and not well-plotted, but when I saw it at age 16, it blasted my mind open. If the function of fiction is to leave an impact on your mind, could a powerful enough story force you into believing reality has changed? What if the same story did that to everyone on the planet? If that’s the case, all of humanity could mutate into slimy murderous creatures, all because a powerful horror writer thought that would be a keen idea. You’ll turn off the film considering the world in a new way. Or you’ll, at least, be given a good case of the jibblies.


The Ninth Configuration (dir. William Peter Blatty, 1980)

The author of The Exorcist tried his first hand at directing with this nuthouse thriller based on his own novel, and he prods at the brain with masterful aplomb. The film follows an army colonel (Stacy Keach) who has been sent to a remote insane asylum for AWOL soldiers in order to interview them… perhaps. The asylum seems to have few rules, as the inmates seem to be freely exploring their every paranoid schizophrenic fantasy. For the first third of the film, you’ll be stuck by a powerful – if not subtle – anti-war film, and how the act of fighting in a war can drive so many to madness.

But then Blatty pulls us back a step, and we begin to suspect that our colonel hero may not be seeing reality himself. Mysterious characters drift in and out of his field of vision which may or may not be his own delusions. We then soon realize that the colonel himself is only living out his own fantasy, and that he is just as mad as the people he has been interviewing. And while this Shutter Island-like double-back may seem rote these days (call it the Tyler Durden principle), a further look shows that the colonel may just be under the influence of the madness around him; he essentially “caught” the madness from his surroundings. Can you catch delusions? It turns out you can. Keep a hold of your mind. It may not be yours for long.


Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006)

What may prove to be David Lynch’s final feature film, Inland Empire was constructed organically on the streets of L.A., and partly in Lynch’s own backyard. Lynch did not write a script, but would film his ideas as they came to him. A very game (and very good) Laura Dern was his muse. The finished product is a three-hour-long series of vignettes which all figure into the nature of fame, and the give-and-take relationship between a performer and her audience. After all, if you sacrifice your own identity to play a role on screen, and only the role is captured, how much of your identity is left?

This confusing phantasmagoria is loaded with ideas of fame, identity, sexuality, domestic abuse, and the ultimate spirit of this wild and wacky town we call the City of Angels. It drips with impenetrable symbolism. What may seem like a self-indulgent head trip to most, I see as a magnum opus of sorts. Lynch has been famously preoccupied with identity (it’s a central theme in all his films, but is most noticeable in Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway), and he bangs that gong for an extended period with Inland Empire. Dern herself must have felt her own identity slipping down the tubes as she stretched into so many different facets of herself. One thing can be agreed upon: Inland Empire is dark, deep, and terrifying.


Come back next Wednesday for more Five Great Movies!