When characters in movies acknowledge the audience, or make it clear they know they’re in a movie, that’s what we call “breaking the fourth wall.” Lots of films do it, sometimes just for a cheap laugh, and other times to elicit an unnerving and meta response from the audience.
This is especially true when used effectively in horror: not only does it bring the audience into the film, but it brings the film into the real world. Neither of which are particularly comforting when talking about horror movies.
The following four horror films break the fourth wall brilliantly, and will absolutely stick with you after watching:
- Funny Games
I love this film! If you haven’t seen it, there’s two versions: the Australian original, and a 2007 American remake. Personally, I much prefer the remake. Though they’re pretty much the same shot-for-shot, I just find the acting better in the 2007 one.
That aside though, the thing I love the most about the film is perhaps its most controversial element: when it breaks the fourth wall.
To avoid spoilers I won’t go too in-depth, but this home-invasion film has the intruders literally at one point take out a remote and rewind the movie so they can “redo” their actions. Them toying with the audience, acknowledging that it’s not only a movie, but one that they are in control of, only adds to the helplessness of the family that they’re holding hostage. The intruders are in control, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Everything about Psycho is iconic. But I’d say the most memorable imagery, maybe even more-so than the famous shower scene, is its creepy final shot.
Norman Bates stares directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall as he looks right at the viewer. As it lingers on his face, his eyes piercing into your soul, it makes for an eerie closing shot. It’s definitely more effective than a jump scare to end a film.
- Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Before the iconic meta-horror movie Scream, there was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The entire premise of the movie breaks the fourth wall, and it goes to great lengths to keep it as meta as possible.
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Freddie Kruger is a movie villain that knows he’s a movie villain. His victims this time around? The cast and crew of the original Nightmare on Elm Street films. As you can guess, it gets real self-referential real fast.
- Rocky Horror Picture Show
When most films break the fourth wall, it’s usually for either comedic or, as we’ve seen so far with these horror movies, a chilling effect. Either way, it makes for an engaging and sometimes quite immersive experience. And nothing screams immersive and engaging like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This film takes the fourth wall breaking to the next level. We already wrote at length about how the film grew beyond just a magical experience on a 2D screen. To this day (or rather, to the day before COVID hit), the film is screened with shadow casts reenacting scenes while audience members yell out lines and throw a variety of props.
It is a truly engaging experience drawing on the meta nature of the film. Let’s hope the pandemic passes soon so we can all enjoy another Rocky Horror showing soon.