Ti West’s current hit X follows the cast and crew of a late-1970s porn film whose dreams of home-video glory are gruesomely waylaid while filming in rural Texas. The movie pays homage to horror notables, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s also part of a subgenre that’s basically “film shoot gone horribly, horribly awry.”
For this list, we’re gathering movies specifically about horror film crews who stumble into actual horror while on the job — and realise the movie they set out to make can’t compare to the real-world terror they find themselves immersed in. Note: this list could be all found-footage titles, but we’re going to mostly focus on narrative films here, with one notable exception.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Craven’s meta-slasher imagines that Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson in the Nightmare on Elm Street films, becomes drawn into supernatural events swirling around the latest entry in the series. Robert Englund plays both himself and a version of Freddy Krueger that’s actually an ancient demon, awakened by the Nightmare films and now determined to break into the “real” world. More recognisable faces pop up as well to help bleed the lines between “real” and “movie” worlds, including Craven himself. It’s high-concept, but it works well in this context, and it was a creative way to put a new spin on a franchise that, in 1994, was flagging out… just before Craven’s other meta-slasher, Scream, revived the genre entirely, of course.
Return to Horror High (1987)
Several years after a series of (unsolved) murders at a small-town high school, a low-budget film crew descends to make a movie about the tragedy titled Horror High, aiming to exploit the setting’s notoriety. Unfortunately for them, there’s still a vengeful maniac on the loose… but all is not what it seems in this horror comedy, which aims to spoof the genre while also being part of the genre, with schlocky gore effects (for both the “movie” and “real” settings) aplenty. The cast is fun, too: a very young George Clooney plays the production’s reluctant leading man, while Maureen “Marcia Brady” McCormick pops up as a cop.
The Last Horror Film (1982)
The Last Horror Film reunites Maniac co-stars Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro in its tale of a New York cab driver obsessed with becoming a director. He’s also obsessed with one particular scream queen, whose new film just so happens to be titled Scream, so he grabs his camera and heads to the Cannes Film Festival to stalk his idol… and as it happens, people around her start dying in horrifying ways. But all is not what it seems in this horror comedy, either! Spinell consumes the scenery with his usual flair — except in the handful of scenes he shares with his character’s mother, played by Spinell’s actual mother, who gives him some serious competition for the spotlight.
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
OK, OK, as long as we’re piling on the “all is not what it seems” entries, here’s Shinichiro Ueda’s saga of a zombie film crew that realises an actual zombie outbreak is happening while they’re filming. But! That ends up being only one small piece of this brilliant horror comedy (which has a remake floating around out there already). Even if you know the twist, One Cut of the Dead is still a delight — a celebration of horror filmmaking that’s as energetic as it is clever.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Diary of the Dead might be the worst zombie movie George A. Romero ever made — but the fact that it is a Romero-made zombie movie at all means it’s noteworthy, and better than many imitators. At any rate, this is the horror veteran/pioneer/legend’s found-footage take on the genre he popularised, following a group of Pittsburgh film students (including future Orphan Black and She-Hulk star Tatiana Maslany) whose horror project is derailed when, well, you can probably guess. Unlike some other films on this list, there’s no twist at the end — just a lot of shaky-cam and apocalyptic foreboding.
A Cat in the Brain (1990)
Italian horror legend Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, Zombi 2) plays… Italian horror legend Lucio Fulci, who starts having trouble distinguishing between reality and his own mega-violent movies. A spontaneous visit to a psychiatrist helps Fulci ascertain that he’s somehow “breaking down the boundary” between reality and fiction, and the director’s soon plunged into a murder mystery that’s straight out of his own filmography. Is Fulci (who is really, really into consuming red meat in this movie, despite how triggering it is for him!) going mad, is someone sinister pulling the strings, or is the whole nightmare all part of his latest production (titled Nightmare Concert, the alternate title for A Cat in the Brain)? Fulci died just six years after this movie’s release, and A Cat in the Brain offers a self-reflexive look at his career in a way that’s both intriguing and — since it’s super-duper gory — very true to form.
Scream 3 (2000)
Craven makes the list again with the third Scream film, set in Hollywood as the latest incarnation of Ghostface targets the production of Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro, part of the in-universe film series that adapts the events of the Scream movies. Jamie Kennedy’s character, who died in Scream 2, shows up (via videotape) to remind everyone, audience included, the “rules” of the slasher-movie trilogy — which are basically that anything can happen and anyone can die. And, well, a lot of people do, including Stab 3 actors playing Scream characters, most of whom are recognisable stars in a cast filled with them. Parker Posey as Courteney Cox as Gale Weathers wins for best casting… but the Carrie Fisher cameo is also a lot of fun.
Terror Firmer (1999)
Troma enters the discussion with this gleefully self-referential, Lloyd Kaufman-directed campfest about a blind director (Kaufman) whose would-be latest masterpiece is targeted by a serial killer (or “cereal killer,” as you can see in the trailer… womp womp). Is it schlocky and raunchy and made (proudly) in bad taste, but also kind of stupidly enjoyable? Duh, it’s Troma, dude!
The House of Seven Corpses (1973)
When director Eric Hartman (John Ireland) sets out to make a film about a sprawling mansion that’s been home to gruesome real-life horrors, he decides the perfect setting will be… the cursed dwelling itself. Immediate red flag! Cue ill-advised readings from the Book of the Dead, zombies, and other occult shenanigans, as chaos overtakes the cast and crew in rapid succession. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, The House of Seven Corpses actually takes itself seriously, though its brand of gothic horror doesn’t really translate into any genuine frights.