The easiest way for filmmakers to get themselves out of being painted into the corner is with a deus ex machina. Sometimes that deus ex machina is a lapse of logic, like Samuel L. Jackson driving on the highway and looking out his window at the exact moment Bruce Willis flies out of a water spout, 50 feet into the air, in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Other times the deus is used like it is in The Usual Suspects where any plot inconsistency is smoothed over by the fact that the narrator made up the entire thing, so it doesn’t matter how many holes you might find. The worst example of the deus ex machina is the “it-was-only-a-dream” device, at its worst in Emilio Estevez’s Wisdom, a foolproof way to get out of a jam in untenable situations and perfect when you want to ensure that you lose the audience’s interest completely.
There is one other major type of deus ex machina, and it’s one utilized frequently when a writer and/or director has very little faith in his material. Satirized best by Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 masterpiece Week End, as one character asks of another, “Are you in a film or in reality?” the conception is that of a movie that knows it’s a movie. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare explored the notion in the most depth (beating his own Scream to the punch) as Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, the actors who play Freddy Krueger and Nancy Thompson, have to deal with the malevolent knifed glove in real life.
Tommi Lepola and Tero Molin’s Skeleton Crew, a low-budget shot-on-video Finnish horror film (though the characters all speak English) plays with the “we’re in a movie” idea repeatedly. In Skeleton Crew, in which a film crew is making a schlocky movie in an abandoned mental hospital, any time you think you’re just watching a badly acted, unscary, cheesy, ugly Saw/Hostel/Session 9 mishmash, Lepola and Molin pull the rug out. Eventually, we even get a scene cribbed from Spaceballs, where the characters watch themselves on a monitor, acting in a movie that has already been edited together.
Lepola and Molin might have thought they were being clever, especially with the constant horror movie in-jokes* such as name-checking Hostel and Saw (you see, they knew they were stealing, and it’s okay because they acknowledge it) and having a character modeled after Bruce Campbell, named, creatively, Bruce, who talks about working with Sam Raimi, and is a hammy actor. The problem is David Yoken, the actor playing Bruce, is not very good at being a bad actor, and is more like an aged version of Joe Flaherty’s SCTV B-movie host character, Count Floyd. Bruce Campbell is completely aware that he’s a hack, and he relishes it, Yoken is just stuffy, mumbly, and stiff. At least, Steve Porter, playing Steve, the director of the movie with a movie within a movie, who begins to lose his marbles after discovering a snuff film, is so awful and over-the-top that he’s not exactly boring…Even if all his punny lines in the second half of the movie would have been better suited to Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.
Arnold did the movie-within-a-movie better** in Last Action Hero, which was a parody of middling action movies, while still being a middling action movie. Skeleton Crew is only self-aware when it’s convenient, like when it reaches a dead end, and the only way to excuse scenes that don’t make sense is to remind us that we’re watching a movie. Considering the low expectations one has going into a DTV low-budget horror movie, the acting can be crummy, the script uncreative, the characters undeveloped, as long as there are a few good kills here and there, Skeleton Crew undermines itself by eliminating the artifice created by a nasty death, and just nudging us to make sure we know that even though Lepola and Molin aren’t talented, as least they know it.
* The director of the movie within a movie within a movie is almost always wearing a t-shirt advertising John Carpenter’s The Thing, although the shirt is conspicuously never completely in view, perhaps as way to avoid paying anyone for the rights.
** As did an unfortunately unheralded horror movie from 2005, Dylan Bank’s Nightmare.