Or, why you're not smart enough for postmodern horror.
The late '90s were a big time for horror. The genre underwent a huge paradigm shift, ushering in a new breed of film: the hip, postmodern horror movie. Now, nearly twenty years later we're at the risk of drowning in a quagmire of mediocre pomo--the result of an unchecked growth in independent, do-it-yourself horror. Easy access to increasingly easy-to-use video production equipment created an opportunity for all would-be filmmakers. Once the floodgates opened, out poured a torrent of cheap and cheerful horror movies, films that payed hommage to, referenced, and mimicked the favourite films of years past. And one of those favourites was Scream.
Scream was not the first postmodern horror movie, but it was certainly the first to draw a lot of attention from critics and mainstream audiences. Success breeds imitators, and Scream's legacy is a glut of self-referential horror films. Some are better than others but few if any have been able to recreate or recpture the cleverness of Scream. And Machete Joe is definitely not one of those better imitators.
The easiest way for a horror movie to be postmodern is for it to be a film-within-a-film, a movie about people making a movie; you get all the recursiveness of a self-referential film without even trying. Machete Joe does this. It's about low-budget horror filmmakers making a low-budget horror film. And it's got all the low-budget horror stereotypes you'd expect: bitchy cast members, an uncompromising director, and a creepy location with a hidden threat. To give credit where credit's due, Machete Joe does feature Ernie Hudson in 1.5 scenes, and the film-within-a-film has a castmember who's sole purpose is to class up the film--a talented and respected actor who is inexplicably slumming it. But that's about as clever as it gets. The rest of the film is a pedestrian slog through a swamp of horror cliches.
The film under construction in Machete Joe is "Machete Man", a based-on-true-events tale about a machete-wielding killer who witnessed a rape and then murdered the rapists. The filmmakers have secured the location where the rape took place, hoping the place will inspire an ending for their unfinished script. Unbeknownst to all, the killer is still skulking about, and it's only a matter of time before he starts offing the cast and crew.
What made Scream so great, apart from its witty dialogue bantered about by pop culture savvy teens, was its complete and total lack of self-consciousness. It's hard to be self-referential without also being painfully aware of the dramatic irony you've created in your film, but Scream pulled it off. Machete Joe, by contrast, is too caught up in the conceit of postmodernism to create an interesting subtext on the subject of horror movie realities. Moreover, once the characters realize they're living out a horror movie, they fail to extricate themselves from the scenario they've created.
To make matters worse, one character is filming a behind-the-scenes documentary for Machete Man, but the possibility of layering realities through the use of both cameras--movie and documentary--is never explored. Rather, the documentarian just films a lot of boobs. Nor does Machete Joe entertain the notion of distancing its subjects from its subject matter. Multiple in-film cameras that carry out different functions can be used to remove or distance characters from events they witness in the movie. But Machete Joe doesn't do that. Scream briefly uses film-within-a-film to recreate the audience/movie character dynamic within the film itself. All Machete Joe is able to do is have a guy film his own death.
Truth be told, nearly everyone is smart enough to piece together a postmodern horror movie, but few have the talent to make that a satisfying film. Machete Joe takes everything that's great about postmodern horror, all of its potential for insight and commentary, and squanders it. Instead of layered subtext it gives us tired cliches, instead of cleverness, fart jokes.