The Fourth Wall: The Cabin in the Woods and Evangelion
…extols the virtues of a subtler, less direct way in which a film can address its audience.
When we think about breaking the fourth wall in film and TV, we often think of films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Deadpool (2016) wherein characters speak directly to the audience, thus breaking the conceptual barrier between fiction and reality. However, some films break the fourth wall by acknowledging the audience without ever directly addressing them. Two of my favourite films using this more subtle break are The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021).
The Cabin in the Woods itself is essentially a metacommentary on those slasher movies typical of the 1990s and 2000s. The film is largely structured around the idea that its own plot events are being controlled by a secret organisation attempting to create its own horror film.
The film features countless meta-references; members of the organisation and other characters constantly comment on classic tropes – in much the same way the audience might – and the film goes out of its way to address the broader genre. It’s in these ways, then, that the film establishes a pattern of self-referentiality, a pattern that reaches a fever pitch in one particularly memorable sequence when it is revealed that the organisation has in fact been storing hundreds of classic horror monsters in their facilities the whole time.
The impact is in the film’s acknowledgment that it is a film
On the other hand, Evangelion’s breaking of the fourth wall arises from that film’s understanding of the connection the audience has with the series to which it is adding. Several scenes literally break the fourth wall without ever directly addressing the audience – take for instance one scene wherein we see characters crashing out of the movie and into a studio soundstage filled with props and cameras.
One of the best ways the film breaks the fourth wall is in how it acknowledges its existence as an animated film. For example, the final shots of the film are filmed in a real city with animated characters inserted. Even shortly before that, another sequence denotes the different stages of the animation process that goes into a single scene. Rather than occurring through characters directly addressing the audience, this fourth wall breakage is purely visual, creating a greater emotional depth. The impact is in the film’s acknowledgment that it is a film.
In both of these instances, the fourth wall has been broken but the final barrier of direct address is not breached. Thus, these films are nowhere near as overt as those more popular instances noted earlier. Fourth wall breaks are important as they provide a way to deconstruct genres of film and TV, but breaks that are more extreme, like those seen in Deadpool, have popularised a more comedic tone – and with the revival of the Scream franchise, it seems that subtler breaks are taking a back seat to the more overtly direct and extreme ones.