They included the old staples like the ‘two chicks = one chickfight’, the ‘turn-punch’ and the old fave the ‘bullet stopping thing of importance’.
This time around I am laying bare the repeated staples that proliferate my favourite genre – the horror film. Fair enough there are only so many ways to scare the public, especially given the god-awful violence and abhorrent behaviour highlighted nightly on the news and in reality TV, but the following pop up a little too frequently to excuse the filmmakers for anything other than abject laziness.
The Horror Movie Cliché List
Given the fact that most horror movies are filled with horny teens, and horny teens are for the most part fixated with the back seats of motor vehicles for some reason… it is perhaps surprising that they don’t bother to check the back seat upon entering their car.
We know two things in life; a watched pot never boils. And an unchecked backseat harbours a homicidal maniac with a pointy weapon of some kind.
Now granted I don’t think I ever bother looking back there myself, but then I am not a horror movie actor, which coupled with the fact that for the most part this cliché arises shortly after a life or death chase, makes it all the more baffling that so many horror heroes and heroines end up as mere victims.
A quick glance over the shoulder might one day save your life.
Understand, if a law was passed banning an infraction of this rule audience gasps would immediately halve. Hardly a film goes by without the small band of desperate survivors hastily whispering their options for surviving their predicament, before splitting into small groups and heading in different directions.
Separating individuals from the herd is the technique of choice for both predatory animals and predatory men observing hen’s nights at nightclubs. Ditto psychotic mass murderers…
Broken so frequently that this is perhaps the one you can see coming from furthest away. After a minor victory or escape a no-name actor/actress figuratively – and sometimes literally – slaps their palms together and congratulates themselves for a job well done. Of course before they can even wipe the sweat from their brow something/someone emerges from the window (or even through the wall) behind them, from the cellar door behind them or even from above them.
The golden rule in this situation should be: look around cautiously, walk into the centre of the room, do a full 360 to ensure no-one is lurking nearby, THENNNN and only then might you say – nay whisper – ‘that’s that then’…
You’re one of the lucky ones. Your bravery, desperation or just plain luck has allowed you to elude your tormentor and grants you temporary respite. Understandably exhausted, you allow yourself a brief moment of rest, hoping to regather yourself before finalising the escape. Suddenly BOOM! you are rudely awoken to either the bad guy grabbing you from nowhere (almost every Nightmare on Elm Street), a random stranger scaring you stupid by loudly asking you what’s up out of nowhere (The Innkeepers) or a big noisy fucking truck that wasn’t there a second ago whizzing past your driver’s side window and scaring the shit out of you (The Descent).
Almost as frequent is the screeching cat that leaps out just as you are about to finish your investigation. It’s all the same theory: loud unpleasant noises are scary, which is why Pink’s musical career continues to amaze and baffle music lovers worldwide…
By nature large lumbering psycho killers like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees are not blessed with gazelle like speed. No NFL running backs here. Nevertheless it doesn’t matter how sprightly or speedy their prey, the shuffling silent menace remains just out of arm’s length for mile after mile, silently lurching forward while the teen-du-jour sprays tears, snot and sweat in all directions.
This inexorable pursuit is usually ended by a small tree root or a sprained ankle, where common sense says that maintaining a steady tempo that is a mite faster than your pursuer will do the trick.
As Zombieland says it’s called cardio kids.
This is a more recent development, but such a close cousin to the ‘tortoise and the hare’ that I felt I would be cheating you if I included it separately.
Our petrified Pete/Peta flees the scene, normally at a hundred miles an hour after a grotesque discovery or similarly offputting development. In their haste they momentarily look back from whence they came, turning back just in time to realise they have run smack dab into something even more life-ending. My favourite examples include Dog Soldiers, where a fast moving soldier manages to run at such pace that a tree branch literally penetrates his person! And I don’t mean it pierces his flesh, the damn thing hung out his back by over a foot. Usain Bolt shot out of a cannon couldn’t generate such momentum.
But wait, there’s still more! Your Dad always told you to watch the road when he was teaching you to drive, but we all know that sometimes you have to send that urgent sms… or tweet… or change the CD stacker in the fast lane on the freeway…
In the movies though this is the one time when you are virtually guaranteed to encounter someone – or thing – standing or shuffling across the road. As far back as The Children of the Corn in 1984 (kid) through Copland in 1995 (deer) to Gothika in 2003 (‘woman’) and almost every lazy horror film since, you look down at your own peril, The Loved Ones from 2009 (boy) springs to mind.
Don’t fix your lippie, don’t rummage in the glove box, don’t even scratch your balls. Something is on the road ahead, patiently lurking so it can appear from nowhere when you least expect it.
Before I start, I know of no-one who actually has a medicine cabinet behind their bathroom mirror anymore, but in a list of how illogical these events can be it might be illogical to even point that out. But we don’t live in Movieworld, those that do all have cabinets behind the mirror above the bathroom basin, cabinets that they must access occasionally in the moments of quiet, usually shortly after moments of high tension and stress. Of course the gag is that we see the reflection with nothing behind the character, then as they close the mirror we realise ‘Hey that psycho killer guy wasn’t there a second ago was he?’…
I shouldn’t complain about this one, even though it is one of the most used clichés, it is often the most effective.
This one requires only a moment’s thought before you call shenanigans, but nobody seems to have given that moment.
The scare is that our future victim is shut in with the aggressor outside. A quick glance through the old cat’s eye peephole usually turns into a lingering look, which we the viewers are always privy to. Just as the until then unseen assailant bursts into view in menacing fashion – usually accompanied by a loud musical stab to enhance the surprise.
Now please use this moment to consider the following: the cat’s eye is a one way looky thing. Either the bad guy who bursts into view does so every 13 seconds in the vain hope that he manages to catch someone looking out, or this freakish coincidence results in both the lookee and the looker simultaneously appearing on each side of the door. In almost EVERY horror movie…
A particularly egregious and lazy cliché this one. Once again the pursued finds momentary respite and takes the time to pause for breath and to consider their options (pizza?). Then – regardless of the fact that they are in the middle of the room or indeed the centre of a vast empty field – the pursuer appears unannounced to grab, harm or at least startle their unsuspecting prey. The logic being that as the camera didn’t picture them in frame, the victim couldn’t possibly have seen them. I have seen this used when the bad guy jumps up into frame from the victim’s feet. Sure this might momentarily scare, but who can seriously believe that they couldn’t have been noticed?
It’s taken 70 odd minutes, but after countless near misses, a face to face tussle or two and usually the deaths of 37 innocent faceless bystanders and friends, the primary target of our vicious psycho manages to get the upper hand. Our killer lies prone on the ground with all sorts of implements and oddities protruding from his/her body at awkward angles. Either that or a big fucking wall just fell on him. Or a car just squashed him flat. Or he’s had two magazines unloaded in his face. Or he suffered an asthmatic turn and keeled over dead… perhaps not the last one. But regardless of the cause, the issue arises when the precious few survivors start patting each other on the back, forgetting the fact that horror films are almost always 80 summin’ minutes long. Some advice: you’ve just spent over an hour on the run from the most menacing and deadly being that you’ve ever known, take an extra 30 seconds – and maybe a rock – and finish the fucker off.
Unless that is, you’re hell bent on appearing in an (almost always) inferior sequel that is…
Let’s finish up with the cliché that is also the most accurate sign that your horror movie is lousy. The film has been building deliberately for a little while, when the action abruptly moves to a different setting. After a minute or two’s disorienting happenings something bizarre and altogether unexpected occurs, usually accompanied by the unexpected death of our hero/heroine at the hands of the big nasty.
Cut. Print. Dream sequence!
I’ve said this about the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but at the very least this was Wes Craven’s primary hook, therefore he is 100% allowed to use it as often as needed. For so many other crappy horror films the dream sequence is seen as a free kick for a cheap scare, after all the events aren’t real are they?
It is when the ‘dream scare’ is the best/only scare in the film that you have yourself a sure sign that the film is crap. Poltergeist used the technique well a quarter century ago, and while the dreamscare is often the best bit in many films, it is over-used to the point of irrelevance. The amount of times I roll my eyes at the obvious dream sequence before the ‘big scare’ should embarrass filmmakers. The again, so should most of their films…
This seems to require an absolute absence of both logic and instinct. How many on foot flee-ers stupidly run in one straight line in the middle of a cleared area? Sure you’re panicking and all, but if you are on foot and choose to stay in the middle of the road, maybe the guy in the car has a better chance of running you down? After all, he is in a car, which generally has the home court advantage on a road.
So often I see a film where the escapee runs a straight route hoping to escape a car, running past trees, rocks etc, you know, only the natural enemies of the car. Wake up people! If you’re on foot, go somewhere that tyres are not purpose built for.
Ghost movies love these. Our intrepid explorers are wandering through an apparently deserted home or building of some sort – usually in the middle of the night – when they happen upon a stranger standing still and facing away from them.
A nervous ‘hello’ is followed up with an ‘are you OK’. Nothing. The bravest (stupidest) approaches tentatively, edging nearer with further intros. Then they reach out ever so slowly and gently to reach for the shoulder when…
Well let’s just say this never ends well. Regardless of if the standee is a male, female, adult or child, the person turning never seems happy or relieved to meet their new friends.
My advice, as with all advice for horror movie cast members, if they ain’t looking at or for you, leave them the fark alone. No-one ever sat and looked at an empty corner because they were a well balanced and helpful individual.
In summary: There are so many other clichés that proliferate the horror genre, I steered clear of the ones I felt were more obvious (the leaping cat from nowhere with accompanying loud miaow) to bring the more headscratching ones.
Having highlighted the action and horror clichés, next time I think I will have a crack at more generic clichés, the ones that pop up all too often in films regardless of the genre.