Monday, October 25, 2010

Six Horror Movie Cliches that Need to Go

Horror movies may be creepy and kooky, but they're becoming less mysterious and spooky. These days, you can pretty much tell exactly where the plot is going and what is going to happen when.

Just this past week I was watching a scary movie with my wife (who doesn't do well with horror films) and as a character explored his dark house, the soundtrack suddenly went silent - I told my wife to close her eyes and, sure enough, a ghost popped out. My wife was still startled by the noise of it all, but at least she won't be dreaming about that ghost woman's face and she won't wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me how she blames me for her nightmare.

The point of that story isn't to say that I am a horror movie genius (even though I am, of course), but rather that modern horror movies are too predictable. Certain aspects of the horror genre have become a staple for uncreative writers and directors to try and build suspense or help move the plot forward.

Certain cliches don't bother me that much. For example, I don't mind that girls are unrealistically attractive in scary films (love you, dear!) and I don't care if we all know that the person they're trying to make us think is the killer isn't really the killer (they can still surprise us with who it actually is), but certain movie cliches just need to go. The following list includes six current horror movie standards that are completely annoying. These cliched moments/plot points/gimmicks pull the viewer out of the movie and into the realm of skeptical disbelief.

Here they are, in some particular order:

1. The Creepy Insightful Kid
When I say "creepy kid," I am not referring to Samara from The Ring or Gage from Pet Sematary. I'm referring to the weird, pale child who seems to have some knowledge as to what is going on - even if there is no logical reason they should know what is going on. While all the adult characters are freaking out, this creepy kid is level-headed, staring off into the distance and explaining exactly what is happening and what people should/shouldn't do. Now, I have kids, and I'm pretty sure if ghosts were invading my house, they would be crying and screaming and running around the house. But, then again, they act like that most of the time anyway. Yes, Hollywood, we get it, kids are creepy in horror films - but every child does not always need to be dark, brooding, disturbed and have some sort of connection to the other side. Sometimes, kids should just be kids.

2. Jump Outs Galore!!!
There is a difference between startling someone and scaring someone. It always bugs me when a trailer or promotional video for a movie shows the audience jumping in their seats while watching the film to prove how scary it is. Any idiot can startle someone, people do it on America's Funniest Home Videos all the time. Nonetheless, certain movies will constantly startle audiences over and over, but not giving them any real fright. Now, don't get me wrong, I think a jump-out moment every now and then is an excellent release to well-done built-up suspense, but movies shouldn't do it too much. Those overdone startling moments are only a step above jumping out and yelling "Boo!" at the audience. Creating an atmosphere of fear is much more memorable than making someone constantly jump in a fleeting moment of fright.

3. Torture Porn
The first Saw movie was a clever and interesting psychological thriller. After that, the series turned into the "Watch the different horrible ways we can kill people" movies. Saw wasn't the first film series to do this; after all, slasher films have been around since the 70s, but Saw was the movie that spawned dozens of copycat films - none of which have any real horror substance. Gore does not equal terror. Gore will make audiences cringe, blood may make viewers squirm in their seats, but it isn't scary. It's shock-horror. It's the same principle as the gross-out comedies - let's disturb the audience by showing them something extreme in order to get a reaction. This isn't real fear, it's a gimmicky shortcut. It's simple to get a reaction when you show someone getting sliced in half, but that reaction won't be fear, it will be disgust. Real fear comes from tension and suspense. Real terror makes you turn on your lights at night after you get home from watching the movie. I might add that some of the most terrifying deaths in film happen off screen, because sometimes your mind can create something much more horrible than what they could actually show in the film. Please, Hollywood, please stop confusing torture porn with real horror movies. Also, you might want to closely monitor the makers of these movies; they have to be seriously disturbed to come up with some of the deaths they portray on film.

4. Relationship Turmoil
In horror movies, there is always some tension in the relationship. Maybe the couple recently got in a fight, maybe they're getting a divorce, maybe they are divorced already, maybe their child died, maybe their hamster died, but there are rarely happy couples in a scary movie. It would almost be more startling to have a couple actually get along in a horror film. We'll be so thrown off by their happiness that we won't know what to expect. Yes, screenwriters, we get it, a couple that is distant at the first of the movie will draw closer together because of the horrible events in the plot and that makes for a good character arc, but it's tired, it's old and it needs to go away.

5. Leaving it Open
Filmmakers, haven't we learned anything from Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th? If you leave ANY sort of opening for a sequel in your horror film, the sequels will come and they will be horrible. Now, I know that you're trying to get in one last scare to give the audiences something to remember you by, but it's no longer effective. Horror film audiences are expecting the final scare these days. Let the movie end! Make one good horror movie and leave it at that. If you have an inkling to do another horror movie, or if the crowd is crying for more, do something crazy - try something different. Create a new story with new characters and new scares. Horror sequels are rarely, if ever, good; don't give Hollywood the opportunity to take something good and scary and repeatedly water it down and stretch it out.

6. Mirror Scares
This video, made by Rich Juzwiak, is all the explanation I need to give here:

Case closed.

Hollywood filmmakers, please take note; every one of your horror movies would be better without these tiredly overdone redundant and repetitive cliches. . . .but you can keep casting the unrealistically attractive girls. We don't mind that.


--jeff * said...

as someone who doesn't care for horror films (have we ever talked about this?), i still found your list quite amusing (naturally) and just pretty darn good overall (naturally).


you were right in noting that while the "jump outs galore" is an overused device (not to mention the more offensive sub-category of the "not actually dangerous jump-out" when the benign boyfriend is the one who comes up behind and grabs the girl's shoulder), it can be used correctly: e.g. "wait until dark."

hamster on a piano.... so awesome. right up there with the hamster olympics...

i was going to argue the relationship in turmoil by citing brad and janet who were dearly in love, but then i realized that, despite the title, it's not really a horror movie.

now i want to dance the time warp....

Andrea said...

Haven't you ever paid attention to A Haunting, Joel? There's a reason for the couples in turmoil bit. The ghosts are always trying to separate the family to get at them. Dad always starts drinking again or something. It's what ghosts do.

Mirror bits scare me. I'm constantly terrified that after washing my face at night, I'll stand up and see someone in the mirror behind me. The mirror scene that scares me the most is the one from Mothman Prophecies, when you don't see it, but the guy talks about going to the bathroom at night and seeing a mothman in the mirror. My imagination runs wild with that one.

That all being said, I completely agree with everything in your post.

Lobbie said...

I object to the men not being as ridiculously attractive as the women. Doesn't Hollywood want my dollar too?

The comment about "Wait Until Dark" was right on because that movie used the "jump out" idea appropriately! There were no jump-out moments the entire film, just a growing tension that finally culminated in that moment. That was one of the few films I literally did jump when I was supposed to.

Mirror stuff creeps me out...mostly because I've heard a few REAL stories about mirrors that give me the willies, but by the end of that video I was no longer scared :)

The Former 786 said...

Jeff, I agree. Wait Until Dark is a very good example about how to use jump-out moments. Now if we could only agree on Rocky Horror Picture Show. . .

Andrea, you have a good point. My wife and I are moving into an old house near a cemetery, should we be concerned.

Lobbie, I'm sorry, but I'm only one man. I can only fight for one cause at a time. You'll have to start your own attractive man post.