Ginger Nuts of Horror
Horror, in all its gruesome, ghastly forms, has a reputation for being one of the most cliché-ridden genres out there. Unless you are switching on a film in order to switch off your brain – which can be fine – there are few things more frustrating than enjoying a tense, blood-curdling scene, only to have that atmosphere collapse beneath the weight of one hackneyed, unrealistic trope.
Since Scream’s (1996) postmodern take on the slasher film, the billion-dozen Scary Movie (2000-) sequels, and Joss Whedon’s brilliant Cabin in the Woods (2012), horror cinema has become haunted by the ghost of its own predictability. We can all name the popular slasher clichés – half-naked women tripping over lumps of air, groups splitting up unnecessarily, black characters dying first, and pot-smokers and marathon-shaggers following suit quickly after. Many of these have faded like exorcised ghosts since being recognised and parodied, but what about the clichés that persist, or those that have arisen in the last 10 years?
In an attempt to answer this, here is my 110% subjective list of tired tropes and enduring cliché’s that I would love to see impaled, dismembered, and buried forever, without hope for a sequel.
Let’s (not) Twist Again
As good a movie as it is, The Sixth Sense (1999) has a lot to answer for. It was one of the first films I ever saw whose climactic twist successfully altered my whole view of the movie. It was smart, it was deftly told, and it felt right – however, it was also one of the few times I’ve seen it work. So, unless a filmmaker discovers a way to blow my mind again without making the plot-turn feeling tacked-on or cheap, please: kill those lazy plot twists with fire.
Meat the Characters
For me, most great horror needs rounded, believable characters. Otherwise, why should I give a damn about them? Without personalities and backgrounds, they’re just meat, and I don’t remember the last time I passed a butcher’s shop and wiped a tear from my eye.
There are exceptions, of course, but look at the difference between a Saw (2004-) movie and Martyrs (2008). Some of the acts of brutality offered in the Saw series are, in many ways, more extreme than those shown in Martyrs. So why is Martyrs so much more gruelling from start to finish? Well, the violence is more relentless and less cartoonish, but I would argue that it’s primarily because from Martyrs’ opening scene, the viewer is forced to care about the tragic protagonists.
Jump scares need to fuck the fuck off.
To clarify, I don’t mean breaking a moment of tension with something contextually relevant to jolt the viewer. That’s fine. I’m talking about when a character is searching a dark, abandoned house, and suddenly their friend leaps out flailing their arms for no reason, or, even worse, pops their head around a corner accompanied by the sound technician stabbing ten random keys on a synthesizer.
Stop insulting my goddamn intelligence, and unnerve me with content rather than cheap scares.
This one relates primarily to extreme horror.
We all poop. We all empty our bladders. Most of us spill sex juices from time to time, and when we’re ill or hungover, we all have a tendency to spew. So, unless a filmmaker is turning my expectation onto its head and adding something new to the thematic use of crap/puke/piss/cum, is there really anything truly disturbing about it?
Although far from being “good” films, the Human Centipede (2009-) series used shit in a genuinely creative manner, so, fair enough. Drag Me to Hell (2009) was another great example of how squishy, gushing slime can be used to gross viewers out without feeling desperate or weak.
On the other end of the spectrum, while they admittedly shocked me when I first watched them, extreme flicks such as Lucifer Valentine’s Vomit Gore trilogy (2006-) and the August Underground (2001-) films feel (upon rewatch) like a BDSM-themed Jackass combined with You’ve Been Framed. It’s been done to death and it’s getting old.
Use Some Brrrrrrrrraaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnsssss
A few years ago, I never, ever thought I’d say it, but … stop with the zombies.
When I was a kid, the living dead were my absolute favourite horror movie monsters. They were repulsive, and they could be either funny in a schlocky way, or disturbing due to the fact that they reflect the hideous biological fate awaiting us all. In recent years, though, these stumbling cadavers have been absorbed into popular culture. Granted, the occasional flash of brilliance still persists – The Battery (2012), We Are Still Here (2015), and Nina Forever (2015), to name a couple – but just Google “zombie movies 2015” for a quick insight into how many rip-offs and how much unimaginative junk is still being made.
So please. Let the poor bastards rest and think up some new ideas.
When The Blair Witch Project (1999) emerged, I was an instant fan. It was fresh, the format strikingly original, and I loved the fact that an ultra-low-budget venture could be so chillingly effective. While there had been earlier examples such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), it was the Blair Witch Project that dragged “Found Footage” into the mainstream and contributed to it becoming a genre in itself.
When used effectively, Found Footage is a method of bringing the audience closer to the action, and a way of destroying the safety of knowing that what you are seeing is being filmed in a studio by professionals. The Found Footage movement also created some films that I love, such as Rec (2007), The Last Exorcism (201) and, at least the first time I watched it, Paranormal Activity (2007). However, Found Footage has since gone the way of the zombie: overuse has deadened its impact. Now, after a million copycats and shoddy knock-offs, I’m hungry for something new, and look forward to being nauseated by something other than a jittery camera.
Postmodern Meta Self-referential Fourth Wall Breaking
As already mentioned, Scream and Cabin in the Woods were witty and subversive enough to become classics in my mind, and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil (2010) was a more recent mini-masterpiece. However, there has come a trend even in horror films that are supposedly set in the “real world”, where the director will tip a cheeky wink to the viewer every once in a while, thereby ruining any chance of me continuing to suspend my disbelief. Zombie movies reference other zombie movies, serial killer horrors point out the rules that their characters should not break, and irony is often an underlying element within a great deal of horror.
If a film isn’t a parody or a comedy, or if it is but the script isn’t intelligent enough to subvert norms in a smart or unique way, I would like to see an extraction of tongues from cheeks.
What would you like to see removed from modern horror? Are there any clichés that you particularly enjoy? Which of my pet hates do you disagree with?
Jonathan Butcher has been writing for as long as he can remember, and loves nothing better than discussing and contributing to the world of horror. He has been published in Bizarre, Front, Alternative Magazine, plus a whole shipload of other places, as well as having had his fiction accepted by a growing horde of horror publishers.
If anyone knows of any films or books that are likely to creep a grown man out, Jonathan would love to know, so feel free to drop him a line. The last one that managed it was Pontypool.