‘Fess up. We’ve all shouted at the screen during a horror movie.
“Don’t go in there alone!” “Grab that knife!” “The monster isn’t dead yet!”
Been there, rolled our eyes at that.
Modern horror movies have their own clichés we’ve grown exhausted by. Sure, the genre still teems with dopey decisions and head-smacking feats of bravery.
Some things never change.
These newer tropes are just as exhausting. So, as the new year in film continues, let’s hope they die a quick, painless death. O.K. perhaps a wee bit of pain is in order.
That Jangly String Score
Horror movie music goes through stages much like the content itself. The ‘80s leaned heavily into the synthesizer scares, something Netflix’s “Stranger Things” dutifully summoned. Lately, horror movies rile us up with their discordant scores punctuated by over-plucked strings. It’s like the Hulk’s very first violin lesson.
The unsettling “Us” summons strings to get us in the mood, and it clicked because director Jordan Peele “gets” the genre. A similar approach powered “Hereditary,” one of 2019’s most contested horror films.
Like any movie cliché, the plucked strings effect initially scared us as intended. Now? It feels so warmed over we’re left shrugging our shoulders, cynically waiting for the inevitable (jump) scare.
There’s something psychologically telling about films anchored by creepy little boys and girls. Some did it better than others, like the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” or lil’ Gage in the original “Pet Sematary.” “The Grudge” similarly made inky-haired kids a singular fright.
Now, the impact isn’t as extreme.
Maybe it’s because the kiddie monsters themselves aren’t given enough back story. That’s why 1976’s “The Omen” remains such a great example of the creepy kid genre. Young Harvey Spencer Stephens proved inscrutable, or at least until his father approached him with a very sharp dagger.
Anything Found Footage-y
Some movie trends take years, and years, to fade away.
Take 3D screenings. A handful of directors took full advantage of the optics, like James Cameron’s visually arresting “Avatar.” The rest, along with their respective studios, used it as a naked cash grab.
Over time, 3D movie ticket sales started to dwindle, the novelty wearing off on a dubious public.
A similar slow fade can be seen with found footage horror movies. “The Blair Witch Project” unofficially kicked off the sub-genre, but we saw a crush of like-minded titles after that 1999 smash. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise made millions for its studio, but it, too, ran out of creative steam.
Now, finally, the spigot is mostly turned off. Still, some micro-budget filmmakers lean on found-footage thrills to keep their budgets low. Think recent efforts like “Host” and “Followed,” the latter mostly viewed through a computer screen.
The format rarely makes sense and, without the sense of surprise “The Blair Witch Project” delivered, should be used sparingly.
Monsters shouldn’t sashay across the screen like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They lumber like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation after a round of Long Island Iced Teas. Still, the newest trend finds creatures that move in twitchy bursts, accompanied by the sound of sticks snapping all at once.
Showing Too Much
Director Steven Spielberg famously wrestled with “Bruce the Shark,” the mechanical beastie at the heart of his breakout smash, “Jaws.” The darn thing wouldn’t cooperate during the production, so he worked around the clumsy tech by showing it less than expected.
Less is so often more, as was the case for Spielberg’s beach-born shocker.
“I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark,” Spielberg said. “So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’ … It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening.”
Today’s filmmakers don’t have any Bruce-like problems. Even small-budgeted films can make their monsters look shockingly life like. So we often see far more of the monsters than necessary. That lessens their frightening impact, not to mention slow reveals typify the best horror movies.
Meta Wise Cracks
The creative team behind “Scream” deserves the blame here. The Wes Craven original wasn’t the first to reference horror genre tropes mid-movie, but it did so better than most genre films.
Voila, instant movie trope.
The overrated “Scream” franchise leaned hard into nitpicking horror cliches throughout the killing sprees. Other films followed, with varying degrees of success.
The 2011 hit “The Cabin in the Woods” built its entire structure on classic horror tropes in order to subvert them.
Great. Fine. Clever even. But it’s enough. Meta storytelling too often feels lazy, like leaning on superior classics to gussy up the inferior one in play.
Unearned Sequel Bait:
What’s worse than sitting through a dispiriting, if not downright awful, horror movie? Watching it tease a sequel in the remaining minutes. You can practically see the producers rubbing their hands together, hoping against hope their film will be the next horror franchise.
More often than not, the final moments are as embarrassing as the previous 90.
The original “Halloween” technically set up a sequel by showing Michael Meyers survive not just six bullets to his body but a drop from the balcony. The revelation did more than set up a franchise. It enhanced the movie’s chills by suggesting this “boogeyman” can’t be killed.
Too many horror movies attempt a similar ending but with a fraction of “Halloween” director John Carpenter’s mastery. It ends up looking desperate, not diabolical.
Children’s Toys Coming to Life
Pop Quiz: How do you know a movie house is haunted? Easy! The children’s toys start moving on their own. That could mean a rocking chair creaks back and forth or a windup toy springs to sudden life.
These toy movements typically happen early in the film. The directors are holding back on the big scares, for now. The sight of an innocent toy moving on its own suggest much worse things will follow, at least on paper.
Now? It’s a cliché that leaves us bored.
Revealing Kid Drawings
Is there a creature lurking in the house? Just snatch a page from a kid’s sketch book to find out. Weaponizing kiddie drawings is supposed to summon terror or a growing sense of unease.
Instead, it’s often used as a cheap scare tactic or a way to push the plot along.
Even worse? The crayon drawings (it’s always crayons) all look similar, with stick figure families and monsters that took an entire crayon to bring to life.
BONUS: Hillbilly Horror
Has any group been mocked as aggressively as rural Americans in the horror space? “Deliverance” isn’t a horror film, exactly, but its redneck villains inspired a generation of similar ghouls.
The recent “Wrong Turn” reboot fell back on the local yokels to flesh out its chills in the first act. That’s an update, of sorts, on the franchise’s core villains, a trio of inbred types who feast on flesh.
No group should be immune from becoming a horror movie villain, but the constant use of toothless, bearded hillbillies is all played out, thanks.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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