Hackneyed Horror Movie Devices
Curse of the Clichés
Like many people, I love a good horror flick and I light up with excitement every time I get news of a scary feature that is about to be let loose on the public. All too often, however, the releases have left me feeling dissatisfied. I have noticed certain clichés cropping up again and again, and these clichés devalue even good movies. It is true that films tend to become clichéd with age, but this is all the more reason for directors to keep looking for original plots, characters and devices with which to keep us coming back for more. The following clichés are the ones I have found most annoying.
Return of Scary Mary
The Curse of the Special-FX
Possessed subjects with glassy, black eyes
This annoying device has become a mainstay of horror film footage in recent times. Presumably, the director fears that we can’t spot a possessed character unless his or her irises are deprived of colour. Surely, “possession” can be conveyed by patterns of behaviour and speech? The device is a great bonanza for contact lens’ manufacturers, though.
Haunted “New England” houses
Similarly, realtors with “New England” houses on their books need not worry about paying their own rents. Sure, The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) was set in one of these rather attractive dwellings, anthropomorphic occuli, et al. But the film works, because it is based on a true story. If the study of the supernatural has taught me anything, it is that horrible and scary events can unfold anywhere, in a New York apartment (Rosemary’s Baby, 1966), or in an ordinary suburban house, like 43, Lampkin Lane (Halloween, John Carpenter, 1978).
The dream sequences in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series were central to the plots, but there are too many “horror” films with intrusive soft-focus sleeping sequences that do not facilitate the story and serve only to annoy the viewer.
Clouds of dark smoke in place of genuine spooks
I have watched many cases of real-life haunting and yes, the undead sometimes do manifest like this. But they have very little place in well-constructed movies. Clouds of dark smoke are relatively easy for the special-FX department to do, and more and more often, directors prop up mediocre movies with these blobs instead of using their imaginations. In The Sixth Sense (M Knight Shyamalan, 1999) we do not see one dark cloud.
That dratted haunted child
And I’ve just mentioned The Sixth Sense - but this is a great movie, as much about the relationship of the child with his Mom and with other adults, as about any spooks. Let the Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, 2008) and its US cousin Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010) needed children to make the story work “I’ve been 12 for a very long time.” Ditto The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1962). What bugs me are those directors who simply hire an angelic young actor, throw in an imaginary friend or two, and very little else. By the way, it is perfectly possible to make a great movie about a haunted adult; witness The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963).
Honey, I forgot to clean the curtains..
Spoof endings and silly voices
Growling and wooky voices
Burbling voices have been a mainstay of horror flicks since The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), which is why they have ceased to have any real scary power. All they mean is that the director was hell-bent on giving the special-FX department something to do. If you want a really good scare without the intrusion of wooky voices, then just watch The Haunting (see above).
Movie plots that fall over backwards to explain themselves
Not a cliché, strictly speaking, but ruinous, all the same. The best (or worst) example of this is The Haunting (Jan de Bont, 1999) a remake of the older The Haunting. It lacks the subtle nuances of the former plot, and ties too many effects to definite causes. For instance, it turns out that the “haunted” character is related to someone who once lived in the creepy house. I believe that the essence of horror lies in the vulnerability of the viewer, in that “this could happen to anyone” feeling.
There are many more clichés; moving bedclothes (Honey, I hogged the duvet!), not-too-scary faces popping out of nowhere and movies that seem to pile on clichés, just for the sake of it. Some of these films are not so bad, and great fun to watch. However, I cannot forgive even a good feature that has an absurd ending.
Recently, I watched a drama on UK’s Channel 5, The Secret of Radcliffe House. In it, a family moves into an old mansion, with the intention of restoring it for the owner. Slowly, the parents become possessed by the ghosts of former owners. It was a good story with a genuinely frightening premise, but what spoilt for me was the ending. When the family is leaving, all bruised and battered after having survived the horrors, the mother makes a gesture and the father says something that leads us to believe the ghosts may have triumphed, after all, and their two daughters exchanging baffled looks. This sort of thing may be forgivable in franchises like Insidious (James Wan) – I say “may” – but in a one-off drama like this, it was merely annoying and intrusive, vanquishing any remaining empathy with the characters.
Many films have unsatisfactory endings, of course, but I believe that in the genre of horror, the viewer requires a satisfactory resolution. This is because the horror yarn serves the same purpose to the adult as does the fairytale to the child. Great horror stories and fiction are about the inner development of the chief character, which is why too many special-FX dilute and ruin the experience for the viewer.
In both kinds of story, an ordinary person finds him or herself in an extraordinary situation. Very swiftly, the protagonist finds the courage within him or herself to meet the challenge, fights and eventually triumphs over the dire situation. The protagonist comes out stronger, happier and wiser – or better off in some way. Farcial endings deprive the viewer of this catharsis, driving home the post-modern message: abandon hope, you are doomed.
Respect the genre
These listed clichés stem from my own personal taste, of course, and many good films use one or more of these to great effect. And I have had great fun watching the lesser movies – what better way to spend a cold night, but watching a silly DVD, with a bowl of sizzling, just-popped corn, to hand?
All I ask is that directors respect the genre that they work with, that they consider the role that horror films play in our lives. I ask them to look beyond cliché and special-FX when creating stories that thrill and characters that live on in our imaginations long after the credits have rolled.
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim (Penguin Books)