“That film gave me nightmares!” Now, a lot of you might think that’s a glowing review of a horror movie. I disagree. You see, to have nightmares, you first have to be asleep, and my God, there are enough horror movies out there to not only put you to sleep, but to make you wish Freddy Krueger would pay you a visit while you’re there. Like any genre, the horror movie has its fair share of clichés, which range from the boring to the downright annoying. However, half of those clichés are so played out that they were being parodied back in the 90s (in Scream), and now we actually have parodies of the parodies (Scary Movie), and even those double-parodies have probably themselves been parodied no end of times (any given ironic anti-humour show on Adult Swim). How deep does this rabbit hole go? Who knows, but your trip down there is sure to be the opposite of an emotional rollercoaster. An emotional Segway, perhaps. Made of zopiclone.
Maybe it’s just a sore subject with me right now because I recently wasted an hour and a half of my ever-shortening life (the gypsy woman told me I cop it at 25 anyway) watching The Lords of Salem, Rob Zombie’s latest and far-from-greatest. Now, it was far from the worst film I’ve ever seen; it was certainly stylish, albeit heinously self-indulgent, and I’m always kind to Rob Zombie anyway as I’m a pretty big fan, but there was one particular recurring theme, running through the film like a particularly tedious version of Groundhog Day, that stuck with me longer than any creeping sense of dread I might have felt. It was a cliché. Not just any cliché, either. It was the single most vein-poppingly annoying cliché in the history of cinema: the nightmare scene. You know what I mean, the bit in EVERY HORROR FILM EVER MADE (probably) where a character has something horrible happen to them, then all of a sudden they wake up gasping and sweating like an obese fish, and – phew! – it was all a dream. This happens so many times in The Lords of Salem that I legitimately lost count, and I’m sure as hell not going back and watching it again to check. There is nothing more insulting to an audience than this, which makes it all the more puzzling as to why it happens all the time in movies. It’s cheap. It’s basically the director saying “welp, we don’t have anything actually scary to do in this film yet, so I’ll just put in this meaningless scene where this woman gets disembowelled and say it’s a dream. Time for lunch.” It shows a lack of purpose and confidence in writing. If you want to kill of the characters, then kill them. Be as mean as you like to them – IT’S A HORROR MOVIE. Don’t dangle this carrot of horrific violence in front of me, and then yank it away because you don’t have the bottle to make any of it stick. The only time this cliché has ever been remotely entertaining is in the remake of The Wicker Man, in which Nic Cage, hilariously, has a nightmare within a nightmare and wakes up twice. Think about that. The best example of this trope is in The Wicker Man remake. Worryingly, this also means The Wicker Man may have inspired Inception. I think I’ll leave that there.
There are plenty of other ridiculous clichés in horror movies that I’m passing over, such as the trip – you know, when someone is running away from the killer or other generally unpleasant thing, and they always, ALWAYS manage to fall over somehow. Surely if you’re running for your life, the body accounts for such things? You’re meant to be nimble and agile, with adrenaline flowing through your body, not tripping over a slightly uneven blade of grass like some lonely bridesmaid drowning her sorrows on a hen party in Newcastle. Granted, sometimes the filmmakers are nice enough to actually show them tripping over something, like a jutting branch, but most of the time their ankle just sort of crumples for no reason. This is usually accompanied by a close-up of said ankle, as if to explicitly point out that you are an utter moron for believing that this could ever happen in the real world, and that even if you don’t it doesn’t matter anyway because they still have your money. It’s a cheap, insulting way to increase threat because you aren’t creative enough to have your baddies carry any threat on their own, which, while I’m at it, is probably why most horror movies are populated with headstrong, egomaniacal cretins that make Liam Gallagher look like a well-balanced, reasonable individual, who always find ways to let their own stupidity relieve them of the air in their lungs.
That trope is fairly common in zombie movies as filmmakers contrive to make a bunch of shambling, stupid, slow dead folk get literally within licking distance of your characters, which is specifically the ONLY way they can possibly kill you. It’s all about using your clichés to artificially inflate the threat level, and boy do zombie movies have to work harder to do that than most. In fact, they have a whole bunch of clichés unique to the subgenre that serve precisely that purpose. Chief among them: that scene in every zombie movie where a character is bitten, and the rest of the characters decide whether to kill them or not. “But he’s going to turn!” “What if there’s a cure?” “WE CAN’T TAKE THAT CHANCE DAMMIT, THERE ARE CHILDREN HERE!” And so on, until eventually the character dies, and turns, and there’s either an emotional Old Yeller scene where they’re put out of their misery, or they eat a bunch of people, followed by an emotional Old Yeller scene where they’re put out of their misery. Honestly, this is slightly less annoying than most others, because it’s something that I could imagine happening to me if I was caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse (and it’ll happen one day). That’s a key part of any good horror movie: getting the audience to sit uncomfortably in the characters’ shoes. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it still happens all the damn time, and there’s only so many movies you can watch play out exactly the same way before you become completely desensitized to it. It’s something that has long since worn out its welcome, and the only time I’ve really seen it mined for anything like a real emotional impact was in The Walking Dead video games from Telltale, which used it to craft a superb air of menace and inevitability that was crucial to the payoff of the story.
Woah, that actually ascended into something resembling niceness there. Let me remedy that by getting straight into what is, by some considerable distance, the second-most soul-destroying, teeth-grinding, facepalm-inducing cliché in horror movie history behind the dream scenes. The jump scare. Oh God, the jump scare, and it’s annoying, bratty cousin, the fakeout jump scare, where the musical score builds, the character creeps through the darkened room, when all of a sudden, THE ORCHESTRA SUDDENLY STINGS AND OH GOD WHAT IS THAT oh it’s just a cat or something. Horror movies, please: stop this nonsense. Now, jump scares have their place. Executed right, they can be memorable as hell. But here’s the thing: you get ONE, maybe two if done well, before they start to outstay their welcome. Anything more than that and you are failing in trying to make a scary movie, because your audience isn’t getting scared of what’s happening in the movie, they’re just getting scared of the screechy noises blaring at them out of nowhere every 5 minutes. That’s a natural reaction, and one that takes precisely zero effort to evoke. There’s a massive difference between being scared and being startled. Anyone can startle you. It’s the single cheapest scare tactic that there is, and as such it has to be earned. Sadly, far too many movies just abuse the privilege. Put it this way: if your friend kept sneaking up behind you and yelling in your ear, would you consider them to be masters of suspense, or simply a massively annoying dickhole? More to the point, why do you have such awful friends?
Anyway, here endeth the rant on horribly annoying horror movie clichés, the only scary thing about them being that they aren’t going to stop anytime soon. There are plenty more that I’m missing, I’m sure, and many other genres have their own predictable clichés, so if there’s any more annoying tropes that really get on your nerves, feel free to comment below and we can all join the circle of hate together. Go on. Embrace the hate. You know you want to. Liking movies is soooo cliché.