Nightmare Cinema #4: The Endless Inevitability of Horror Movie Clichés

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A girl gets a phone-call. She’s alone in her parents’ house. Why? Well, they’re probably out to dinner, or maybe away on a trip. But she’s a teenager. Shut up, that isn’t the point here. She is sitting in her underwear, talking to her boyfriend on a chunky telephone. He says something along the lines of “Come over tonight, blah blah, football game, blah blah, maybe I’ll get to third base this time, blah, blah”. She says something like, “you’re so funny, yadda, yadda, maybe if you’re lucky, yadda, yadda, but I’m all alone in this big house, yadda, yadda”. Enter a tree clattering against her window, a door slamming because of a sudden breeze, or a figure appearing suddenly at her window who ends up being one of her grinning girlfriends who is laughing at the fast that she just turned her shaking-friends white underwear brown.

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A killer, dressed in dark clothing and with a mask of some form on his (likely disfigured) face, chases a girl, she is wearing inappropriately lackluster footwear and very little in terms of clothing, they come to woodland, or a derelict building, or a suburban home. The girl, obviously the top of her class, trips over nothing and stares back, screaming, as she waits for this extremely slow murderer to approach. She eventually stands and continues to run. She’s fast, he isn’t, yet he is always right there on her heels. She runs into the house, and traps herself in a cupboard. She runs into the forest and hides behind a very small and almost-transparent bush. She runs into the warehouse and breaths heavier than an elderly man with seventy years of heavy-smoking behind him. The killer, strong, huge, maybe even undead, manages to lose sight of our noisy, clumsy and slow walking poor decision maker of a teenage girl. Well played sinister villain, well played.

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A group of friends are out for a drive, there’s at least four of them, and all of them are students, so they obviously know their shit. They reach a long road in the middle of a town called nowhere, surrounded by hills, or mountains, or trees, and their car breaks down. They surely have a spare tire. No. They surely have more gas, just in case. No. Well, they can always use their phones. No. Looks like our group of highly-intelligent protagonists must walk to the nearest station to seek help. Sounds like a fantastic idea, let’s walk in the direction of that strange wooden barn-house with the dead sheep hanging from a tree branch outside of it. They find a strange woman selling mystery meat. They find a house, knock on the door, no one answers. Well, I guess they should do what we’d all do then. They walk inside, uninvited, and repeatedly shout “hello” as they fiddle with the home-owners possessions and wander around like they’re touring a museum. They come face-to-face with a mutant, a ghost, a cannibal, an angry home-owner.

Horror movie clichés are all part of the charm of the genre, but it is also something that is very easy to laugh at, and something that has made the films that apply these things a little bit silly, and sometimes kinda pointless. The promiscuous teen girls, the dumb jock mid-film death character, the obvious locations, the ridiculously useless police force, the slow walking killer who should be fairly easy to out-wit. The list seems to go on forever as the horror genre goes on and we gather more and more clichés, more and more things that are laughable, sometimes frustrating, always predictable.

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We have the backwoods films with mutants and cannibals, all of which seem to begin with the aforementioned car-breaking-down with a group of friends inside. We have the suburban killer, hunting down babysitters and teenagers who are just wanting to dance, fuck and drink in no specific order and our masked psychopath offers a sharp and pointy contraception. We have a happy family moving into a house that they bought for “really cheap” and then become surprised when they find a shrunken head in the basement, a fetus-jar in the attic, and a ghost with a penchant for pulling sheets off sleeping humans. I could go on. Oh, and I will.

The list doesn’t end with the ones I’ve mentioned, oh no. I haven’t mentioned the “token racial-minority” that seems to offer slight advice before being sliced and diced. The “passion-pointe”, an area in a film where two sexually awkward individuals attempt to unhook bras and flop penises out of the stiff and tight groin-region of tight jeans, before being shot, stabbed or set ablaze in their sweaty steamy automobile. The child who is able to see ghosts or predict inevitable madness when our adults seem completely oblivious. The friend who is never around when the killer is, and so becomes a suspect even though the poor bugger was probably just at home, having a shit and eating corn flakes. The dead/not-dead/is-it-dead-yet villain, he’s taken a bullet to the face, an axe to the back, a machete to the testicles, a sword to the throat, an arrow to the knee and has been set on fire, frozen, drown and electrocuted. Phew, they’re dead. Wait, he just grabbed our survivor’s ankle. Shit.

Now, don’t confuse this article with me hating on horror, or even the clichés that come along with much of it. It’s a rarity to find a horror film that avoids cliché, which does something completely original, especially today when everyone and anyone can grab a HD camcorder, jump in front of the lens, and shoot a movie. The most original films become cliché over time because they are repeated and copied and remade and reimagined. It’s inevitable. The classics of the genre, such as Halloween, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Haunting and The Exorcist, among others, have been used as templates for thousands of other horror movies, and its easy to see why, it’s a concept that works, people like to see these things happen, be it ironically or just for an entertaining scare-a-thon. The clichés aren’t going anywhere, and more and more will occur. With new styles of horror being released we are already seeing the likes of Paranormal Activity, Saw, The Conjuring and others follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, and while some of the new genre films are great, they all contain a number of these things, whether they try to avoid them or not.

Wrong turn exists because of The Hills Have Eyes. The Conjuring exists because of The Amityville Horror. The Walking Dead exists because of Night of the Living Dead. Horror today exists because of horror of yesterday, and these silly little nuggets we call “clichés” are all part of the parcel, like it or not. Now, I’m going to go and walk around a strange house without switching any of its lights on. Until next time.

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