Every horror movie can’t expect to achieve the cult status of Psycho, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the original Halloween or The Shining. They can’t all stick it to the stereotypes like Zombieland, The Cabin in the Woods, Warm Bodies, Shaun of the Dead or Scream. But every horror movie can do its part to stop relying on the same tired cliches.
1. Found footage
Horror films this century lead one to believe that the answers to all of life’s mysteries, demons, supernatural phenomena, unsolved murders and alien attacks can be found on discarded camcorders. Blame The Blair Witch Project for starting the found-footage horror craze, though you’d think in the years since 1999 the fad would have died down a bit. Instead, we have films from the points of view of home movies, home security cameras, retail security cameras, body cameras, news cameras, spelunking helmet cameras (2014’s As Above, So Below), any footage that can theoretically be found. Found footage even mocks found footage, such as the 2011 film Grave Encounters that needles the cable TV ghost-hunting shows. Sometimes the greatest fear during these shaky-camera wonders is getting sick watching ’em, as happened when I tried to watch 2008’s Quarantine while coming down with the stomach flu.
2. Torture porn
Which film do we blame for this trend, Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005)? The original Saw had an intriguing plot to go with its gore, two guys waking up chained in a bathroom. Then they made six more Saws with escalating torture porn. Hostel was based on evil Slovaks who kidnap horny backpackers and innocent Japanese tourists for an entire torture resort for rich guests. Australian film Wolf Creek (2005) had an extremely creepy premise and perfect Outback setting, then descended into torture porn. You can have an extremely scary film without crossing into snuff-film territory.
3. The black best friend’s fate
If you’re a black person in a horror film, never make friends with the lead character. Never offer to go check to see what that noise is in the other room. Never decide it would be quicker to take a shortcut through the woods. You’ll probably die halfway through. There are entire video montages dedicated to the black characters dying in horror films halfway through, as well as congratulatory lists of black characters who made it to the end of the film alive. Or maybe we’re just all still mourning Scatman Crothers’ untimely end in The Shining.
4. American remakes of good foreign films
Let’s face it: the United States has not cornered the market on scary movies. Screen frights are big business everywhere from Scandinavia to Japan, and yet the American audience is assumed to not be able to read a subtitle. Let Me In (2010), a remake of 2008’s Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, was one of the better remakes, though after viewing the original you know there was no good reason to Americanize it. The 2006 stinker Pulse was derived from the excellent 2001 Japanese film Kairo. The Ring came from Japan’s Ringu. The Grudge came from Japan’s Ju-on. Quarantine came from the Spanish film REC. Such a lack of original filmmaking it’s scary.
5. Screaming women who always trip
Break down female characters in horror films like The Cabin in the Woods, which took stabs at basically everything about the genre. You have the studious smart girl who will most likely survive until the end and the ditzy loose girl who will fall prey to bad decisions like doing it in the woods as crazed killers pop out of the brush. (Hence the Scream rules of horror films including “never have sex.”) But what about the female characters who scream their heads off when trying to run and/or hide from a madman (thus revealing your location), running upstairs to get away or, most inexplicably, tripping over something completely unseen while running away, giving the killer just enough time to catch up?
6. Indian burial ground
If a horror movie can’t think of any other good reason for hauntings, characters gone insane or mysterious murders, just summon the spirits of the Indian burial ground. This, of course, would turn the Miami Dolphins’ stadium (where deceased Tequesta tribe members were dug up in 1985) into a festering cauldron of ax murderers. (Though some say the tribe cursed the team, which would only qualify as horror if you’re a Dolphins fan.) And then, of course, a bunch of Walmarts are haunted and cursed, as well, if you go by the Indian burial ground logic. But reachers gotta reach when looking for a culprit in a horror script.
7. Useless or disposable cops
You think it’s bad for officers on the streets, try a horror film. Not only do cops get bumped off pretty quickly — because the screenwriter wants to show a madman that the lawmen can’t stop — but they’re usually portrayed as bumbling and useless in the process. If a protagonist runs to the police for help in a horror film, either the police will be rude and disbelieving or will get killed. Or, if you’re the sheriff in a small Alaskan town in 30 Days of Night (2007), you’ll have to turn vampire to save the town and turn to ashes when the sun rises. It’s a tough job.
8. The car that doesn’t start
At least War of the Worlds gave a plausible excuse for the failure of everyone’s (except the main character, natch) getaway vehicles, with the aliens zapping needed parts. But it doesn’t matter if you have a Pinto or a Porsche in a horror film, it’s mysteriously going to sputter and hesitate or not start when you need it most. Add that delay to the inevitable fumbling and dropping of keys, and you’re heading into horror movie cliches at 55 mph. At least work the bad guy into disabling the car somehow. Otherwise, how can so many main characters have missed their tune-ups at such a critical juncture?
9. The characters you don’t care about
So it’s not as if horror films dedicate an Oscar-worthy amount of screen time to character development, but if the audience is so uninvested in the character that they don’t care what happens next it’s a problem. The perfect example is Friday the 13th. Jason, sorry to disrupt your lake tranquility, but this cabal of drunk horny camp counselors including Kevin Bacon is descending on your hood. Your move. Horror movies are constantly falling into the trap of offering up unsympathetic protagonists or characters with zero depth or development.
10. The lack of ‘is the killer really dead’ check
Come on guys, this madman’s spent the entire movie stalking you. You’re not going to take a second to kick away his weapon, to watch for signs of life or, as detailed in the Zombieland playbook, double-tap? Turn tail and get outta there, OK. Sit there and cry while not watching his supposedly lifeless body, are you crazy?