I’ve been watching a bunch of horror movies lately and I have think it’s time to call a moratorium on certain tropes. Most horror films (and books and TV shows) made over the last forty years employ at least one, and usually several of the following set pieces, and now they just make me groan.
I’m no saying that these tropes should never be employed, for any reason… but usually when they pop up it’s a matter of lazy writing; a cheap way to add tension or a fright or to solve a plotting problem in lieu coming up with something new or spending the time to nut out the problem.
1/ The Cat Scare
You know the scene, which I think was probably invented by Dan O’Bannon in ALIEN. A character is alone and some dim environment. They’re scared, they know the monster is close. They’re searching, searching, the music builds… suddenly, a screech and, probably, a jump cut! Aaaagh!
No, wait, sorry, no monster–it was only a surprised cat. See, now, O’Bannon made Jonesy the cat a character (he even has a name). The scare was actually a payoff, and was paid off again later in the film. Every fuckin’ movie since then? Well, they just have a random startled cat. Even without any setup, we can see it coming from a mile away… because we’ve seen it so. Many. Times.
I did once in real life happen get startled–and scratched–by a stray cat while alone in a dark place at night, but I assure you that my judgement has been in no way biased by the incident.
2/ The Bathroom Mirror
The protagonist is performing his or her ablutions in the bathroom–probably shaving, but maybe just looking searchingly into their own eyes. A tap is dripping. The music decrescendos. Something isn’t right. Perhaps their very sanity is slipping away… much like my attention.
This one has been done to death in dozens of different ways. Something appears in the mirror behind the hero, who turns away just in time to miss it. Something appears behind the hero that DOESN’T cast a reflection. The mirror cracks. The reflection is distorted. The reflection speaks–usually in a standard-issue demon-growl. Something comes out of the mirror. Something goes into the mirror. Yawn.
3/ The Crotchety Old Timer
This one goes all the way back to Bram Stoker’s DRACULA. A superstitious old local–invariably male–warns the protagonists of imminent danger, but do they heed him? No! He’s just a senile old fool. Sometimes this character will also turn out to be a wizard or a guardian–because he’s old, like all wizards outside of Harry Potter. In a small town, this character is usually an old mariner. If the film is set in an urban environment, look for a creepy janitor.
4/ The Magic Negro
This trope at least goes back to Stephen King’s novel, THE SHINING. There’s this old negro, right? A nice and unthreatening guy who is probably a (non-creepy) janitor or a gardener or has some other menial job that is ripe with metaphor. This character will also have Magical Negro Powers… because, well, old negros often do, right? The Magic Negro has an idea that something is going wrong. He will invariably wind up sacrificing his life to so that the white people (or at least their innocent children) can live.
5/ The Power of Love
This has been on endless repeat since the sixties, but, after Ghostbusters (and its sequel) demonstrated this trope in terms of city-drenching explosions of sticky, viscous fluid, one might have hoped that filmmakers and writers would be embarrassed to continue to exercise it in public. But no, we see it over and over, and every time it’s supposed to be this huge revelation. Evil can only be defeated by the power of jism.
6/ Superhero Monster Fight!
The monster is evil and vicious and supernatural, as monsters tend to be… how can you fight it? Well, an increasing number of movies have taken the power-up option. Give the hero powers of his own, and let him go at it with the monster, WWE style.
When the hero is physically more powerful than the monster (often because he’s pumped full of Love Juice, see 5 above) the viewer’s sense of jeopardy goes out the window and we’re no longer watching a horror film, we’re watching dues in costumes wrassling.
7/ Also under consideration for moratorium: the Dripping Pipes, the Thump on the Car Roof, and the Fake POV shot.