Tropes are not inherently abhorrent or requiring of immediate cancellation. Clever horror filmmakers subvert, roast and/or repurpose overused plot devices that have been beaten more out of shape than Chucky’s stitched-together figure. For example, jump scares! Specific sectors of the internet mistake all jump scares for the underdeveloped, one-and-done jolts from less methodical horror directors. Meanwhile, [REC] inches the camera into an attic for an oscillating view that assures a nerve-shredding jumper, yet thanks to timing and committal, it’s an expert elongation in terror.
Rationale aside, you can bet Pamela Voorhees’s sweater I have some opinions on tropes that have survived slashers, meta comedies, 2000’s remakes, and the arthouse horror surge of our modern era. Stop slaying four-legged friends because they’re the quickest and easiest emotional heartstring to pull. Figure out the phone call situation without opting for no service. Oh, and ouija boards unfolded with dumbfounding intentions?! All horror movie mainstays leaned on like crutches, which is when they become an issue. Let’s talk about why.
25. Stop killing pets for a cheap sad.
For the record, I’m not someone who hard-lines “kill an animal, and your movie is trash.” Doggos and kitty-cats have every right to be treated like regular characters, but far too often, filmmakers lazily rely on maimed canines or hung felines for emotional trauma. Something like The Pool or Deadly Games integrates pets into the narrative and gives purpose to the before-mentioned agony. Most other times, it’s just an assessment of “look how evil the villain is” as an unthoughtful, boils-my-blood footnote. Do better.
24. Living in a world where horror movies don’t exist.
How many times do zombie movie survivors act as if they’ve never attended a zombie movie screening or heard George A. Romero’s name? “Wh…what are those things?” I’m sorry. Your movie sets itself in 2019. Or 2010. Or 1970. In any of these decades or the decades after, zombie cinema would still exist. I know it’s easier to pretend like you’ve invented the next significant horror movement, but you didn’t. Nor should your characters believe as much.
23. The unkillable killer.
Well, the EGREGIOUSLY unkillable killer, to specify. We all expect slasher villains to return for twelve sequels that retcon and reshuffle continuity. I’m talking about movies where whoever’s doing the stabbing resurrects themselves off-screen on repeat until all the characters are dead. In order to sustain tension, stakes must prevail. Any psycho with an axe who keeps reappearing sans explanation trades cat-and-mouse suspense for an inevitable cycle of bloodshed and monotony.
22. Morgue workers give too much credit to the dead.
Whenever an antagonist’s body is transported to the morgue, I already start pouring one out for the witless attendee. Maybe they’re blaring music through headphones and rendered numb to environmental noises. Perhaps they’re just back-turned and don’t witness the reanimation occurring out of focus. Whatever the case, it’s my stance that morgue employees deserve to be depicted with more competence and awareness moving forward. I mean, I’d sure-as-hell notice if a corpse began shifting around in my vicinity; those creep-out senses are real!
21. Horndog dies first.
Sex and death in slashers go together like sex and candy, but why? In today’s sex-positive world, let’s stop punishing the “free of spirit” and saving the virginal. It’s a tired trope that typically isn’t massaged into narratives, much like pet death, and one that usually only occurs when a filmmaker wants to add titillation. As with every trope, reinvention can negate backlash and generate a new highlight. That typically doesn’t happen with the floozy female character who jumps into bed with whoever’s closest, then is exploited bare-breasted or full-frontal, while her partner lays fully…well, actually, we’ll get here later.
20. Boozer or stoner dies first.
Speaking of “dies first” tropes, stop equating enthusiastic partiers to slashable goons who cheer keg stands and would rather die searching for the last cold one than surviving a massacre. We’re people too! People with impaired senses, warped judgment, and a downgraded sense of situational awareness. So I like a few light beers on a Saturday night. Doesn’t mean I deserve a mortal hatchet wound!
19. Kids are safe.
More children need to die in horror movies. I’ll be the vocal one screaming about how babies and kiddos often become nuisances for adult characters who ultimately sacrifice themselves. I think that’s why something like the segment in Feast II: Sloppy Seconds, where a used-car salesman chucks an infant into the air when his heroism misses the mark, tickles me so profoundly. Or why mainstreamers like A Quiet Place start with such a devastating blow. Normalize self-preservation and kids being little shits who get themselves into danger and need to learn that life is full of consequences.
18. Horror only happens at night.
For eons, horror filmmakers insisted that scared-stiff-terrors could only exist under the shadow of night. Trendbreakers like Jaws or Midsommar or The Wicker Man assert otherwise. Filmmakers like James Wan have become wizards of shadow manipulation, but here’s my plea for a stronger push toward an uptick in what I’ve dubbed “Sunny Scary” horror. Masters of the genre needn’t hide under the moon to generate ample spookies. Daylight reveals all!
17. Splitting up into groups at the climax of panic.
Strength in numbers, they say. There’s no “I” in “Team.” More hands make less work. So why, EVERY EVERLOVING TIME, does the crew of disposable slasher victims determine their best course of action is to ignore their only perceivable advantage by diminishing their numbers? Especially when it makes zero narrative sense? Act like you’ve seen a horror movie, horror character. Anyone who utters, “I think we should split up,” might as well be saying, “It was nice knowing all of you, except whoever is the final girl!”
16. The phones can’t find service.
It’s 2021. Yes, dead zones exist. No, I’m not buying *that* many dead zones exist, given the frequency of modern horror cinema that STILL falls back on this inexplicable technology glitch. If you’re going to cut off communications, figure out how to remove cellular devices from usage creatively. It’s possible! Introduce a scenario where lock-boxes are a viable obstacle, or it makes sense to be phoneless. Don’t, dear out-of-ideas writers, flash a “low signal” on the device’s screen and pat yourself on the back.
15. Playing with ouija boards.
Characters in horror movies LOVE tampering with the unknown, which, like, HAVE YOU SEEN [INSERT HORROR MOVIE]. No. Of course not. We’ve been over this. That’s why some dipshit like Micah in Paranormal Activity thinks a ouija board is an answer to his demonic problems even though ouija boards are an instant signifier of underworld damnation for millennia throughout horror. The only times I’ll concede are when characters aren’t agedly developed enough to know any better.
14. The girl who keeps falling when running away.
Alexandra Daddario in Texas Chainsaw 3D tripping over the tiniest fence known to landscaping, anyone? Launch this trope, where female victims show the grace of toddlers on ice whenever there’s a monster in pursuit, directly into the sun. Double point deduction when said weeble-wobble of a human continues to crawl while the baddie merely struts menacingly in the background, ensuring death. Like, women possess the essential motor functions to flee competently, you know that, horror movie directors. Correct?
13. Filming when it doesn’t make sense in found footage.
Found footage cinema is both a misunderstood and bastard genre. At its best, it’s the pinnacle of horror. At worst? Filmmakers ignore how found footage films need a reason to continually record, as exposed by the countless subgenre examples where characters continue to roll with nary a motivation or impetus beyond our (hopeful) enjoyment. All I’m asking for is a narrative throughline! Is that too much to beg?
12. Losing track of the “dead” villain.
We’ve all seen Zombieland. Double-tap, finish the kill. No cold-clocking the villain, then turning your back for a quippy one-liner that seals your fate. No leaving the “dead” slasher behind without keeping tabs. Finish what you start, or at least don’t allow your foe to regain his stalk-and-hide abilities all over because you’re living in a la-la-land where you’ve just defeated the big bad who has proven otherwise invincible. Be a good survivalist and cover your bases!
11. Not believing children.
For the distractions they are, children could end horror movies in minutes if their parents or babysitters or chaperones would just heed “fantastical” warnings. Whether that’s little Bobby hosting nightly visitors or the voice in wee Tabatha’s ear whispering missions of mayhem. Just kids being kids, right, mother or father? Here’s a shiny iPad; play in the corner while the adults continue to ignore glaring red flags that have been present for over sixty cinematic minutes. Believe our future generations, or at least throw the kid in harm’s way when creepshows intensify.
10. Not believing the nutjob local.
Yes, Crazy Ronald worships a god who crash-landed on Earth seventeen weeks ago and is made of space cheese. Also, Crazy Ronald has been a resident of Anywhere, USA far longer than the vacationing college students on spring break. There’s no worse red herring than the stammering, hysterical, usually homeless-looking lunatic who’s shunned by other residents because he’s also caught peeping into windows like a creep. Could he be the killer, or his rantings be false? No. Never. None of the times. Crazy Ronald gave you all the clues.
9. Obnoxious tough-guy standoff with the big bad.
Has there ever been a successful macho protagonist who pauses mid-defense to berate the slasher killer currently crashing his party? Instead of landing a finisher, Dudebro McGee starts hooting and hollering about how he’s an all-state badass or can’t be bested by some freakshow in a mask. Too bad while your mouth was blabbering, the enemy regained their energy and wits. You should have shut your stupid face instead of wasting your last moments on one final toxically masculine rant.
8. The villain exposes their weakness through monologue.
I guess this goes for most genres where a mystery needs to be solved or evil vanquished? Whether the hero is James Bond or Counselor #3, no fail, the villain always takes their sweet time divulging secrets instead of completing their murderous objective. Maybe instead of revealing your signature kryptonite or repeating life-saving information previously told, don’t? Sure, then the good guys wouldn’t win, but at least it’s not a nonsense turning of the tides.
7. Cultural appropriation in horror storytelling!
All I’m going to say is The Curse of la Llorona and La Llorona. One movie is a Warner Brothers backdoor effort to sneak cultural relevance into a generic haunted house story. The other was made by Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante, is entrenched in cultural experience, and could be a 2021 nomination for Best International Feature. Authenticity is everything. Let’s raise international voices instead of whitewashing their representation!
6. “Everything is going to be fine, trust me.”
OH. THAT CHARACTER. “I can assure you, although everyone around us is dropping like peasants during the Black Plague, everything is going to be just fine.” I understand these lines are meant to show humanity’s unchecked hubris and immortality complex, but who can tolerate movies that overuse this ruse to death? I’m talking about multiple instances from the same character. Bless a movie like Demon Wind that kills the character who’s reassured, what, minutes later? That’s what you get for spouting that ridiculous line within horror dialogue.
5. Black person dies first.
In the year of our Lord John Carpenter, 2021, I am *still* required to include the words you read above. Why? Underwater. An aquatic Lovecraftian creature-feature that is, admittedly, one of my favorite genre titles of last year. STILL. T.J. Miller was right there, and you’re going to implode Mamoudou Athie first? Everyone involved with this project is better than that, and yet here we are, with Athie bursting like a water balloon however many minutes after we learn his character’s name.
4. The sassy best friend as cannon fodder.
Consider this part one of two tethered picks, but the “sassy best friend” trope typically is designated to “mouthy” characters (read: typically not male) who rarely live long enough to learn the killer’s first name. Labeled “The Bitch,” or “That Girl,” their crime is one of boasting loud opinions and generally on-point sensibilities when it comes to precautionary reads. Nonetheless, this means they’re removed from the picture before thwarting whatever Big Bad is in play.
3. The douchey best friend always lives too long.
Meanwhile, the “douchebag” best friend archetype (read: typically not female) generally is allowed to breathe until the finale or at least Act III. Even worse, he’s permitted redemptive martyrdom as an outro that attempts to offer some consolation. If Hollywood didn’t afford these types of sidekicks far more personality exploration than the “sassy” best friend, it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Maybe we work on leveling the playing field with these types of supporting players.
2. Female nudity is essential, male nudity is taboo.
In horror, there’s nothing scarier than a penis. So frightening, in fact, the chances of seeing a flaccid unit let alone an erect soldier on-screen are rarer than a unicorn sighting. Yet, thanks to the ’70s-’80s sleaze-horror explosion, exposed breasts and even full bush have become the bare minimum (heh) amidst bloodlust and dismemberment. Which doesn’t even make sense, because if horror is supposed to be about what’s scariest, shouldn’t there be far more dick the way it’s hidden, shunned, and avoided throughout the genre (en masse) thus far? It’s time we address the elephant’s trunk in the room.
1. The right-before-credits scare.
Disclaimer: one of my favorite horror films of 2020, Rob Savage’s Host, ends on an expert jump-at-the-camera finish. Why does it work? Because the cinematography sustains on a slow pull-into-doorway darkness while the Zoom conference timer counts us down to the inevitable “gotcha” punch. Elsewhere? Filmmakers think there’s something victoriously cheeky about smash-cutting some off-screen lunge right before the narration cuts or images fade to black, like the idea of ending on manufactured serotonin means you’ve succeeded as a horror film. Nope! Try sustaining tension throughout the ninety-minute duration instead of flinging one two-second stinger like you’ve smashed a home-run in the ninth. Only excused in movies like Krampus and Sinister where you’ve already completed the hard work and earned more goodwill.
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