The horror film is one of the most exciting experiences cinema has to offer. Tapping into what is arguably the most primitive of emotions, it can draw a reaction stronger than any other genre.
Unfortunately for fans, the film makers behind the genre know that there are a series of tricks which will scare audiences every single time they are used. Modern horror cinema especially is made up almost solely of these tropes and, with Dark Skies currently stinking out cinemas, it’s getting to the point of being ridiculous.
So, for the benefit of anyone making a horror film, here are five things every lazy horror film includes.
5. Ooh, isn’t that kid creepy?
Scary kids have been a major part of horror movies for a very long time. I am still regularly terrified by memories of the twin girls in The Shining and I defy anyone not to shiver at the thought of Damien in The Omen.
Modern horror, however, does not waste its time with subtlety and nuance. Instead, it just throws a kid with dead eyes (step forward Insidious) into every single movie. Usually, this is accompanied by an ominous drawing on the child’s bedroom wall (yup, talking to you Sinister) of something gruesome.
Children can be very frightening, but that doesn’t mean they can just be used as a shortcut to scares in lieu of anything worth jumping at.
Worst Offenders: Sinister, Mama, Insidious, The Possession
4. The late night wander
Whilst this list is mostly for modern horror tropes, this has been annoying for as long as horror has been a film genre. Characters always feel the need to have a meander around their dark, scary house in the dead of night. Often, as in Silent House, a small light source is used to create nice shadows in which spooks can hide.
Generally, a character is fast asleep and will be woken up by the film’s background score suddenly falling silent. They then decide to investigate a noise in the kitchen, which will subsequently be trashed beyond belief.
Last year’s depressingly poor horror flick The Pact combined this with new technology (see number 3 on the list) as characters stumbled around a dark house barking commands into iPhone app Siri.
Worst Offenders: Silent House, The Pact, The Woman In Black, Dark Skies
3. Technology is not your friend
As horror films look to innovate in a crowded market, new technology is increasingly being used as a selling point. Paranormal Activity 4’s reviews were dominated by the fact it used the XBox Kinect gaming system as part of its plotline and, as I mentioned earlier, The Pact decided to use Siri.
I have two central issues with this. Firstly, it dates the films horribly. In a decade’s time, Siri will look like a ludicrously archaic bit of technology and so The Pact will appear to be a relic of the past, rather than an enduring scary movie.
Secondly, sometimes the tech is just ridiculous. In Dark Skies, a family that have complained of money troubles are suddenly able to fill their house with sophisticated CCTV cameras and a roomful of monitors on which to view the feeds. It’s difficult to be scared with your head in your hands.
Worst Offenders: Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, Dark Skies, The Pact
2. The Cliché Expert
This is another one as old as time. Towards the end of the second act of a horror film, when weird stuff has been happening for a long time, the protagonist will visit an expert on whatever is going on. Often this expert is played by a recognisable actor (Christopher Lloyd in Piranha 3D, JK Simmons in Dark Skies) and allows the viewer to relax from scares for a while.
My problem is that this character always exists solely to provide exposition in one big lump. Suddenly, the protagonist goes from knowing nothing about what is threatening them to being experts in the mythology and motivations of the menace, as well as how to fight it. This creates the perfect lazy segway between the jump scares of the first act and the no holds barred third act resolution.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the characters had decent dialogue, but they usually speak entirely in clichés that you can recite before the character even says them. The combination of cliché and exposition makes this character one of horror’s most annoying tropes.
Worst Offenders: Dark Skies, Sinister, Insidious, Piranha 3D
1. Quiet, Quiet, Quiet… LOUD
This is pure horror film laziness. Any mediocre scary moment can be enhanced by simply blasting the volume of the score. In fact, the entirety of the Paranormal Activity franchise is based upon the idea that really loud noises are automatically terrifying.
The thing I dislike most about this trope is how well it works. Humans are hard-wired to be scared by a sudden loud noise and so, nine times out of ten, a loud noise from nowhere will make you jump, whether the film is any good or not.
My issue is not that it doesn’t work. It’s that it makes a mockery of true horror films. When you look at some of the classics, like The Shining and Jaws, they build tension and chills rather than just making a loud noise after a period of near silence.
There’s more to horror than making people jump. I just wish film makers would realise that.
Worst Offenders: Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Woman In Black
Do you agree that modern horror films are just a mass of recurring themes? Are there any annoying tropes that I’ve missed from my list? Let me know in the comments section below.