Crash Reports: Avoid the Tropes! What I’ve Learned After 1,800 Horror Movies

Horror movie number 1,800 turned out to be Jesus Franco’s godawful COUNT t9xpDRACULA (Spain/West Germany/Italy/Liechtenstein, 1970), starring Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski. Apparently, Lee didn’t want to play Dracula again, but Franco convinced him that the story would remain true to Stoker’s classic. It didn’t – not by a long shot. Furthermore, the sets were as barren as any no-budget horror with the most pathetic day-for-night footage I’ve seen. Worst still, why have Kinski play Renfield and not even give him one speaking line? Renfield could have been cut right out of the picture. I understand some people adore Franco, but after watching several of his cheap and poorly edited third-rate movies, I really don’t understand the love and admiration.

Granted, over the last 100 films I have seen some great, innovative, and beautifully executed horrors. For instance: ANTIVIRAL (Canada, 2012), THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEE (Canada, 2012), THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012), and RESOLUTION (2012). However, the bulk have been expectedly disappointing due to the same tropes and clichés filmmakers feel the ludicrous need to bestow upon the audience at every turn. Here are the ten things I hate the most in horror that leaves me cursing at the screen, rolling my eyes, and fast forwarding:


Fight or Flight or Scream

When we’re freaked out, we fight, flee, or stand still and take the ax to the head. But what I hate the most is the pathetic “fight response”. Now, that sounds crazy because we should cheer when our Final Girl or hero stands up in the face of a monster. Yet, when this fighter simply knocks the antagonist to the ground before running away, or leaves them with a knife in the belly, I become hostile. FINISH THE BASTARD OFF. Out of those 1,800 horrors, this must have occurred at least 1,600 times. And you know I’m not exaggerating. (David Carradine, when shooting his nemesis in Q: THE WINGED SERPENT, had the smarmy presence of mind to say, “He does not die easily,” then kept on shooting.)


Grab that Weapon!

This ties in with the aforementioned fight element. What moron, knowing his or her life is on the line, would strike back against their antagonist, yet leave behind the knife, the gun, the baseball bat, or other weapon? Sorry, I was born and raised in New Jersey. If you take a weapon from someone trying to kill you, you’d best use it – repeatedly – and leave with it until you’re sure the assailant’s dead. Then throw said weapon into the river and take a shower… (Of course, in FUNHOUSE a character raged on in a full-blown assault, though the end result was definitely not what he had in mind.)


The Killer Rises…

It’s not a shock when the antagonist isn’t dead after seemingly being annihilated. Yeah, we’ve seen that one a gazillion times as well. After our Final Girl or hero wipes out the big bad, the body either disappears from the scene, or the monster stands up to unleash havoc once more. Stop it, filmmakers. We don’t get a jolt. We don’t gasp. We just laugh. (Even when I was a kid, HALLOWEEN didn’t work because of this silliness.)


The Mirror Trick

In almost every horror, someone approaches a medicine cabinet with a mirror. They open it up, take some herpes or hemorrhoid medication, close it – and bam! A ghostly or demonic image appears. Stop it. Please. Thankfully, some use the mirror device to fake out the audience by not having anything appear in the reflection. This should keep us on our toes because this might be a sign that the filmmakers aren’t going to cater to the mundane (hopefully). (Thankfully, John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS, and the film BROKEN offered different takes on the abuse of mirrors.)


Gas Station Stop

How many times do you and your entire entourage exit the vehicle when you stop at a gas station? Sure, the driver might get out to pump gas, but why does every single horny college kid need to climb out, get a snack, take a piss, or bully a yokel? And each gas station attendant happens to be either batshit crazy, stupid, or downright evil. In all my gas station stops, I’ve never met one attendant that fit any of those three categories regardless of location. (At least in URBAN LEGEND, Brad Dourif’s socially awkward gas jockey was actually trying to help.)


The Trip

In real life, when people are scared, they sometimes screw up and fall on their face when running away – but not every damn time. I’m so sick of seeing stupid people scream, run, and wipe out for no apparent reason. Let’s call it the “phantom fall”. If you want the antagonist to catch up to the person, then make your lunatic monster run faster. (Didn’t the screaming kids trip and fall in every FRIDAY THE 13th movie?)


The Lost Art of Subtlety

Foreshadowing is especially pathetic in many a horror because it destroys the suspense. This means, don’t have two people talking, then cut to a knife on the counter, then go back to them talking – only to have one of them pick up the blade and play slasher. Whenever a filmmaker does something so blatant and pathetic, it’s a clear sign the director thinks his or her audience is made up of the lowest common denominator. (Part of the reason THE SIXTH SENSE worked so well was because the clues were subtle, yet in plain site.)


No Cell Service

Okay, we get it already. Just about every character in horror has a damn cell phone, but we don’t need the “I can’t get a signal” scene in every stupid film. Often, the cell phone issue doesn’t need to be addressed at all, especially if we know our group of soon to be dead pinheads is heading to a “remote” anything. Be creative and do something different. (YOU’RE NEXT had the bad guys jam the signal.)


Paranormal Investigation

This is the bane of the found footage subgenre. Sure, it’s simple and easy to have some idiots from a fake show investigate a haunted mental hospital and get slaughtered, but we’ve seen it dozens of times already. The paranormal investigating team setup has leap-frogged over the old, “Hey, this place was built on an Indian burial ground” premise. (Maybe this is why there are no plans for a GRAVE ENCOUNTERS III.)


Large Casts

When I see six college kids stuffed into an SUV heading for a remote cabin in the woods, it’s a safe bet that five of those morons are going to get ripped to shreds. Then, when they pull up to a party with twenty other people – well, you know where the body count’s headed. Stop with all the redshirting. After all, I can’t even remember the last time I witnessed a creative death scene in any movie. (It was just as much of a blast to see Joss Whedon poke fun at this and other tropes in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS as much as it was to watch Wes Craven tackle these plot redundancies in SCREAM.)


As a writer, I know it’s not easy to circumvent a cliché, but at least give it a shot, dammit. Otherwise, if you’re not bringing anything new to the audience, why make a film anyway? This is part of the reason why the five films I mentioned in the beginning stand out so well.

What tropes, cliché’s, and abuses are you sick of in horror?

(Photo from Geek Mode Blog.)

17 Replies to “Crash Reports: Avoid the Tropes! What I’ve Learned After 1,800 Horror Movies”

  1. Flickering lightbulbs. I’d love to see the power actually fucking work in someone’s house/workplace/hotel in a horror film.

    1. Damn straight! Oh, and when was the last time your car wouldn’t start for no apparent reason – or batteries in the flashlight decided to die when you needed them the most?

      Those mock suspense scenes sink a horror for me – every time.

      Thanks for the visit!

  2. The jump scare is overdone. It can be effective sometimes, but often downright stupid. I can live without ever having to see: someone suddenly being tapped on the shoulder or grabbed; an image quickly appearing on the screen accompanied by loud music, or; the “It’s Just A Cat” fake-out.

  3. The main problem is not with writers, I believe, but Money People. You would not believe what these types from a well-known channel wanted added to a story of mine! What do you call a writer who can’t write? An executive producer.

    1. Ha! I understand. In all seriousness, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Sadly, yours is one of far too many horror stories I’ve heard over the years. (And this is why “writer” me had to become a filmmaker.)

  4. oh man I just thought of one I’ve really begun to hate.. when it turns out the main characters died in the beginning of the film via suicide, car crash, or house fire and that really they are ghosts or trapped in some sort of purgatory place.

  5. Character steps out into the street only to be liquefied by a speeding truck or bus flying through the shot at about warp 9. And these apparently psychotic drivers never stop to see what the hell they just killed.

    1. Nick, you stated that perfectly. Yeah, those crazy drivers just keep rolling, while in other films, an entire horror movie comes about whether they stopped or not. And the “hit and run” horror is another I can do without.

  6. Ha! These tropes and cliches are so played out, man. You hit the nail right on the head with these, Bill. I’m not sure which I hate the most. Maybe the Paranormal FF flick or the gas station stop along with the mirror trick. I hate loud musical cues, too. That is most annoying especially when the scare is a fake out. Great post, bro!

    1. Ha! Thank you! As soon as I see a trope in a horror, I say, “Here we go” and start pressing the fast forward button.

      Thanks for posting, Vic!

  7. I was watching a really good movie the other night that turned into a cop-out ending with another overplayed horror trope. “The military showing up and killing everyone” ending. Even if it makes sense within the plot/political commentary, i still cringe from the “of course” of it.

    1. Agreed. It’s equivalent to a Deus ex machina maneuver because the resolution is out of the character’s hands – and we’ve followed them the entire way! What was the film, Jason? If I didn’t see the movie, I certainly want to avoid it.

      1. It was Gonzalo López-Gallego’s Open Grave (2013). I really enjoyed the mystery of the first half, and while the ending didn’t ruin the film, it certainly thwarted a lot of my investment in it.

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