Editorial: Five Shitty Modern Horror Tropes (Part 2 of 2)


By Keri O’Shea

(Editor’s note: for the first part of Keri’s kvetching, please click here.)

Right, where was I? I’d finished talking about the hideously wronged catwalk models who can thenceforth magically bend girders and all the Keepers of Knowledge who fall out of (or leap from) high buildings, or otherwise race to their deaths in their dog-collars. Now, to move on to another cliche which has become ubiquitous so fast, it’s basically become a convenient ice-breaker when talking to other horror fans. Most fans will, to be fair, agree on this one, and you can get a few moment’s conversation out of it before moving on. That, in and of itself, says a lot about its value and popularity. I mean, of course…

3) He or She Who Films Fucking Constantly

I’ll freely admit, I’ve spoken at some length about my issues with the found-footage sub-genre already, so here, like in so many of these damned films, there’s a risk I’ll be repeating myself (though perhaps differently to so many of the filmmakers in question, I don’t expect this rant will be the stepping-stone to great things, an impressive budget, an enviable career and the means to dismiss everything I’ve done before). It still bears comment, though. Whilst it’s hard to pick out one detestable trope from a sub-genre which shows no signs of letting up yet, you can surely point the finger of blame for so many nausea-inducing, plot-lite travesties at the little fucker responsible for doing all of the filming in the first place (followed closely by whoever it is that adds explanatory credits explaining how and where the footage was found, but doesn’t bother to do any other editing whatsoever. Ooh, you’ll get yours.)

Yes, so obnoxious and inexplicable is the behaviour of He or She Who Films Fucking Constantly that even the other ‘characters’ in the film feel the need to allude to it – or more often than that, they’ll openly challenge the person about it, on camera, more than once. What does that tell you? How hard to swallow must this bullshit be, that we have to be told that everyone else even within the growing horrors of the film is getting as annoyed as we are? Hey, the inane question fills some more footage, I guess. It’s also a kind of ever-decreasing circle, this thing: a person (or persons) querying what is happening via the medium it’s happening on – more or less voting the film out of existence, only not getting their wish. And even if He or She… can ever be convinced to “stop filming” or “put the damn camera away” then they just start again, apparently only moments later, with still no reason for doing so. Apemen, aliens and spectres are one thing, but they barely stretch believability more than our not-so-convenient camera operatives.

Stupid behaviour in horror is far from novel, of course, and we’ve had decades of women falling over fresh air, wet-behind-the-ears travellers upsetting the locals in taverns and people picking up sinister looking antiques at bargain prices, and for the short-term feeling smug that they have. It happens enough that we can talk about its presence. None of these rather trite devices bother me as much, though, as those pillocks with their relentless, aimless and pinballing camerawork. Sure, people can be obsessed with filming things in real life, phones are a constant, laptops are a given – but the likes of Snapchat have by now won out over protracted filming sessions, surely, and one thing you often notice now is that even idiots can hold a phone still.

Look, if you’re struggling to justify your shooting style on camera, then maybe it’s time to buy a tripod and do it differently.

Worst offender: Trish (Abigail Schrader) in Tape 407 (2012). Look, I feel almost bad for picking on one He or She Who Who Films.., but having a sickly-sweet pre-teen in charge of a camera just pushed me too far. Still, as you can see from the image, what you lack in charisma you make up in great quality elsewhere.


4) The New-Old Rednecks

Again, prejudices amongst filmmakers against the inhabitants of the Southern states of the USA are nothing new. There’s a lengthy history here, and in a vast country which still often seems to be fractured along that old fault line between North and South, representations of Southerners have long been hyperbolic. Interestingly, it’s gone far and wide: English-speakers all over the world can probably recognise a term like ‘redneck’ now, even if it once derived from a reasonably specific geographical location and time; for horror audiences certainly, rural Southerners are definitively dangerous and not to be trusted, with all of their blithe protestations about ‘family’ and ‘hospitality’ really a barely-maintained front that will give way in due bloody course. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the majority of America’s lunatics were in the bottom half of the nation; well, some are, but certainly not all of them, though them stereotypes keep on comin’.

However, what feels distinctly new is the level of sheer, unmitigated glee which seems to accompany depictions of obligatorily racist, sexist, homophobic Southerners in cinema in recent years. It’s almost as if hurling a ‘redneck’ into your movie gives you a water-tight excuse to have your characters mouth a million things you’d never, ever get away with having anything but an ogre say (and God forbid any character intended to be at all ambiguous or nuanced utters even a fraction of this stuff – they’re done, and so is the filmmaker if this happens. In fact, imagine what would happen to you, if you said it. Every social set has its own blasphemy.)

All the disparaging slurs you can think of – and maybe more – come out of the mouths of these conveniently Southern monsters. A word which has euphemistically become ‘the N-word’ more or less everywhere else, for instance, reverts right back to ‘nigger’ when these people are around, and they don’t just say the word once. They shout it, they scream it, and they add a few other choice terms for good measure – usually about sex and sexuality, ‘cunts’ and ‘queers’. Never mind whether any of this fits or even seems plausible; it’s quite common for a lot of this dialogue to sound as forced as a teenager’s first attempt to drop ‘fuck’ into a sentence. The sheer garrulousness of these two-dimensional yee-haw characters, and their determination to say everything that no one is allowed to say is, well, weird and modern, in a way which I find pretty abhorrent and childish.

Look, I’m not saying no one uses this language. This isn’t about censorship either. But the decision to cram as much manufactured outrage into a movie via otherwise poorly delineated characters switches me off very quickly. Not only does it serve as a particularly tawdry ‘get out of jail free’ card whereby you can never be critiqued for having your characters speak like this because that’s just how they are – if your critics have a problem with it, then it’s on them to rationalise it – but it’s a very lazy way to make a villain. Make someone poor and/or unattractive and put a tonne of racist language in their mouths: do no other work. Hope and pray viewers can see irony or subtlety in your writing that in all likelihood, isn’t there in the first place.

Worst offender: Jed (Ronnie Gene Blevins) in Avenged (2013): great actor, reprehensible and unimaginative role.


5) Pregnant Pariahs

Now, my final trope is one that makes my blood boil and my eyes roll so hard that years of countless films all put together has given me a sort of haunted look; I’ll explain why. Nothing makes me disengage with a plot more quickly or more finally than the revealed presence of the Pregnant Pariah.

Now, I’ll freely admit that filmmakers, like many folk, often plump for the consensus attitude that enthrones ‘the young family’ above all else, because it’s a kind of social currency that can be cashed in everywhere. There is also evidence that the whole kid idea really does work on people. I’ve even heard from friends that, having had kids of their own, they can never again watch any scene containing threat to an infant without bawling, wanting to vomit or feeling the need to leave the room, pronto. Be that biology, decades of inescapable social enculturation or a blend of the two, it’s definitely a real factor in many people’s lives which is utilised as a failsafe by filmmakers wanting to inject some human drama into proceedings without getting too bogged down in intricacies. Just as the evil redneck is given certain things to say to make him evil, so many female characters are given the magic words to say to make them special. Huh.

Thing is, there are millions of us, men and women, who look with incredulity at films which decide that a woman needs that certain something – a pregnancy, duh – to really come into her own as a character. It’s the surprise twist which contains no surprises whatsoever. Just a regular woman escaping a masked killer would be shitty (unless she wheeled around on her heels and miraculously kicked him to death – see 1) but a woman carrying a baby; now there’s a girl who has a real cause to fight back. I mean, what else is there? There’s a reason women are routinely described as ‘mother-of-one’ or ‘mother-of-two’ after the real big event in her life happens, rather than ‘full time nurse of ten years’ or ‘medal-winner’: this shit, this shit is what’s really important. Sigh. I’m not sure if art’s imitating life or vice versa here, but my god, in life and in art it’s boring.

To get the holy grail of pregnancy into their films, though, filmmakers don’t just throw the non-surprise in there, but play fast and loose with the whole idea of childbearing from the outset. (This approach is rather different to making the pregnancy itself the bedrock of the horror, of course.) Having decided to use pregnancy in this way in the first place, I guess there’s little incentive to actually look too far into the realities of the subject; if you’re lazy in one respect then you’re likely to be lazy in another. For one thing, unless you’re Michelle ‘Clown Car’ Duggar, pregnancy isn’t all that common in the developed world anymore where we have the (free, in the UK) option to space things out, stop after a few children or hey, forgo it altogether. Yet women in films are always ‘just’ aware they’re pregnant, even if it’s miraculously early. Sometimes you even see women throwing up with morning sickness after a one-night stand, as if that happens so soon because of pregnancy in all but the rarest of cases (but yay for getting sex and pregnancy into a few salacious, inaccurate minutes). Any forced, equally inaccurate and downright insulting means of introducing this element to the plot is apparently fair game and has been used many times over the years. But worst of all, perhaps, is this idea that women get a sudden passion for survival on account of an embryo, when they would presumably have been far more expendable or even lain down and died? Thanks for reducing us to our reproductive biology again there, world.

Worst offender: Christine (Katie Lowes) in Bear (2010): oh, you want to live because you’re pregnant and not because there’s a huge bear on the bonnet of your broken-down car? I actually wanted the bear to eat her more, just to shut her up.