Check the Reel: Horrifyingly overused plot devices

February 15, 2012

This week I saw “The Woman in Black,” the Daniel Radcliffe vehicle and horror flick that neither served Radcliffe well nor inspired much horror in the audience (see my review for further details). Since watching it, I’ve thought about the horror genre in general and how tired its conventions have grown. In some ways it’s the most stagnant of all movie genres: the monsters may change, but they’re still accompanied by that same orchestral blast, canted camera angles and point-of-view shot. Here are some specific tropes, from “The Woman in Black” and elsewhere, I think are long past their retirement date.

The Mundane Scare – You ever notice how the first two scares of every horror movie set you up for something sinister — the slasher claiming his first victim, the ghost rising out of the woodworks—only to subvert and replace it with something innocuous? You might know it as the “cat scare.” Character hears something strange. Character goes to investigate. Character sees nothing — OH, MY GOD, IT’S … oh, it’s just a cat, phew. The scenario is still set up as a scare, with a sudden cut or music chord, but it comes with a wave of relief after the moment’s startle … if it works well, which it almost never does. Most filmmakers use the mundane scare as a crutch to draw out screen time and save the good scares for last, reducing the film’s first 20 minutes to cats jumping out of trash cans and friends sneaking up and yelling, “BOO!” (I’m looking at you, “The Thing” remake.) “The Woman in Black” gets a tad creative, juxtaposing ghost imagery with a pipe loudly spitting out mud, but maybe it’s high time we leave the scares to the people and creatures meant to evoke it.

Revolving Door Abominations – You have a great idea for a horror movie: a character is placed alone in a clearly haunted locale for an extended period of time. There’s no plot points or character development to worry about while they’re there, just where the ghouls appear from and how. This sounds incredibly liberating with countless opportunities for disturbing imagery, but with vast freedom comes, of course, vast responsibility. “The Woman in Black,”-along with most American remakes of “Thai” and “J-Horror,”-comes up with a great scenario and milks it beyond dry. The give and take of audience expectation and subversion, the foundation of all horror, is replaced by an ADD parade of the macabre. After the fifth scare in one minute, the nonstop barrage grows old. Tact and selectivity is needed to give each moment its proper due, which means varying the pace of scares, the delivery of scares … just plain variety. It’s the main tools in “1408” and the original “Paranormal Activity,” the best examples of good “scare-a-thon” flicks.

Build-Up, Image, BWAM! – I mention this specifically in my “Woman in Black” review, so I won’t dwell. It ties in with my previous point of variety, which this scare formula—silence, with perhaps a glimpse of the encroaching horror, followed by a freaky image and a scare chord—explicitly works against. Sometimes complete silence increases the horror beyond what a musical cue could accomplish. Keeping the monster on the screen may also beat showing just a flash of it. Experiment and pave new frightening paths.

The Banshee Face – Every horror ghost, creature, whatever has the same facial expression when they’re meant to be scary: jaw a screaming, detached oval, eyes black-lined and hollow, face stretched and contorted. The “Banshee Face” is accompanied by a scream that’s just that: a hoarse, piercing banshee wail. Like I said before: variety, people. Can’t we think of other faces that are equally unnerving?

Startle vs. Scare – Here’s the biggun, the problem at the heart of modern horror. I was talking with another friend who saw “The Woman in Black” last night who said he was more startled than scared during the movie. That’s a really interesting distinction, one I completely agree with. Any film can flash something on the screen and startle us. We’re instinctually programmed to respond with a jump and wince, but the impression fades quickly. Real scares seep under the skin and lurk in one’s nightmares for weeks. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for this dilemma. Startles are so easy to pull off. Scares require the talent of a Hitchcock, Wes Craven or a John Carpenter. Harder work and an extensive study of successful horror provides the template for success in this regard.

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