It can be hard to say when tropes tip over into clichés. Tropes are a useful and probably essential part of writing stories, whether films, tv, books, comics or games. But if they start getting used too much do they become over familiar and y'know, boring?
Or is it how well they are used that are important? I watched two horror films this week that both used what for me is the biggest of modern horror movie staples to wildly varying effect. Spoilers for both films follow.
The films in question are Babek Anvari's amazing debut “Under The Shadow” and the infinitely less amazing “The Woman In Black: Angel of Death” directed by Tom Harper btw. Quick reviews/synopsis follow.
The former is a genuinely odd blend of low key family drama, set in Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war shortly after the revolution. A young mother decides to remain in the city with her daughter after her doctor husband is sent to an area of heavy fighting by the military. Refusing to go to her in-laws on the basis that they are apparently absolute bellends, this start to go pretty weird after a missile hits the building they live in and an allegedly mute orphan starts telling the little girl about the djinn which haunt the war torn city. Shot in a mostly hand-held style and bolstered by a great performance from the luminous Narges Rashidi (“luminous” is a posh word writers use when they really fancy the actor involved), it also benefits from shots or mordant humour, genuinely freaky imagery and a unique setting. “Under The Shadow” is up there with the best of the recent art house horror crop – 9/10
“Angel of Death” is a sequel to the earlier adaptation of Susan Hill's famous shit 'em up novel (and play). A bunch of war evacuees, their teachers and for some reason an airman one of the teachers immediately gets all flustered over actually decide to flee a war torn city but end up in the haunted house from the first film. The resident vegenful, child murdering ghosty isn't happy, lots of people. Maybe they had the right idea in “Under the Shadow” after all. While the first film had a decent performance from Daniel Radcliffe and his awesome Victorian facial hair and was generally a well put together film. “Angel of Death” suffers from stilted acting, dialogue and an apparently endless cliché storm – 3/10
So, back to what I was saying. Think of how many recent supernatural horror films you've seen recently where this happens: the protagonist is walking slowly around somewhere dark, say their haunted apartment or the crumbling house they're holed up. They spot something weird moving in the murk and stop to peer quizzically at it. The camera shows us their perspective and watch the weird thing for a few seconds before it suddenly lurches right up into the camera for a split second, preferably moving at uncanny speeds. Cheap jump scare central. In “Angel of Death” the hideous, twisted face of the titular undead bastard does this when attacking a secondary character. It says much about the film that I can't remember if the character dies at that stage, but that isn't the usual outcome of this shot.
Instead we normally get what “Under the Shadow” does, which is the protagonist comes face to horrible face with the thingymajig for an instant then immediately wakes up in bed. The old “it-was-a-dream-but-was-it-really-though” trick. “The Forest” starring the luminous Natalie Dormer pulls the same gag, as do various no-budget straight to streaming delights I have watched of late.
What “Under the Shadow” does differently two fold. Firstly, the normal hand-held camera style has been replaced by a steadier, slower moving shot. It immediately puts you on edge that something weird is going to happen because of a simple but beautifully effective camera move Anvari pulled off earlier. Rashidi's character Shideh is laid in bed while the camera is on it's side so she is vertical in the frame. She hears a noise and wakes up and the camera tilts through 90 degrees as she does. It then smoothly follows her to the first massive jump scare of the film. Knowing that this non-hand-held style heralds the oh-shit coming increases the tension, as does the fact that the quizzical “no what actually is that shot” has the little girl in the background, which is rare as these things go.
Secondly, the whatsit in “Under the Shadow” pretty much doesn't look like any other creature you see in these things. It's basically a bed sheet ghost (patterned like a headscarf, somewhat significantly), but moves in such an uncanny and unnatural way that the sudden lurch to camera is a proper jolt. It goes to show what a little bit of imagination in creating your spooky antagonist can achieve.
The similar scene in “Angel of Death” isn't bad per se, and is probably the biggest scare in the film. It just doesn't do anything new. The Woman's face, a fairly good achievement in making a human visage look utterly malicious, zooms at you out of the darkness before the screaming starts.
There are other similar scenes, for example both films employ big old jump scares looking out of a darkened window, but we'll be hear all night. I think my point is that clichés are clichés for a reason, but if they're used effectively in a film that does the other stuff well enough they're more forgivable than in an average film. “Under the Shadow” is an extraordinary film so pulls them off with aplomb.
Word of warning: I'll probably write about “Under the Shadow” again after re-watch because I've barely scratched the surface of what makes it great.