A shared experience for every horror fan is sitting in the theater for a new horror film that they already know how it’s going to end. Whether it be too much advertisement or the writer’s pitfalls, it can be a semi-disappointing viewing experience. The viewer doesn’t necessarily want a M. Night Shyamalan sized twist at the end to prove themselves wrong–they don’t really care if they’re right–but they would definitely appreciate some spice to keep the experience enjoyable. There is one technique that can be a saving grace for a horror film: creative kills.
Horror will remain one of the more creative genres on the film spectrum. However, there is monotony that future creators are trying to dodge when releasing a new film out into the world. One of the genres that faces the most monotony is the slasher genre. With its never-ending sequels and reboots, it seems like all the kills of characters that you care less with each film never hit quite as hard as watching the original. Even A Nightmare on Elm Street with its dream realm lost its spark as the sequels seemed to go on and on, despite its open availability to do something new and out there.
Creative kills are a thing that horror creators do to engage its audience. It surprises them in moments rather than the whole plot. Sometimes it works better than trying to add a twist that people end up anticipating in the first place. I can save a film too. If a viewer remembers a certain death, even if they didn’t enjoy the film as a whole, that could be considered a win.
Warning: Spoilers past this point
The First Viewing
The horror films we see nowadays are rarely original. Most trace back to an origin film, with most of the films from the 60s, 70s and 80s serving as influence on modern horror creators. This was a special time period for horror. The monster movie was going out and the genre was starting to branch out into different subgenres. The groundwork for creative kills rests in the original slashers, as they were the first to take the plunge into the grisly. Their reign in conjunction with rental movie shops that dominated in those decades allowed for these gruesome yet unique scenes to spread to televisions across America.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
We start from the beginning with of the 70s-80s slasher reign with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While there are a variety of weapons in the film, none of them sound more terrifying than the chainsaw. Despite its low budget, there is plenty of clever camerawork in this film. This expressed the gruesome nature of the kills, tarnishing the chainsaw forever. It’s rare to find a haunted house that doesn’t utilize one without its chain for its terrifying sound. Personally, a man wielding one of these chased me out of a haunt with one. I don’t scare super easy, but I did minorly fear what would’ve happened to me had he caught up.
Up next is John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween. While there are plenty of groundbreaking, iconic kills, the one topping the list is Michael Myers playing pin-the-Bob-to-the-pantry. The impact of the scene is not necessarily the kill in action–though it is effective–but rather Michael Myers stepping back and observing his kill, tilting his head and brainstorming his next move. This leads to the iconic bedsheet ghost with glasses. John Carpenter is no stranger to creativity in his horror and his kills. This shows especially in his follow up film The Fog and even more as he approaches the sci-fi horror genre in 1982 with his take on The Thing.
Friday The 13th
Going chronologically, the next in line is Friday the 13th, which kickstarted the trope of “you have sex, you die.” The death that sticks is both creative and one of the only familiar faces in the film. Poor Kevin Bacon’s character Jack is trying to enjoy a nice cigarette. Moments later, he gets a hand around the head and an arrow through the throat. The use of close up practical effects in this kill distinguishes it from the previous pair of film mentioned, as it is a death seen up close rather than imagined due to shadows or camera placement. This pushed the boundary of gore on screen, which was turned up to eleven in 1984.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm Street is the foundation for out there creative kills. It takes place primarily in a dream state. This allowed for Wes Craven to push the supernatural boundaries on this classic slasher. It is also has the impact of familiar face meets gruesome end as it stars a babyfaced Johnny Depp. While watching Tina pinned and slashed on the ceiling is truly frightening and impactful as a first kill, it is Glen’s bed eating him and projectile vomiting him out in a geyser of blood. The excessive gore and false security that both the viewer and Glen feels makes the death impactful and very memorable. Wes Craven is no stranger to making the viewer care for the characters, which can also be seen in the Scream franchise. This only makes his creative kills even more useful and impactful.
BREAKING THE VIEWER’s TRUST
While a horror fan knows not to get too close to any characters in their favorite horror series, it happens anyways. They want the best for these characters ultimately. When it comes down to their brutal death, there is a powerful emotion that comes with it. Sometimes they don’t see it coming. Most of the time they do see it coming and convince themselves that the writers simply wouldn’t do that. This is what makes this technique the cruelest of the creative kills.
Fear Street: 1994
These attachments are usually side characters that shine just as bright as the main character. A main example in recent times is Kate in Fear Street: 1994, which is one of the most unfair and creative deaths I’ve seen in the recent years. Kate is lovable. She and her best friend Simon have some hilarious, if chaotic, moments together that just makes the audience care and love them more.
As the film arrives at the final grocery store showdown and the Skull Face Killer locks her in a chokehold, the film convinces the viewers she isn’t going to die. She had escaped death too many times to count prior in the movie, she has to get out of this. He slams her down on the table and her head slides closer and closer to that bread slicer. The film convinces the viewers once more someone will save her since this team is always looking out for each other, and her screaming her head off has to attract one of them to help her. All that hope shatters into pieces as the audience gets a close up shot of her head becoming shredded by this once ordinary, now malicious machine.
The predictability comes back the moment afterwards, with Simon’s death seeming inevitable, but it was that brief moment that will actually stick with you. Not only because the writers killed off beloved Kate, but also the shocking visuals and the manner of her death.
Another way to shock the audience is killing off what seems like a quintessential-to-the-plot character. In recent years, the fake-out death of Marty in The Cabin in the Woods is an example of this kind of kill. He was high as a kite the entirety of the film, but he was the one–other than the main protagonist– not affected by the mental curveballs thrown by the company running the show. The one that has stuck with many horror fans however was the killing of Randy in Scream 2.
Lovable, adorkable Randy who was an easy target in the first film but delivered very necessary information on the tropes of a horror film that saved a lot of his friends’ asses. He, like us watching a horror film, knew what pleasant predictability felt like; the first Scream is chock full of pleasant predictability with its main but effective curve being there was a second killer and it was Stu. With its equally enjoyable sequel, we think we are just as self aware as Randy. Therefore, we together are not susceptible to the killer’s tricks.
All of those comforting feelings go out the window, or rather into the back of the van when Ghostface murders Randy in broad daylight with Gale and Dewey so close by. Upon each viewing, the kill is just as devastating as it is the first time. A die-hard horror fan relates the most to this character, and his death dismisses the belief that his knowledge and self awareness alone could keep him alive for another round.
Sometimes horror creators are too trigger happy with killing off characters. While this is sometimes done in a “they were all doomed anyways” kind of sense, sometimes they take it way too far.
The extreme: Torture porn versus arthouse
There are two genres that have the same level of brutality most of the time. They differ so heavily from each other. The genres are arthouse horror and a genre lovingly known as torture porn. Both feature disturbing images and scarring scenes, but a film that completely relies on tolerance to gore doesn’t mean its the most creative. The best horror movies are ones that non-horror fans can watch, in my opinion. It doesn’t mean that they won’t come out unscathed– some of the mentions on this list are disturbing–but it’s not watching people die in bloody, gruesome ways back to back.
These types of films have their fanbases, and I am not invalidating their feelings towards these films. In regards to their accessibility , their grisly goriness earns them their praise rather than storyline. This does not mean that the kills in these films aren’t creative, they are overly creative. However, they lose their impact by having so many creative kills back to back. It allows a new kind of unpredictability that creates excitement for what bizarre thing will come next , which amps up fans of torture porn. This allows for some creative error, because while a lot of these films continue to have out of the box moments, the excitement with each sequel dims and dims as each sequel falls short.
An example of this last year is Spiral, the Saw reboot. While this film was sadly hindered due to movie theater closures due to COVID, there was an overall complaint about seeing things that have already been done before in the franchise. In a series full of traps that are made of the masses’ worst nightmares, it a risk to make so many movies which ultimately turn away a general crowd due to its brutality and turn away its cult following due to running out of ideas. You can see this same progression in many of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie films too, meaning that going to the extreme all the time can burn out the creative spark that make this gory flicks tick.
Another genre of film that can be hit or miss but can teach the torture porn genre a thing or two about how frequently to use creative kills is the arthouse horror genre. The obvious recent examples are films such as Hereditary, Midsommar and The House That Jack Built. These films can exhibit as equally creative and disturbing scenes as the torture porn films, but these films use a one-and-done method. They’re films where it is okay if they’re not watched again, since they can be deeply disturbing, even for the most desensitized horror fan, but there is no hinderance in watching it again, as most of the time there is opportunity to understand and see more than one saw in the first viewing.
While most arthouse horror have things that are odd and out of the usual, it is usually in a slow burn format rather than the fast paced timing of torture porn movies, which allows for a break from the gore but also creates a foundation of dread to build upon during the film’s usually longer runtime. Much like the grisly films mentioned above, these films are not everybody’s cup of tea, but they are the films that are shaping the horror scene. More mainstream films follow the influence of arthouse horror, which includes the films from recent horror powerhouse Jordan Peele, who utilizes disturbing images and creative kills to his benefit in both of his films Get Out and Us–specifically the use of the giant scissors as well as the deerhead stabbing.
Overall, both of these genres have changed what modern horror fans are looking for in horror films. Whether it be an out-there arthouse film or a grisly never-ending death hour, both genres hold heavy influence over the modern day horror film, with viewers seeking out more and more creativity in the standard mainstream horror films that come out year after year.
It is undeniable that the use of creative kills defines what the horror genre. It also separates it from the similar thriller genre. When used correctly, an out-of-the-box kill can shake things up for a seemingly predictable movie. This can be used to the enjoyment of the general viewer and the horror fan, even if it involves some broken hearts along the way (I’m still not over Randy’s death). However, when used too often, it can alienate both the casual horror viewer as well as its cult follower. Nonetheless, it is an essential technique that is used by the best horror filmmakers out there and is a one stop shop to make a horror film memorable.