If you’re a writer, you’ve probably come across the idea of story ‘cliches’ before. In this media dominated era, it’s pretty hard not to. We’re a people captivated by stories and desperate to delve into new worlds and universes that differ from our own. After so many centuries of stories, I guess it’s not really much of a surprise that Hollywood’s been stated as having no ‘new’ ideas. Everybody’s on the look out for original stories, but to this day, not much has turned up, and most of what has been deemed as original content has been a box office flop compared to films like Doctor Strange – a film that utilises a majority of previous Marvel film plot points (hint, hint, Iron Man). So, if cliches are seen as bad, why are they doing so well? And why do stories that actually break these cliches so often fail?
One of the first movies that come to mind for me when the topic of ‘original stories’ are mentioned, is Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut ‘Get Out‘. The film, centring around a young black man who meets the family of his white girlfriend for the first time, was a huge success both in the box office and in the eyes of critics. However, there’s one feature of this film that’s never really talked about: the fact that it is completely riddled with cliches. With jump scares (granted not many), an evil hypnotist and a house out in the middle of the wilderness, there’s really no denying this film’s unoriginality, but it’s this unoriginality that makes Get Out not only a memorable movie, but also a boxoffice hit.
Jordan Peele, using his knowledge of horror audiences and their expectations, manages to do something that’s rarely done by many directors today: manipulate common cliches. Instead of avoiding these cliches altogether, as many writers are told to do, Peele uses these cliches to his advantage, creating a predictable plot and an emotionally jarring central character.
The moment that Chris turns up at the house of his girlfriend Rose’s parents, we know something’s wrong. They live in an isolated country side, have some suspiciously odd helpers around the house, Rose’s parents are far too friendly and Rose’s mother is a hypnotist. It doesn’t take long at all for the audience to realise Chris is in for a double dose of horror, but it’s these expectations that make the film all the more satisfying when we find out the truth. It’s also what makes the plot twist so shocking. By reusing and slightly twisting old cliches, Peele hides the truth right under our nose – Rose was the bad guy all along. There were so many predictable cliches in the first half that our sense of ‘who-done-it’ is stripped away and we watch the film without question until it’s finally revealed that Peele has been playing us the whole time.
In a way, Get Out was also the perfect way to introduce ‘Indie’, more original films to a mainstream audience. Audiences can all identify these cliche story points. They’re in all the big modern horror hits, allowing for Get Out to slip among the greats with gusto. We’re expecting your average horror film and predictable horror films sell. Get Out manages to bring something new to horror, wrapping it in a coat of predictability in order to attract mainstream audiences.
However, Peele isn’t the only director that has used cliches to their advantage. Starting off as a relatively unknown Indie director, Taika Waititi became a name to be reckoned with in after his work on the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.
Thor: Ragnarok is a pretty good example of twisting cliches in itself, using the well known ‘superhero’ trend to add something new and fun to the genre, but there’s another less known film of Waititi’s that has perfected the art of using already established cliches to a tee, and that film is What We Do In The Shadows.
What We Do In The Shadows is one of Waititi’s finest comedies and arguably one of the best comedies to come from New Zealand cinema to date. Centring around the lives of a group of vampires that happen to live in the New Zealand town of Wellington, the film takes on a mocumentary style, making use of cliches to tell a ridiculous and absurdly heart-warming tale of friendship. It also, as expected, makes use of a lot of cliches.
From the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries tv show, to old classics such as Dracula and Nosferatu, the media has always been littered with vampires. In fact, the mere mention of vampires among horror writing communities will usually result in eye rolls. What We Do In The Shadows, even though a modern day vampire film itself, has become a critical and commercial success over the years. Why? It all comes down to Waititi’s incredibly smart use of cliches.
Waititi’s film is far from original, but it uses this unoriginality to create a level of comedy that has rarely been done before: it uses known and predictable plot points to create unknown situations. Waititi uses cliche vampire situations – such as drinking blood, turning into bats, romance between humans and vampires and wars between vampires and werewolves – to explore what it would really be like to live as one of these Wellington vampires. From bloody dishes to a romance between an undying vampire and a ninety-year-old woman, everything in this film is ridiculous and if it weren’t for the use of these cliche situations, What We Do In The Shadows wouldn’t be anywhere near as hilarious as it is.
So, yeah, cliches aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. When done right, they can be just as interesting, if not even better, than some of the original cliche material. All they need is a little twist!