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Killer slips and trips: How horror can avoid this cliché

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Aug 18, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

As predictable as a Final Girl surviving the carnage, splitting up when they should stick together, or ignoring the creepy gas station attendant's advice to stay away, the chances of someone falling over while they are being chased in a horror movie are high. More often than not, it is a woman who finds herself on her hands and knees, struggling to get back up while imminent death looks her in the eye. This cliché is prominent in slashers, which use these moments to ramp up the tension and scare levels. Running for your life on uneven terrain is not the simplest of tasks with filmmakers upping the chances of a trip-and-fall thanks to inappropriate shoes, turning around to check how close their pursuer is, or unseen obstacles — sometimes all three. Is gravity in cahoots with the killer?

Foolish mistakes are an ingredient in so many scary movies, but there are ways to avoid this tired trope and elevate the suspense levels without a character succumbing to a slip- or trip-aided demise. It isn't just the victims who fall prey to falling as the original Final Girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has trouble staying on her feet as she flees from Michael Myers (Nick Castle) for the first time in Halloween. As she runs across the street from the house that now contains the bodies of her three friends, she screams at the top of her lungs for help. In the panic, she eats it but scrambles to her feet as the impassive Michael slowly makes his way across the manicured lawn.

Credit: Compass International Pictures

Laurie makes several mistakes in this final act — including dropping the needle and the knife when she believes he is dead — and while she gets to the now-iconic porch before Michael catches up, it is an unnecessary moment that has been repeated far too many times. If Curtis' mother Janet Leigh can stay standing in the slippery shower as she is being attacked by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho until the bitter end, then running on flat terrain should not pose an issue.

Halloween set the standard for slasher movies and while it is far from the first to deploy this tension-raising tool, it provided the template for many filmmakers. Think of any horror with a majority teenage character cast and the chance of a trip-and-fall is as high as the impending bloodshed. In both the original 1981 Sam Raimi film and the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead, the woods prove to be dangerous. The innovative POV in Raimi's horror classic was a necessary solution to the low-budget restrictions, creating an iconic shaky-cam technique that elevates the scares and puts the audience on the same unstable ground as the characters. In the case of Cheryl (Ellen Sandweis) and Mia (Jane Levy), it makes their stumbles less egregious. Mia also wanted to leave the cabin so she also gets points for wanting out of this terrible scenario, however, Cheryl's choice to investigate a noise in the woods is eye-roll-inducing. Both are punished with a horrifying sexual assault and demonic possession.

Credit: Sony Pictures

It isn't just adolescent or college-age women that can't stay on their feet as Liv Tyler proves in the 2008 home invasion horror, The Strangers. In an attempt to escape, Kristen literally stumbles at the first hurdle. The plan is hampered by the classic horror trope, which only adds to the ineptitude of the lead characters. Not only are sequences like this utilized for cheap scares but they also pit the audience against the victims. By acting rashly or making an avoidable error, sympathy toward their overall fate is reduced. Of course, it is an inevitable part of the narrative to portray a foiled flight for freedom, however, there are ways to do it without making a character look foolish or at fault.

Wes Craven incorporated the falling-down calamity in A Nightmare on Elm Street when Tina (Amanda Wyss) unsuccessfully tries to escape Freddy Krueger's (Robert Englund) knife glove clutches and in the meta Scream. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) laments the pointlessness of horror when the killer first asks her favorite scary movie: "Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act, who's always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door." This critique isn't wrong but Craven uses Sidney's subsequent upwards action to show how fight or flight sometimes involves an act out of necessity, no matter how illogical. Later, Tatum (Rose McGowan) succumbs to falling over that negates the quick-thinking moves she makes when Ghostface attacks — including launching beer bottles as grenades. The crawl to the garage door cat flap is resourceful but ultimately leads to her gruesome demise.

Credit: Dimension Films

Sarah Michelle Gellar does not possess any of her Slayer skills in either Scream 2 or I Know What You Did Last Summer — nevertheless, both her deaths avoid the clumsy cliché. As designated sober sister Cici Cooper, she is attacked early in the sequel while her sisters are at a mixer. When Cici runs up the many Omega Beta Zeta stairs she throws plant pots and bicycles at her eventual killer but, notably, she never stumbles — whereas, he does. Sure, the result is the same but there is just as much suspense from this sequence without the humiliating face plant.

Helen Shivers did not deserve to die in I Know What You Did Last Summer considering how she uses her smarts to escape the killer before making a boneheaded choice to pause in the alley rather than run to freedom. Unfortunately for Helen, Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is the designated Final Girl so she was destined to die, whether she fell or not. Both chase sequence highlight suspense can be achieved without the cheap tricks.

Credit: Universal Pictures

The opening sequence of the recent The Invisible Man is another example of how a fleeing woman doesn't need to fall for your heart to be in your mouth. When Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) carefully executes the meticulously planned flight for freedom from her abusive boyfriend every step is loaded with anxiety. Changing out of her sleepwear slip into sensible sneakers and sweats, she climbs the wall of his isolated complex and makes her way down the uneven terrain. It would be easy to throw in a momentary fall, but this sequence does not need it. The audience doesn't know if Adrian is behind her or not, and the limited information at this point is enough to know he should be feared. Cecilia doesn't need to land on her hands and knees to drive this point home.

Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller is well-versed in horror and understands the nuances of this genre, as well as eschewing cheap tricks that make women look bad. Discussing the Season 2 episode "Naka-Choko" with actress Caroline Dhavernas on the DVD commentary, Fuller explains why it was important to avoid this falling down trope. When Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) discovers a fridge full of human remains on William Graham's (Hugh Dancy) property — this storage device is "a little bratty move" referencing the term "fridging" — the reporter believes she is face-to-face with a serial killer.

She might be a terrible marksman, but spraying back-up mace in Will's eyes buys her time to run out into the snow toward her car. Describing Freddie as "scrappy," Fuller was unhappy with one part of the sequence. "In the dailies, she trips and falls, I was like, ‘No we're not going to have a lady running away tripping and falling." Fuller also followed through on this promise in the finale and Dhavernas thanks him during this chat for altering the sequence in which she confronts her ex about his extra-curricular activity.

Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

The original Season 2 finale script directions feature a physical confrontation between the two that incorporates running up the stairs and slipping at the inopportune moment:

"Alana speeds up. But he is faster... As they round a bend in the stairs, he grabs for her. His hand clutches at her ankle. Grasps her shoe. Alana slips, kicks her foot from her shoe and scrabbles on her knees. KICKS Hannibal hard with the other heel, catching his face and rocking him back. Hannibal smiles. Takes his time now as he follows her."

Delivering a lesson in how elements can change for the better from script and screen, the methodical and calm Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) slowly follows Alana up the stairs as she uses her knowledge of his house to find somewhere to reload her gun. It is just as frightening seeing him in this controlled mode, underscoring why the falling over trope is superfluous. Adrenaline as a form of protection is referenced during this commentary discussion, pointing to the idea that someone is "going to be more sure-footed" if they are being chased.

Yes, stumbling or tripping can happen but it shouldn't be the default. The odds are stacked against the person fleeing, there is no need to make them look incompetent — gravity is not a killer's secret weapon.

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