Horror Clichés: The Monster One-Up

The horror genre has a plot cliché unlike any other. While every type of film suffers from its own potential to do predictable and over-tired forms of set up, very few are as catching as the “monster one-up.” What I mean by that is: the film overtly states the superiority of its monster by having it destroy another monster from a previous movie. Most of the time, this event occurs in horror films that are… less than stellar. That said, any technique can be done the right way. This article will examine two examples from horror films. Movies that do this sequence the right way… and movies that do it less so.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears a familiar looking hockey mask in his Halloween H2O cameo. I know what you're thinking: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT was in that movie - why??????
Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears a familiar looking hockey mask in his Halloween H2O cameo. I know what you’re thinking: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT was in that movie – why??????

USING IT POORLY: JAWS vs. Orca: the Killer Whale vs. Jaws 2

First off, Jaws did nothing wrong. It is the classic being emulated in the two later films mentioned. Obviously, when Steven Spielberg‘s monster blockbuster hit, it spawned a plethora of copycats and clones. Piranha, Barracuda, Suckers, The Beastthe list goes on and on. Seems like Hollywood had no idea that the ocean could be such a dangerous or profitable place before Jaws came around. If there is anyone out there unfamiliar with this famous creature feature: the plot is essentially that a killer great white shark terrorizes Martha’s Vineyard. Obviously, the basic premise of Jaws is not what makes it the incredible piece of film-making that it is.

Fast-forward two years and along comes Orca: the Killer Whale. I doubt I have to say any more than the title for you to know exactly what kind of movie this is. Like so many others, Orca was attempting to succeed Jaws. The film contains quite a lot of hype about killer whales. There’s even a “scientist” who talks them up to the point of living aquatic godhood. Obviously whales are smart – but she would have the audience believe that killer whales were psychics of the animal kingdom. But anyway, apparently having a character who didn’t think Free Willy went far enough wasn’t all the movie wanted to do.

The film starts with a sequence where before-mentioned character is threatened by a great white shark, a twenty-five foot long great white shark to be precise. Sound familiar – huh? HUH? Anyway, then this happens:

Apologies for the small pictures. Apparently no HD snapshots of Orca exist. What a shame, internet, what a shame.
Apologies for the small pictures. Apparently no HD snapshots of Orca exist. What a shame, internet, what a shame.

Yes, Orca shows up to destroy the great white. It demolishes the shark and allows for the characters to continue to talk up how wonderfully kick-ass killer whales are. The only problem is that this sequence is long and has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Its main function is to be the monster one-up. Suck it, Jaws – our monster is better. Of course, a year later Jaws 2 responded:

Jaws 2 3
Got you!

And guess what? Jaws 2 used this to have a whole scene talking up how incredible their shark must be to kill a killer whale. Blatant use like this is essentially a Hollywood dick-measuring contest. It is stupid and does not serve much point other than to try and make the audience feel more intimidated.

“Look at how scary our monster is! It killed that other monster… are you scared yet?”

Let’s look at it done right.

USING IT WELL: JAWS vs. The Hills Have Eyes vs. The Evil Dead

What’s up with Jaws being involved in both of these? The key here is subtlety. Here is how The Hills Have Eyes one-upped Jaws:

hillshaveeyesIf the audience isn’t looking for it – they likely will not notice it. Yes, that is a Jaws poster in the background. It is slashed in two after the cannibal attack on the trailer. There is no scene devoted to showing how cannibals are scarier than a shark (although that might have been wonderful to see), it just happens. By doing this, director Wes Craven did not have to deviate time from his script to explain why his horror is more frightening than Spielberg’s. He accomplished a lot with a simple background change.

Steven Spielberg never responded to this in a movie (so far as I know), but Sam Raimi did.

the-evil-dead-1981-the-hills-have-eyesYeah, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead rips The Hills Have Eyes poster to shreds in similar fashion. Again, this is not something the average audience member would have time to notice. It is a subtle gesture, just something to very quickly establish a one-up and move on.

By including a whole scene, scriptwriters are essentially telling the audience that they need some filler. The story is not good enough to stand on its own. Neither Hills Have Eyes or Evil Dead has time to do such things, because they are busy being effective with their own original material. Horror hopefuls take note – your terror should be so scary that it does not need to one-up anyone else’s.. not overtly at least. Show the audience that your movie is scarier, do not have a whole sequence telling them about it.

3 thoughts on “Horror Clichés: The Monster One-Up

  1. I’ll admit it: I hide from monster movies…well, I did until I began writing a horror novel. Suddenly, I am figuring out what makes monster movies tick, from such an intellectual perspective that my irrational fears can’t make my adrenalin pump. Hooray!

    Now, you’ve got me thinking about my next novel that I didn’t know that I was going to write. Who is the ultimate monster in my experience? Ooooooh! I know! The woman in Stephen King’s Misery! I saw it as soon as it came out on video, and I still shrink from it. You got me cooking up another great story. Thanks! This is much like the burst of energy that I got from figuring out why “I Know What You Did” frightened me so, and then using it in my current work-in-progress.

    Now I’ll have to check out what else you write about.


  2. Am I the only one in the world that can see that the torn poster in The Hills Have Eyes is not the movie poster of the film Jaws. It is simply a poster showing the photograph of a shark.


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