There are a lot of eye-rolling fictional cliches and tropes that we’re beyond tired of.
But some of them are like comfort food to us. We don’t dread them at all. We bask ourselves in their familiar glow. They put a smile on your face or give you a warm, tingly feeling, even though you’ve seen them a thousand times before.
And that prompts this month’s question:
“What fictional cliches are you never sick of, no matter how many times you see them?”
Our hosts had this to say:
I will always have a soft spot for a number of classic Bond/Flash Gordon style supervillain antics, including over-elaborate death traps and the always-classic “Seize them, you fools! They’re getting away!”
But this month, I’m going to talk about another cliche that I just can’t get enough of: Murderous Hillbillies as villains.
I’m not entirely sure why this tired cliche works for me so much. Ever since the release of John Boorman’s “Deliverance” in 1972, there has been a pretty consistent Hollywood usage of backwoods lunatics hunting down and terrorizing unsuspecting city folks, before the tables are turned in a bloody revenge tale.
(And don’t worry. That “Deliverance” link isn’t to that scene. You know the one I mean.)
This is usually preceded by a lot of unnerving scenes where the hero is humiliated and beaten while chained to a stake in the barn, or forced to fight an alligator or a bear, while one of his tormenters’ simple-minded cousins rocks back and forth while giggling.
And danging over all of these scenes, like the Sword of Damocles, is the threat of being eaten or…worse things.
This trope has popped up in “the Hills Have Eyes”, “the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” H.P. Lovecraft stories like “the Dunwich Horror,” and even in a car commerical for the 2003 Saturn Vue.
But my favorite of these was in a recent issue of one of my favorite comic book characters, Jonah Hex.
We’ve mentioned Hex more than once on the show, but terrible movie adaptations aside, he’s a Western anti-hero with a hideous facial scar and a penchance for satisfying violent come-uppance.
Hex is hired by a dying man crawling out of the swamp to rescue his wife and baby from killer “swamp folk” that no one in town wants to talk about.
Naturally, this leads to Hex being ambushed and presented to the rest of the vile Lamont clan by their son, Dean.
“Whatchoo got dere, Dean?”
Why does this cliche work so well for me? I can’t give you a single answer. I think it’s a mixture of my complete uselessness in any sort of outdoors scenario combined with a general cultural “blue state” aversion to the backwoods of the Deep South.
I’m an indoor cat who grew up in the suburbs and my mom voted for Michael Dukakis. There’s nothing more alien to me than the villains in these stories.
But really, it’s the tension of absolute helplessness and humiliation building and building and building, until finally being released into cathartic vengeance against your captors.
We all want to be Jonah Hex reemerging, dripping, from the swamp, and seeing in our persecutors ‘ eyes the realization that they’ve finally fucked with the wrong person.
What is it about that annoying movie cliche? That it takes you out film? Destroys your suspension of disbelief? That you cluck your tongue, sigh, roll your eyes and start checking your watch? Discriminating film fans know what I mean. But, what about the cliche that has the opposite effect?
For me, that is summed up in a single, overlong word: defenestration. That extraordinary verb describes when someone (or something) launches through a window, shattering it into a thousand pieces. And, oh yes, you’ve seen this cliche thousands of times. Whether it’s Indiana Jones fighting on the hood of a Jeep, the Terminator being thrown through a department store window, or Batman crashing down through a skylight to foil Joker, you’ve seen this shit. Many times.
Call it 80s action film nostalgia, call it a relic of the VHS rental days, call it an overused, cheap practical effect, call it what you will… I call it badass. When the hero is going to get serious with takin’ out the trash: defenestrate. When the antihero has to get taken down another peg: defenestrate. When the SWAT team arrives to rescue the hostages in the skyscraper: defenestrate. Of course, my favorite flavor of defenestration is the Hans Gruber: when the final boss gets dispatched through a window from 15-plus stories up. Looking down, birds-eye-view, as the baddie plummets to his end. Of course you’re not going to see the pancake mess his body makes on the pavement below, but maybe you’ll get the sidekick to look down at the carnage, screw up his face in disgust and deliver a line like, “Oh yeah, he’s all over.”
Perhaps what I like best about this peculiar practical effect is that in almost every instance, it needs to be filmed in slow motion. If the stunt guy is going to toss himself through sugar glass, you better get every little shard and twinkle in glorious 1000 frames per second. And, of course, the foley artist really gets to earn his pay trying to create a sound from scratch that can approximate the relative size and weight of the window in question. Or, perhaps there’s a sound archive with over 9,000 different defenestration impacts. I dunno, but your tedious movie just went up a notch (in my estimation).
Y’know, it may be overused, in fact it may be so overused that when it happens, it doesn’t even register in your conscious mind. But, by god, for me at least the action doesn’t get hot until somebody goes through a goddamned window. Cost of admission: worth it!
What do you think? Got a favorite cliche? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
I used to hate monologuing: when a particular villain would explain the entire plot of the movie to the hero as a means of grandstanding his power. On occasion it is a hero who monologues. I found such a monologue in “American Hustle” when Christian Bale turns to Bradley Cooper and explains the entire plot: “that’s the story you want to go with? The hustler who you hired to hustle the FBI ends up hustling you?” (Or something).
But what made me appreciate the monologue again was re-watching “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” in which Ricardo Montalban provides a full description of the previous three films as he reminds Caesar why he is so important. Only a genius like Montalban could pull off such an obvious trope with Shakespearean aplomb.
I never get tired of what John Rogers (Leverage, the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle comics, lots of other fun stuff) called “The Evil Speech of Evil.” That’s where the villain gloatingly explains why he should get to do what he’s doing and why it’s so awesome.
Ian Fleming excelled at these in his James Bond novels. Sadly, they never really made it to the movies– except for GOLDFINGER. You may recall the moment– it’s up on YouTube, here– where Goldfinger is telling the gangsters, “Man has climbed Mount Everest. Traveled to the bottom of the ocean. He has fired rockets at the moon. Split the atom. Achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor… EXCEPT CRIME!!” I love that. In the novels, Doctor No has a marvelous one during the dinner scene, and the all-time winner is Ernst Stavro Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, justifying all of his previous efforts as well as the suicide garden he has created in his castle. And when Bond refuses to applaud, Blofeld sighs and says, “…but I can see we have no contact. I cannot reach what serves you for a mind. For your part, you cannot see further than the simple gratification of your last cigarette. So enough of this idle chatter. You have already kept us from our beds far too long. Do you want to be hacked about in a vulgar brawl, or will you offer your neck in honourable fashion?” And then draws his katana to behead him.
Other classics would be Mr. Potter slamming the door on George Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE– you know, the sneer that ends with “You’re worth more dead than alive.” Or Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN. Even Gene Hackman’s Luthor in the first Superman movie, talking about his plan to make a killing in real estate and then sandbagging the big guy with kryptonite.
That sort of gloating… I really think it should be baked into the DNA of a villain in any kind of crime or adventure movie, and if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. Whether it’s a Bond villain or one of Mike’s inbred hillbillies, the moment where the bad guy is winning and takes a little victory lap… I just LOVE that. It makes the eventual karmic payoff so much sweeter.
One more classic I’d forgotten– John Shea pays off three years of nasty on LOIS AND CLARK. Fans tend to split on this show but I always liked it, and it certainly was more like my idea of Superman than MAN OF STEEL.
Just while we’re still on epic villain speeches, I will never stop pestering people to watch the 2008 version of ‘Speed Racer’. The villain, Mister Royalton (played to perfection by Roger Allam) gives one of the all-time GREAT villainous expository monologues.
Seriously, even just thinking about it now gives me a chill.
And on paper, it looks like NOTHING. It’s mostly a lot of dry talk about stock prices and market manipulation, but the editing and Allam’s delivery is just SO magnificent.
And some delightful chap’s put it in youtube! Glee!
Anyway, one odd stereotype which I just can’t get enough of is the two-fisted fighting sailor. There’s something about fighting pirates in the South China Sea or plying the treacherous trade-routes of the South Sea Islands, avoiding hostile natives and getting into dust-ups in seedy dockside watering holes that I can’t resist.
In comedy, whether live-action or animated, I always find it hilarious when a character slams into a wall or window or whatever (and then often slowly slides down its surface). So even though I generally sympathize with poor old Wile E. Coyote, I always laugh when he crashes into a cliff or whatever.
Don’t know why I find this form of physical humor so funny, but those type of scenes never fail to elicit a gut laugh from me, and I never get tired of them. The whole feature can otherwise be really bad and/or painfully unfunny (case in point: “George of the Jungle” starring Brendan Fraser), but I’ll still laugh whenever someone slams into a something solid.
I’m not sure this one is so much a cliché as it is a film maker’s in-joke, but I love the Wilhelm scream. I first started noticing it in the Star Wars movies as a kid, but I noticed it in other films too over the years. It was a long time before I found out what it was called and where it came from, but for almost every movie I saw with a lot of action it, I’d end up saying, “There’s that scream again!” It’s got to the point now where I’m disappointed if a film had an opportunity to use it but didn’t. It’s incredibly versatile for a scream that was originally intended to be a man being eaten by an alligator.
I’m quite fond of the “uh-oh” moment, in caper stories; the point where things start to go wrong and the hero (or gang) has to improvise. Sometimes they are played for laughs, sometimes for tension, sometimes they display ingenuity; but, they are always fun.
One of my other favorite moments is something that Terry Pratchett latched onto in his stories: the point where the hero realizes he is going to win and presses home his advantage. Pratchett takes it a step further by having the hero realize he is going to win because he is the hero and that’s what heroes do. It’s a wonderfully “meta” moment where the hero recognizes his role in the story and lives up to it. One of his best characters for illustrating this is Captain Carrot, of his City Watch novels. He is a polite man, large in stature, but courteous in nature. He has a quiet, humble strength. He can stop the worst villain with a , “Lay down your arms; there’s a good chap!” And they do! Some see his rather humble looking sword and then look at the man and realize it is the sword of a hero and you don’t mess with heroes.
Can a whole genre be a cliche? I will never turn down an opportunity to watch a movie where the good-natured criminal wants to get out of the game, but has to do just ONE MORE JOB. Heist movies are my catnip.