Oh no, not another killer in a cage! The 10 movie cliches I can’t watch again

Screenwriters locked Hannibal Lecter and Blofeld in boxes but they’ll reuse any plot device, from balloons as harbingers of doom to Scooby-Doo-style face-swapping

Chopping-board carnage

Last week, I watched three films in a row in which someone cuts their finger while chopping vegetables: Belfast-set drama Here Before, whimsical indie The Blazing World, and Silent Night, a British black comedy that earns bonus points because blood drips on to a carrot, which somebody then eats. In two recent horror films, Color out of Space and The Dark and the Wicked, supernaturally afflicted mothers get so carried away slicing vegetables they chop their own fingers off.

Lazy earworms

I’m calling out soundtracks recycling London Calling by the Clash to announce somebody arriving in London, as heard in Billy Elliot, What a Girl Wants, Die Another Day, Get Him to the Greek, Atomic Blonde and The Conjuring 2. The Flower Duet from Lakmé by Léo Delibes has also worn out its welcome after an early skirmish between the Scott brothers: in 1983 Tony introduced it in The Hunger, then Ridley nicked it for Someone to Watch Over Me, Tony used it again in True Romance, after which the floodgates opened and it’s been Flower Duets up the wazoo. It can now be heard in everything from Happy Death Day 2U to Pig. For the love of God, find some new tunes.

Killer in a box

It’s said that Thomas Harris’s real-life inspiration for Hannibal Lecter was Ted Bundy’s role as consultant in the hunt for the Green River Killer. But ever since Will Graham and Clarice Starling hobnobbed with Hannibal in, respectively, Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, convicted evildoers have been trundled out in cages or boxes to provide cryptic tips: pyromaniac Ronald Bartel in Backdraft, Daryll Lee Callum in Copycat, Dr Evil in Austin Powers in Goldmember, Silva in Skyfall, Blofeld in No Time to Die, and Cipher (Charlize Theron) penned behind Perspex in Fast and Furious 9.

Weaponised trophies

Winner takes all in Malignant.
Winner takes all in Malignant. Photograph: Film PR Handout

Edwina Lionheart was an early outlier, clobbered by a Critics’ Circle award in Theatre of Blood (1973), but using trophies as weapons are now all the rage. In at least three recent horror films, pointy awards have been put to lethal use, either by accident (Censor), customised design (Malignant) or in self-defence (Us). See also: menacing modern sculpture, pioneered by Dario Argento at the end of Tenebrae (1982), but still going strong in Velvet Buzzsaw (2019).

Balloons of doom

There were early warning signs in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) when a child killer offers one to his latest victim, but balloons definitively lost what was left of their innocence in the mini-series It (1990), with the more recent two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s novel for ever yoking them to Pennywise the evil clown. There’s a nasty bit of balloonery in A Serbian Film, and black balloons released at a funeral in The Lodge, and only this week I’ve twice seen balloons featured as harbingers of doom in killer-adjacent situations (Copshop and Halloween Kills) indicating we are now deep in cliche territory.

Monochrome misery

Not all black and white films are downbeat, obviously, but no arthouse offering can be hailed as genuinely grim unless it’s in monochrome, a reliable signifier of mud, blood, shit and misery. See The White Ribbon, Hard to Be a God, The Lighthouse, Limbo, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Polish period and the complete oeuvre of Béla Tarr. Exhibit number one: The Painted Bird, which kicks off by setting a ferret on fire before proceeding to rape, suicide, Udo Kier, enucleation, and the young protagonist buried up to the neck with crows pecking at his head. In glorious black and white!

Dicing with death

The 1997 film Cube, which begins with a man sliced into CGI cubes by hidden wire, started a trend. In Resident Evil (2002), commandos are sliced and diced by lasers. Non-grisly security grids pop up in heist movies such as Entrapment, Ocean’s Twelve and Muppets Most Wanted, but there’s super-gory slicing in Ghost Ship, Final Destination 2 and Thir13en Ghosts. Bonus points if the victim blinks or looks puzzled before their bisected body parts slide apart. Laser grids are now such a cliche they can be wheeled out in, for example, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, and no one gets sliced. Which is surely missing the point.

The Wickiverse

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum.
Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

Seijun Suzuki created stylised worlds for his hitmen antiheroes in films such as Branded to Kill (1967), but in the wake of John Wick, films about contract killers have surrendered all pretence to realism and are now routinely set in neon-lit netherworlds where a gazillion gangsters can be gunned down without anyone noticing. Here, hotels, diners and libraries cater exclusively to assassins and the occasional small child whose function is to bring a little warmth into a killer’s barren life. See Terminal, Proud Mary, Gunpowder Milkshake, Kate et al.

The in-car crash

Claude Sautet’s Les Choses de la Vie (1970) begins with the mother of all forensically detailed car crashes, incorporating astonishing shots filmed inside Michel Piccoli’s Alfa Romeo as he and his unfiltered Gitanes do multiple flips. But surprise accidents shot from inside the car, with the other vehicle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, have now become such a cliche that any interior car scene in which nothing much seems to be happening is apt to give you sweaty palms. See The Descent, Disturbia, Pulp Fiction, Adaptation, Whiplash, No Country for Old Men, Enter the Void, 10 Cloverfield Lane and so on.

Scooby-Doo face-swapping

You think it’s the villain, but no! It’s the hero wearing a false face! Or vice versa. The Mission: Impossible films, with Ethan Hunt carting around pocketfuls of peel-off masks, were always a bit cheeky in this regard, and Face/Off put an even dafter spin on it. But superhero films featuring the shapeshifting talents of Mystique or protean aliens like the Skrulls have turned face-swapping into a tiresome cliche via blockbusters such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Black Widow. Just as no one ever truly dies in a superhero film, every character’s actions can potentially be walked back by revealing them to have been somebody else all along. Talk about lowering the stakes.


Anne Billson

The GuardianTramp

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