Despite being a creative sandbox of a genre, horror comes with a lot of baggage. When we sit down to watch a horror film, we have built-in expectations: we expect that the group of heroes will split up, we expect victims to trip and stumble as they run away — we can even predict the order in which characters will die with a single glance. Movies that choose to break with horror tradition can at worst feel very challenging for the audience and at best usher in entirely new trends.
With at least one clear exception on this list, I’ve steered away from meta-horror titles where the point of the narrative is to lampshade horror tropes and to either flip them, subvert them, or reconstruct them completely. It goes without saying that films like The Cabin in the Woods (2011, dir. Joss Whedon), Zombieland (2009, dir. Ruben Fleischer), and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011, dir. Eli Craig) fit the bill for playing with conventions of the genre.
Also: some of these trope-breaking choices are definitely spoilers. You have been warned.
10. Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s Scream is my one exception to including meta-horror on this list. While absolutely not the first meta-horror film — Wes Craven‘s Scream is easily the one that took the concept of openly vivisecting the various parts of the genre for the audience as part of the narrative and turned it into a trend. I could make an entire article just teasing apart how this movie dissembles and reassembles horror tropes Frankenstein’s monster-style. Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy)’s speech about the Rules of Horror clearly outlines ways in which the movie intends to break with convention: you can’t have sex or drink — Sidney does both and emerges as one of our favourite final girls; saying “I’ll be right back” spells your immediate doom, but Stu (Matthew Lillard) says this verbatim and sticks around for most of the movie’s runtime.
However, I think that one biggest breaks with convention is that there is more than one killer. Coming out of the 80s, when slasher franchises tended to be represented by a monolithic household name-type villains, Scream managed to give us the Ghostface Killer, a memorable figure that could really be anyone (or many anyones!). This also opened the franchise up to have new killers don the mask in each sequel, offering new mysteries to solve, without having to necessarily follow the path of other slasher franchises where the focus turns to building elaborate backstories for the singular killer and their strange (often suddenly supernatural) ability to keep coming back.
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9. 28 Days Later (2002)
The zombie as a figure has a rich history that, for pop cultural uses is largely ignored. But for the first hundred years or so of filmmaking, we all tended to agree on one thing: that zombies are slow and shambling. Their infections and transformations took time, and narratives were built around the agony of protecting a loved one who was in the process of transforming into something unknowable (or putting a group in danger by hiding a bite).
28 Days Later took these intimate crises and drop-kicked them out the window by making RAGE virus-infected people transform so quickly that any hesitation spelled out instant death. Suddenly zombies had become a danger that you’d have to be able to outrun or outgun. Once Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) reimagined George Romero’s zombie flick with sprinting, aggressive zombies, fast zombies were solidified neatly into the genre so that we can pretty much classify movies as “fast zombie” and “slow zombie” flicks.
8. The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Some of the films that helped to define the genre did so by breaking away from what was familiar. George Romero’s classic The Night of the Living Dead created, practically by accident, the template for the contemporary zombie tropes that 28 Days Later would eventually subvert. What was more surprising to many, though, and the subject of many essays about the film, was the choice to cast then-unknown Black actor Duane Jones as the lead and clear hero of the story among white actors (especially during an era of civil unrest). I wish this weren’t such a significant trope-breaker but, given that even contemporary horrors often feature genre-savvy characters who are quick to point out that their race places much bigger targets on their backs, it’s a big deal that Ben was the last main character standing.
7. Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock’s Psycho is often cited as a landmark movie, working hand-in-hand with Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell) to pave the way for the the slasher genre in the decades to follow. But Hitchcock did something unusual that to this day isn’t replicated very often: Psycho sets us up with our heroine Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), lets us get to know her, her conflicts and likely story arc, and then dispatches with her before the movie’s halfway mark. As an audience, we expect that the protagonist that we are set to follow for the movie is going to be our guide through to the narrative’s conclusion, so it was very jarring when she was killed and her story was left uncompleted. We see echoes of Psycho‘s big move and it’s lasting impact today — notably in Scream and Hereditary (2018, dir. Ari Aster) — but it’s still uncommon enough that dealing with major characters in this way continues to be a surprise every time.
6. The Fly (1986)
With practical effects in the 1980s granting us impressive body horror transformation sequences — the likes of which we see in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1980) and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) — it sort of became the norm for transformations to happen in full-view on-screen, in all of its goopy, skin-stretching detail. While Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum)’s final falling apart into the Brundlefly is a more conventional practical sequence, the bulk of Seth‘s transformations are slow, subtle, and happening in fits and bursts after his telepod incident. The drawn-out transformation meant a new way to approach transformation horror as a degradation of self and close relationships. We see the direct influence of The Fly in later transformation and body horror films like Ginger Snaps (2000), Afflicted (2013), and Starry Eyes (2014).
5. It Follows (2014)
At first blush, It Follows seems to be playing the trope that only virgins survive straight: if you don’t have sex, you’ll never find yourself in the titular “It”‘s path. But then the monster’s mechanism demands that its victims keep having sex, preferably risky sex that involves many sexual partners who likely also have many other sexual partners, in order to stay alive, or at least defer death for a while. In terms of further breaking convention, It Follows gets bonus points for its ploddingly slow and single-minded monster. It doesn’t seem to have weapons or major problem solving skills. It just pursues very, very slowly and without end or apparently weakness, which means that we don’t ever get the satisfaction of a resolution by the time the credits begin to roll.
4. The People Under The Stairs (1991)
Among Wes Craven’s body of work, The People Under the Stairs remains criminally under-discussed. This horror reconstructs a classic horror location: the creepy basement. This isn’t to say that the basement in The People Under the Stairs isn’t plenty creepy: it features dim lighting, trick stairs, and monstrous people that have had to resort to cannibalism to survive. That said, the basement is one of the safer parts of the house, since the true monsters are Mommy and Daddy Robeson (played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who have been keeping abducted youth captive and starving. The basement people end up helping the film’s hero Fool (Brandon Adams) to survive and escape.
3. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s twist on the familiar haunted house story is simple yet effective by making the haunt behave like a parasite that moves from host-house to host-house to continue along its cursed life cycle. So, where horror convention has us yelling at characters for never abandoning their clearly haunted homes the moment the first signs of trouble appear, father and true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) makes his biggest mistake in what should have been a clever decision to move back into his old house. The idea of a child-consuming demon that takes its victims fully when a family moves on to a new home? Chilling.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
The original Black Christmas contributed massively to the template for what would become the slasher genre, providing partial blueprints to the final girl tropes, the unseen killer, and perpetuating the urban myth of “the killer inside the house”. But probably the most significant sequences are those that force us to see the world through the then-nameless killer’s eyes as he scaled the trellis outside the sorority, as he moved around the attic and watched his future victims. While being subjected to “Killer POV” doesn’t necessarily make us identify with the killer beyond sharing sightlines, it does change how we experience the spaces represented in the movies.
Other horrors around this era were concerned with making us uncomfortable with the spaces that we can’t see (think about how the shots are set up in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to make us want to peer around the walls and doors in case something’s hiding there, or a movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) where Leatherface may suddenly appear from anywhere). Seeing what the killer sees makes us that much more certain about the presence of a threat. It takes away the tension of uncertainty and replaces it with a tension of anticipation. Mere years later, the Killer POV gets put to effective use in the opening of Halloween (1978), in which it serves as a vehicle for the twist reveal that our cold-blooded killer is a child.
1. Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a masterclass in subversive horror. The whole premise of the movie hinges upon subverting the trope that the Black characters die first, not only by having the hero Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) survive and escape, but by having the Armitage family’s victims suffer a version of immortality. Among other hyper-specific subversions, Chris‘s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), besides being extremely genre-savvy, is coded to to be the equivalent of a police officer to the point that he directly explains to us that his TSA training has made him a keen investigator. Rod on his own is a subversion of the “useless police officer” trope and ultimately a hero… although the actual police officers in the film are more conventionally unhelpful.
This list is nowhere near exhaustive. Tell us about your favourite subversive horrors over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Want horror delivered right to your inbox? Check out the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.