10 Terrible Horror Movie Gimmicks That Are More Snooze Than Scare
Horror filmmakers love a good gimmick. At their best, gimmicks allow directors do something interesting with the story and characters, creating inventive and scary situations. Films such as Candyman, The Ring, and A Nightmare on Elm Street all have simple but highly effective gimmicks--whether it's saying the name of a ghostly killer, watching a cursed videotape, or simply falling asleep. They work brilliantly and have made the movies much-loved classics of the genre.
But a bad gimmick can destroy any chance a horror movie has of being scary or compelling. If an entire film is structured around a single novelty concept, then there's no saving it if it doesn't work. Often it's not the gimmick itself, but how well the directors have executed it. Many horror films share the same idea, but how effectively they have been realized can make the difference between a good movie and a terrible one.
We've rounded up some of the worst gimmicks to feature in horror movies. Some of these were absolutely terrible ideas to start with, and some might have worked if it wasn't for everything else in the movie. And some gimmicks work at first, but quickly become repetitive and reveal how few other ideas the movie has.
10. Don't turn the light off again and again!
Movie: Lights Out (2016)
As the title suggests, the monster in David Sandberg's Lights Out only appears when the lights are turned off. There are some effective scenes here but it's a very flimsy gimmick onto which to base an entire movie, and it's easy to tell that it's an expanded version of Sandberg's viral short film. Once the characters figure out the threat, the plot has to work hard to give them reasons not to just keep the light on.
9. Don't walk in a large group near plants!
Movie: The Happening (2008)
In M. Night Shyamalan's notoriously terrible horror thriller, the threat comes from the natural world. Nature is trying to save itself from destructive humans, so releases an airborne toxin that causes people to kill themselves when in large groups. Solution: stay away from plants and trees and don't walk around outside in a group. So what do our hapless heroes do? Not that.
8. Don't make a sound, even when you're having a baby!
Movies: A Quiet Place (2018)/A Quiet Place: Part 2 (2021)
There's no denying that A Quiet Place and its sequel's central gimmick--don't make a sound or a blind alien monster will kill you--helped make both movies hugely successful. But there are some irritating contrivances in both films that expose how silly it really is, where director John Krasinski creates ridiculous situations to ensure his cast gets loud. From poor Evelyn Abbott giving birth and the infamous nail in the first movie to her son Marcus wandering through an old building for absolutely no reason other than to make him scream at something in the second, it makes you wish Krasinski trusted the gimmick better and didn't feel the need to throw in these moments.
7. Don't use your cellphone!
Movie: Cell (2016)
On paper, Cell has a lot going for it--it's adapted by Stephen King from his own novel and has a cast that includes John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. But there's no avoiding the flimsy and idiotic gimmick--anyone who uses a cellphone is turned into a rabid killer. There's literally nothing more to it than that, no message about the dangers of technology, no satire, or any interesting use of the gimmick. Just people turning into zombies via their phones. Yawn.
6. Don't look at your reflection!
Movie: Mirrors (2008)
Alexandre Aja's nonsensical remake of the South Korean horror movie Into the Mirror features a series of victims who kill themselves in a variety of comically gruesome ways whenever they see themselves in the mirror or any reflective surface. The whole gimmick is something to do with a demon trapped inside a mirror, but the only thing you'll remember is Keifer Sutherland in full Jack Bauer mode, yelling "Don't make me threaten you!" while shoving his gun in a nun's face.
5. Don't miss the call!
Movie: One Missed Call (2008)
In many cases, the success of a horror gimmick is in the execution rather than the idea itself. One Missed Call is a remake of prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike's excellent 2003 film of the same title. But while the main concept--evil voicemails that result in horrible deaths--is realized in a scary, sinister way in Miike's film, in the Hollywood version it's just silly and contrived. The movie has the dubious honor of being one of the worst-reviewed films of the 2000s on Rotten Tomatoes, with an entirely deserved 0% fresh rating.
4. Don't sleep on the cursed bed!
Movie: Death Bed – The Bed That Eats (1977)
To be fair to this utterly bizarre cult oddity, it delivers exactly what the title promises. Centuries ago a demon cursed a bed after its human lover died in it. Every 10 years since then, the demon reawakens and the bed gains the power to devour anyone who uses it. If that wasn't bizarre enough, the bed also possesses telekinetic powers and bleeds in sadness when it remembers the poor women who died and gave it powers.
3. Don't make a wish!
Movie: Wish Upon (2017)
The gimmick of making a wish with terrible consequences was explored well in 1997's entertaining Wes Craven-produced Wishmaster. 20 years later, Wish Upon showed exactly how not to do it. This increasingly brainless film sees a teenage girl comes into possession of a cursed box that grants her wishes but also leads to unintended pain and death for others. None of it makes any sense, which is pretty much the worst crime any gimmicky horror movie can commit--if you're going to have an outlandish premise, at least make sure that your audience can follow its "rules."
2. Don't say his incredibly stupid name!
Movie: The Bye Bye Man (2017)
Like Candyman, the malevolent spirit Bye Bye Man is conjured by anyone saying his name. Unlike Candyman, The Bye Bye Man is a truly terrible movie, with zero scares and many unintended laughs. Also, "Bye Bye Man" is such a stupid thing to say in the first place that it's hard to have sympathy for anyone who gets killed for doing so.
1. Don't download the app!
Movie: Countdown (2019)
It was inevitable that someone would make a movie about a scary app--shame the results are so poor. The title refers to an app that supposedly reveals how long you have left to live. Unfortunately, the movie's unlucky victims are only given a few minutes, leading to some gruesome Final Destination-style "accidents." To add to the idiocy, it turns out the app's code has been cursed by an ancient demon. Delete delete delete.