Between the podcast I do and the reviews I write on my own site, I watch a lot of movies. Like any fan of cinema, there are films I love, films I hate and the vast majority fall somewhere between those extremes.
But, no matter how good or bad a movie may be, there are certain elements that I dread popping up. Imagine you’re invested in the story on-screen, sitting on the edge of your seat, wondering how the plot is going to turn next, when suddenly — BAM! — you’re ripped out of, say, Middle Earth by some cliché you’ve seen in a million other movies. Frodo turns back into that kid from North touring New Zealand with Rudy.
This article is a plea to the sound editors, stunt coordinators and screenwriters of the world. These might be cool inside jokes to your friends in the industry, but they’re sucking the life out of your films.
The Wilhelm Scream
You know this scream, even if you don’t think you do. The sound effect is linked, and once you can identify it, you will never unhear it. Ready?
I seriously debated posting the audio as listening to it could potentially inflict my constant annoyance onto you. But, some people (sound engineers) seem to enjoy spotting it, which is why it keeps popping up. The video in that link is only as recent as 2011, so I’m sure there have been movies to use the Wilhelm since then, and many in production right now. (It was also a contest to identify all the movies. Here’s the list.)
Its earliest use was in a cowboys and Indians flick called Distant Drums in 1951 and was listed as “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” It got the name we know it by today from 1953’s The Charge at Feather River when Private Wilhelm screams as he’s shot in the leg with an arrow. (It might just be the first ever anti-smoking PSA because he becomes arrowbait by dawdling to pack his pipe.)
So, what we have is a meme that started in the 1950s, picked up steam in the 1980s thanks to George Lucas and won’t die, no matter how distracting it’s become. Even World of Warcraft players — despite playing a dated game that’s being carried along on life support — will kick members out of their guilds who spam Chuck Norris jokes. The Wilhelm is a 61-year-old Chuck Norris joke. (Unlike Chuck Norris, who is a 72-year-old Chuck Norris joke.)
The Three-Point Landing
If you hadn’t heard the Wilhelm before, you’ve definitely seen this landing. Any hero that leaps or falls from a great distance will land in a kneeling position with one hand (or fist) on the ground. Collateral ground damage varies based on how superpowered they are, but no kneecaps are ever harmed in the making of this stunt.
It’s most prevalent in animation, to the point where even CGI artists in live action movies will have Iron Man do it every. goddamn. time. Even the castle statues in the final Harry Potter take a knee as they jump down from the rafters to fight Voldemort. (In case you’re wondering, yes, it is a trope.)
It’s not that I demand realism from my animated Harry Potter golems, just that once seen, my suspension of disbelief in said golems is shattered like the masonry in Hogwarts before the Death Eaters even arrive.
‘It begins!’ or ‘has begun!’
And now it needs to stop.
Some variation of this line appears at the beginning of almost every villain’s attack, or mournfully by the hero (“It has only just begun.”) after killing the Big Bad, realizing others will step into their place and heralding a franchise of increasingly redundant sequels.
It’s so prevalent in almost every movie made since sound that — at my most optimistic — I want to believe it’s a temporary placeholder community colleges teach budding screenwriters to be filled, only it gets optioned before being replaced with a more meaningful line.
What makes it probably more fourth-wall shattering is when the villain shouts it because (1) if the plan begins now, what was up with all of the organization and attacks leading up to the big one near the end, and (2) we’ve heard it a million times already in action movies ranging from Mortal Kombat to Pirates of the Caribbean 3. (I’d like to thank Michael Bay for exercising uncharacteristic restraint and not having Admiral Yamamoto shout it before launching Zeros in Pearl Harbor, no matter how awesome Mako would make it sound.)
Imagine if every playwrite loved the way “To be … or not to be!” sounded in Hamlet, and then threw it into every play since. Just having a character say it now makes it so meaningless that they might as well shout, “Awesome possum applesauce!”
Actually, that could be pretty cool … once.