By: Matthew Holland
When Gina first recommended the film Martha Marcy May Marlene, I went in expecting to be disturbed by the time the end credits rolled. The film did not disappoint in this respect; however, when the credits rolled, I was definitely disturbed, but not in the sense that I normally feel after watching a “horror” movie. Why did the film fail to affect me in that way? It certainly wasn’t a bad movie, but something was off about it. If I called it a horror movie, it didn’t do the film justice. But if I called it a thriller…
Genre is an important study when discussing films. It has become a common part of the vocabulary surrounding films, allowing us to easily classify a film, and for Hollywood to easily market one. But as film canon has grown over the years, we’ve added to our list of genres: action, noir, sci-fi, fantasy, drama, comedy, and horror. All of these can be broken down into subcategories as well. For example, in horror we have “slasher” films, monster movies, haunted house stories, body horror, etc.
I differentiate between thrillers and horror. When I think of “horror,” I think of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Babadook, etc. When I think of “thriller,” I associate it with films such as Psycho (or any Hitchcock film), Black Swan, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
But who cares? Why is genre so important? Well when we go to see a film, we like to know the genre, as it gives us a certain set of expectations. Genre helps define a film. When I see a horror film, I expect to be scared out of my wits that I will have trouble closing my eyes at night as the graphic images come flooding back to me. When I see a thriller, I expect to be disturbed for a while, but it doesn’t scare me so much as it fills me with a sense of anxiety or dread.
Perhaps this is just my own classification. Perhaps you do not differentiate between thriller and horror. Or perhaps you believe thriller to be a subgenre of horror. Genre is not a clearly defined study, and it is made even more difficult since our definitions of a genre are always in flux, constantly evolving.
The important thing to take away is that genre gives us a set of preconceived notions about a film. When a film meets these criteria, fails to meet them, or challenges them, it will alter our reception of the movie (whether or not we enjoyed it.) But the genre we choose can also alter our understanding of a film, as if we put the movie through a different filter. For example, you may get a different reading of the movie The Terminator if you see it as a monster or horror movie rather than a sci-fi action flick. We can use genre to defy expectations by crossing over genres, like horror and comedy in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004). In this clip, Shaun and Ed fight zombies while arguing which vinyl records to throw at them. It’s an excellent example of a cross-genre movie.
Or perhaps genre is a study best left forgotten as it holds too much of an influence over our reception of a film- why do you think you will rarely find a comedy nominated for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards?
Personally, I don’t think genre is a system we need to overhaul. However, I do believe that it is often overlooked since it is so commonplace. So the next time you see a film, take into consideration the genre and how important it is to you.