Thriller Research Jamie Beveridge Varndean College
Overview of the Thriller Genre “Thriller” is a genre of film that uses suspense, tension and excitement as the main elements of its narrative. The aim of a thriller film is to keep its audience alert and on their feet. The protagonist in these films will invariably be set up against a problem, such as an escape, a mystery, or a mission. A thriller will always emphasise the danger that the protagonist is in as a way of increasing the tension that the audience feels, while often using Red Herrings and anti-climactic scenes for this exact purpose. M. Night Shyamalan’s “the Sixth Sense” (1999) is a good example of a film in the Thriller genre, as it closely follows the conventions of a thriller film, such as the scene in which Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams) is in the basement searching for a bottle of wine. The dark lighting combined with the apparently cold setting and slowly flickering light bulb make the audience feel tense, but she exits without incident, providing an anti-climax.
Thrillers Work at Different Levels The Thriller genre uses “thrills” on one level, which simply depict violence and danger, providing an element of adrenaline for the audience. The other level that the genre operates on is far more psychological, relying on what is implied to make the audience feel anxious, which invokes an anxious and emotional response from the viewer. One thriller film that relies on the psychological aspect of the genre is David Fincher’s “Seven” (1995), as from the beginning of the film up until the climax, the audience does not directly see any of the murders taking place, instead focusing on the implied knowledge in the aftermath, in the crime scenes to create a feeling of anxiety. As well as this, the mystery of the identity of the killer gives a feeling of unease throughout.
Extraordinary Events Happening in Ordinary Situations Thriller films use ordinary places as their setting. This is because the main aim of a thriller is to make the audience uneasy, and to “thrill” them, so a setting that they would be familiar with, like a family’s home, would make the spectator feel the most anxious. The protagonist of the film will then be thrown from their ordinary life into an extraordinary situation, which makes for the main narrative of the film. The character will often be shown, before the “extraordinary event” takes place, in their regular life, and many tend to be shown not to be where they want to in life, which makes the setting more relatable to the audience. A good example of this structure would be Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004). The Protagonist, Max (Jamie Foxx), is shown to be longing to leave his job as a taxi driver, relating to the audience, before the antagonist, Vincent (Tom Cruise), hails his cab and coerces him into driving him to each of his targets.
Narrative Themes and Conventions Thriller films tend to have very complex narratives and often contain many false paths and red herrings. These help to add to the tension that is being built throughout the course of the film, as the audience thinks that they know what is going to transpire in the narrative, only to find they have been led astray by false clues. Many thrillers also tend to follow a narrative pattern of establishing problems or riddles that the protagonist must overcome or solve in order to meet their goal. An example of a thriller film which follows these themes and conventions closely is Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995), as the story becomes increasingly complex, and there are many Red Herrings regarding the identity of Keyser Söze.
Alfred Hitchcock Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE, was a film director and producer, who worked mainly in the Thriller genre, specialising in Psychological Thrillers, which caused many to refer to him as the master of psychological thrillers. In a career spanning over 50 years, Hitchcock had found a distinctive directorial style. He pioneered the voyeuristic style that is a common component of psychological thrillers, as well as effectively managing to frame shots to convey emptions such as fear and anxiety. Another trait of thrillers that Hitchcock made frequent use of was the implementation of films with twist endings and thrilling plots filled with crime, violence and murder, though many of the mysteries contained in the narrative often turned out to be false paths and red herrings. Many of Hitchcock’s films borrow psychoanalytical themes, which helped him to master the psychological thriller genre.
Hybrid Genres in Modern Films Many thriller films tend to draw elements from more than one genre, such as Action Thriller (Collateral) or “Stalker” thrillers (One Hour Photo). These dual-genre films are known as having Hybrid Genres. An example of a popular Hybrid Genre film is Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). This falls under the category of Hybrid Genre as it embraces elements from the thriller genre, such as using “thrills”, which provide adrenalin and a sense of danger for the audience, and dark, shadowy lighting to project a feeling of unease (these both occur in the scene where the main protagonists are attempting to escape a pack of hungry wolves), but also drawing inspiration from the disaster genre, such as the mass destruction of the Earth due to the effects of climate change. This means that the film can be categorised as a “disaster-thriller”.
Mise-en-Scene The mise-en-scene is a very important feature within the thriller genre. It relies on what is in the scene, such as the setting, costumes and lighting to tell parts of the narrative rather than the explicit features like dialogue. Within a thriller film, lighting is especially important, as the lighting needs to reflect the mood, which means that shots are very likely to be dark, which signifies danger and builds tension. Costumes and makeup are also important components of the thriller genre, as they help to identify characters, and set protagonists (usually dressed in lighter colours, which implies purity, such as Det. Somerset in the first scene of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995)) apart from antagonists (More likely to wear darker clothing, as seen in the opening of Brian Singer’s “The Usual Suspects (1995), with Keyser Söze’s clothing.). The setting of a thriller also holds a great deal of significance, as it is a common element of the genre to have the film set in an ordinary situation that can be made extraordinary by the narrative, which makes the audience empathise with the antagonist. Props in and around the setting are also significant, as they give an insight into the characters which would not necessarily be divulged in the narrative. This is shown in the opening to Se7en with Det. Somerset’s personal effects shown neatly organised while he is getting ready to go to work, which may suggest that he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. This is not noted in the film, but it is up to the viewer to make the association. The audience typically expects to see certain props and objects within the mise-en-scene. This is called “iconography”. The fact that as an audience we typically expect to see certain items in a thriller film due to the iconography of the genre. This may include things such as broken glass, as seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense (1999).
Characters in the Thriller Genre Characters in thriller films tend to fall into one of two categories; “Antagonists” and “Protagonists”. The protagonists are the characters generally referred to by a casual audience as the “good guys”. They tend to play the part of the victim, generally being regular, everyday people that are thrown into extraordinary events outside of their own control. Thrills are maintained in these films by putting the protagonist into dangerous and potentially life threatening situations. These characters are likely to have a flaw, which is usually exploited by the antagonist of the film, which often forms the basis of the narrative. An example of a protagonist’s flaws being exposed by the antagonist would again be Se7en, as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) manages to manipulate Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) anger so that Mills shoots him, thereby completing the seven murders. The antagonist , or “bad guy” in thriller films are typically depicted as having socially undesirable labels, such as being a stalker, convict or criminal. This is so that they seem unrelatable to the audience, and somewhat alien. They are often shown as being psychotic individuals, but also of high intelligence, which combined can sometimes make them appear almost invincible to the protagonist and audience. An example of such a character may be Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) from John McTiernan’s action-thriller “Die Hard”. For much of the film, the identity of the antagonist may be hidden, an example of which would be Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, whose identity is hidden until the climax of the film.
Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound There are two types of sound that make up the “soundtrack” in any given scene. Diegetic sound, and non-diegetic sound. Diegetic sound is sound whose source appears on-screen or whose source is implied to be present in the narrative. It is the sound that occurs naturally within the scene. Non-diegetic sound is sound that has been artificially planted into the scene, and whose source is not on screen, nor is it recognized by any of the characters within the narrative. This sound generally tends to be musical, but can also be commentary from the narrator of the film. The distinction between the two types of sound is dependent on the audience’s understanding of the conventions of film viewing and listening. We are aware that certain sounds are represented as coming from the story, while others are placed over it, possibly to evoke tension, or unease, which is a strong and common convention in thriller films. An example of this type of non-diegetic sound is high pitched string instruments, which make the viewer feel uncomfortable. An example of this type of non-diegetic sound is the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960).
Thriller Films and Their Audience The aim of a thriller film is to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, whilst the plot approaches it’s climax. This is done in several ways. One way that a thriller film maintains the audience’s attention whilst building tensions is to provide an intense excitement, which provides a feeling of adrenaline and danger with the audience. Another way that thrillers keep the audience on the edge of their seat is by maintaining a high level of anticipation, which builds tension to make the audience feel uneasy, and to create ultra-heightened expectation, which retains the attention of the viewer and keeps them guessing about the outcome. Thriller films also connect with their audience by bringing them out of their comfort zone, drawing them into dark spaces, in a style reminiscent of film noir, fraught with shadow, very low key lighting, and dark areas that are contained in an urban setting. Thriller films also position the camera shots so that the audience feels almost voyeuristic, as if they are actually there within the narrative, but still remain only as a spectator.