Thriller is a broad genre of film where many sub-genres and hybrids are made like:

  • Military Thrillers
  • Action thriller
  • Political thriller
  • Romantic thriller
  • Psychological thriller
  • Crime thriller
  • Spy thriller
  • Mystery thriller
  • Conspiracy thriller
  • Religious thriller
  • Supernatural thriller
  • Medical thriller

But what is a Thriller?

A thriller is a genre of film which is defined by the moods of suspense, anxiety, tension, fear and excitement it exhibits.

Iconic facial expression taken from Psycho 1960, Directed by Alfred Hichcock.

Therefore, important themes run throughout this genre, for instance:

  • good vs evil shown through the characters (Protagonist and antagonist)
  • Murder
  • Terrorism
  •  Robbery
  • Crime
  • Spies
  • Political conspiracy
  • Supernatural events
  • Assassination

The codes and conventions of the Thriller genre include:

  • Sound- The use of Non-Diegetic sounds such as background music creates tension from the fast pace music which builds up when an event happens; creating an engaging atmosphere with the audience, as we feel connected to the film. As well as heart beating sounds and high pitched supernatural sounds are used. But also Diegetic sounds of heavy breathing is used in thriller films to imply to the audience that the character is nervous, scared and fearing for their life.

Here are a few sounds associated with the thriller genre below:

  • Cinematography- Commonly close up shots are used to heighten and emphasise the emotions of the characters’ facial expressions, revealing if they are scared or feeling intimidated by the antagonist. Which the antagonist is shot to hide their identity, for example a shot of the back of them or just their shadow.

The close up shot of Brad Pitt taken from the 1995 film “Se7en” demonstrates that using a close up shot reveals the facial expression of the character which makes the audience engage more in the film as we don’t know whether he will shoot the villain or not.

  • Editing- Many thriller films are montage edited where shots are juxtaposed in a fast paced manner but shown in a short amount of time, using close up shots, jump cuts, dissolve, fades and superimposition; all of which informs the viewer on the story. As well as cross cutting, an editing technique of alternating two or more scenes that are in different locations is used to build the tension in the film as the audience doesn’t know what to expect; but sometimes continuity editing helps the audience to understand the film. Jump/quick cuts are essential in thriller films because it disorientates time and space in the film as the edit makes the audience only see brief glimpses of what will happen; creating tension.

In this clip from the 2002 thriller film “Insomnia” , the editing consists of many jump cuts; making the fight scene between the protagonist and the antagonist seem very suspenseful and tense, leaving the audience anticipated to see who will win the fight.

  • Mise en scene- Lighting plays a significant part in this genre because low-key lighting is used to show a contrast of light and darkness between two characters (good vs evil) and it creates shadows which is further heightened if it’s in black and white. This links to the costume of the characters because the protagonist’s clothes contrasts to the antagonist’s clothes as they are dressed in ordinary clothes whereas the antagonist is dressed in dark black clothes. The typical setting of a Thriller film is in a urban city as this establishes the themes of the film along with the idea of many abandoned areas, woods/forests nearby which the audience can connect to.

“The silence of the lambs” is a 1991 psychological thriller, which the clip below exhibits the use of mise en scene from the way low-key lighting is used when we see the antagonist’s face in the night vision goggles and the point of view shot of his hand on the gun. Which low-key lighting makes the audience feel like they are there, experiencing what the characters are going through; as the tension is heightened from the use of light.

  • Iconography-Props in a thriller film vary depending on the sub-genre it fits into, for instance in the Crime thriller sub-genre, the props would include weapons like guns as they signify danger, but in Psychological thrillers the conflict is mental rather than physical, so props like guns aren’t needed to add suspense to the film. However, knives, explosives, guns, cars, mirrors, mobile phones are common props used in thriller films.

As shown in the scene below from “Shutter Island” , the main prop used is a gun which plays a significant part in this clip as the character uses it to shoot/kill the man but instead it is a fake gun, that they used to test him. 

  • Characters- These are a typical set of characters in this type of film: stalkers, spies, prison inmates, serial killer,criminals, psychotic characters, convicts, police, detectives, innocent people that get dragged into it, the hero (protagonist) and the unknown villain (antagonist).

“Batman Dark Night Rises” is a thriller super-hero film which the scene below of Batman and Bane fighting show the two types of characters in the film: the protagonist which is Batman and the antagonist who is Bane. Just from this clip we know this, because at the end Bane remains with his mask on, suggesting that he is hidden within his evilness; whereas Batman doesn’t have his mask on revealing his true identity.