When it comes to thrilling movie experiences, there’s nothing like a good ‘thriller’ movie. Thrillers are typically high-intensity, suspenseful stories built around a conflict or seemingly insurmountable problem. They leave viewers on the edge of their seats as they unravel, often with an element of surprise or twist. This genre, in all its forms, is beloved by moviegoers all over the world.
A hallmark of the thriller genre is suspense. According to Professor Stephen Prince of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, suspense is an essential element of a thriller. “The viewer is kept in a state of suspense by a series of events that suggest certain outcomes, only to have others occur instead.” This creates a heightened level of tension that the audience doesn’t experience in other genres, and is an important tool for directors to draw the viewer in.
Subgenres of thrillers vary from psychological thriller to crime thriller to romantic thriller, among others. One thing that unites them is a focus on human conflict. In psychological thrillers, for example, this conflict stems from a person wrestling with their inner demons. In action thrillers, the conflict tends to be more externally driven, with the protagonist pitted against an adversary.
The atmosphere in thrillers, wherever it lies on the spectrum from intense and suspenseful to dark and oppressive, is also a key element of the genre. Cinematographers and directors use lighting, sound, and score to increase tension and create a heightened sense of urgency in viewers. Many thrillers also employ the motif of the ticking clock, in which a palpable sense of time running out cuts through the story. This intensifies the stakes and gives a greater depth to the conflict.
Of course, no discussion of thrillers would be complete without discussing the Hitchcockian “MacGuffin.” This classic narrative device, popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to the main objective of the characters that drives the story forward. This can be a physical thing (a briefcase, a laptop) or an abstract concept (a secret document, an enemy agent). In classic examples of Hitchcock’s work, the MacGuffin often has a secret or hidden meaning or purpose.
Modern thrillers also often incorporate a “precursor” element, or backstory, in which a (human or object) from the protagonist’s past will come back to complicate the circumstances. This gives the viewer a deeper understanding of the characters or their motivations, and adds an extra layer of complexity and realism to the narrative.
Psychological Thriller Movies
Psychological thrillers often explore the depths of human psychology, raising questions about topics such as memory, manipulation, and identity. They often feature protagonists who are put in challenging predicaments and situations, testing their ability to rise above their psychological and emotional limits. The goal is often to identify which of the characters has the strongest mental tenacity and moral core.
In these movies, filmmakers use the world of the mind to explore ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries. It’s an area that can be highly rewarding for filmmakers, allowing them to play with themes such as free will versus determinism and right and wrong when the facts are murky. Psychological thrillers often also serve as allegories for real-world events or themes, such as the question of power, money, and its ability to corrupt.
Notable psychological thrillers include Memento, The Silence of the Lambs, The Machinist, and Shutter Island. These movies serve as great examples of suspenseful films that feature complex characters struggling to understand themselves and their situations while also evading danger.
Crime Thriller Movies
An important subgenre of the thriller is the crime thriller, which typically revolves around a law enforcement officer, either a professional or amateur, investigating a crime or series of crimes. These films often explore how really evil the criminal world is, how far the good guys will go to make arrests, and the moral ambiguity of working in law enforcement. They also often detail the effect on the hero’s personal life, such as the breakdown of a marriage or the loss of a loved one.
Notable crime thrillers include Seven, The Usual Suspects, Mystic River, and Limitless. These films illustrate the concept of crime thrillers well: a suspenseful story that combines complicated characters, robust dialogue, and edge-of-your-seat action. In these films, the audience follows the main character as they attempt to outwit their adversaries and solve the case.
Action Thriller Movies
Action thrillers often involve protagonists in outlandish and dangerous situations that they must escape in order to survive. These films often feature high-stakes and chaotic sequences with chase scenes, shootouts, and elaborate stunts. In addition, action thrillers also feature interesting and complex protagonists, as they must use their smarts as well as their bodies in order to survive and come out on top.
Some excellent examples of this genre include Die Hard, The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, and The Score. All of these films feature exciting performances, larger-than-life characters, and, most importantly, dazzling action scenes featuring high-stakes, high-octane danger.
Romantic Thriller Movies
Romantic thrillers blend elements of both romance and thriller genres to create a new style of film. This subgenre of thrillers often incorporates road trips, kidnappings, and complex backstories as the two main characters become embroiled in a mysterious, dangerous plot. Because of the romance element, these films also typically have some sort of resolution between the protagonists at the end.
Classic examples of the romantic thriller include The Bodyguard, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Risky Business. All three films feature romantic elements and thrilling plots that build to unforeseen twists and satisfying conclusions. The tension is compounded by the relationship between the main characters, as they work hard to survive and unravel various secrets and mysteries.
Supernatural Thriller Movies
Supernatural thrillers add an element of the unknown and mysterious to the mix, usually in the form of ghosts, supernatural entities, or unexplained phenomena that the characters must confront. These films serve as powerful explorations of faith and the unknown, typically ending with a climax that reveals or confirms the truth of the mysterious event.
Popular films in this subgenre include The Ring, The Sixth Sense, The Exorcist, and Stir of Echoes. In all of these films, the supernatural elements continuously increase the stakes and tension, as the characters become caught up in mysterious events beyond their control.
Science Fiction Thriller Movies
Science fiction thrillers, as the name suggests, combine elements of science fiction with those of the thriller genre. These films often explore futuristic themes such as space travel, artificial intelligence, and dystopian societies while also incorporating elements of crime and mystery. Like other thrillers, they typically contain unexpected twists and surprise endings that keep the audience guessing until the very end.
Notable science fiction thrillers include Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. All of these films feature futuristic conflicts and themes presented against intense, suspenseful backdrops. These stories work to build a world audience can easily suspend their disbelief in and become further engrossed in the story.
Political Thriller Movies
The political thriller subgenre often features the protagonist attempting to uncover the truth about a conspiracy or mystery that has some bearing on geopolitics or current affairs. These films usually mix elements of drama and intrigue with action and suspense. Typically, the political thriller follows an attempt by the protagonist to stop a clandestine plot or evil conspiracy, often involving a government agency or political figure.
Notable films include Syriana, Thirteen Days, The Constant Gardener, and The Parallax View. All four films feature protagonists attempting to uncover the truth behind a mystery involving government agencies or complex conspiratorial networks. By exploring the inner workings of such organizations, these films bring unique insight and depth to the genre.