Defining The Thriller Genre in Movies and TV

'The Conversation'
'The Conversation'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Hold your breath, move to the edge of your seat, and prepare for the twists. You're about to enter the thriller genre. 

The sound of footsteps follows you down a long hallway. Maybe you're too scared to run, maybe you think it's the person asking you to meet up for a rendezvous. Either way... your life is in danger... or... actually, hopefully, it's the lives of your characters, because you're writing a thriller TV show or movie.

Thrillers are the most exciting movies and shows. When they live up to their namesakes, they're the ones we're talking about on our way out to the parking lot and posting about online. The idea of a thriller is exciting in its own right. 

It's a genre whose tropes and elements can easily be transported into others to create something new and unique.    

Today I want to provide examples and define thrillers. I want to talk about Hitchcock, and even outline the best thrillers of all time. 

So stretch out and get ready for as many twists and turns as you can handle. It's time to tear apart the thriller genre. 

'The Hunt'
'The Hunt'Credit: Universal Pictures

Navigate the edge of your seat with the thriller genre in movies and TV

Thrillers are often dramas that are full of physical conflict. They're not as concerned about the emotions of people in the story as they are about putting those characters in danger. They pack in unexpected twists and amp up tensions.

The anxiety, terror, and uncertainty inflicted on a viewer by thrillers force them to question reality. 

Thrillers aim to exploit what makes us human. 

Define thriller genre 

The thriller genre movie and TV show definition is characterized by the moods it elicits. Thrillers are about the feeling of thrills! They are movies and TV shows that keep you wondering what will happen next. They give viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, and anxiety.

Thrillers also usually have a main character who is slowly isolated from the people they once trusted and relied on. The betrayal might thrust the protagonist into a new worldview. They have to work alone to prove their innocence or take down the people trying to kill them.

Here's the most important part of the thriller genre... what's happening on screen can be explained by the natural world. 

Suspense is key to the thriller genre definition 

The main subgenre of thriller is the suspense genre. Suspense is maybe the most crucial characteristic of the thriller genre. It gives the viewer a feeling of fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, anticipation, and tension.

Suspense is what keeps us wondering where the story will go. It's why people love Alfred Hitchcock movies. Suspense is the root of unpredictability. It's a mystery and rousing turn of events. It can build as the story goes on and keep people begging for the climax. 

And it covers all kinds of thrillers, including its subgenres. 

'Uncut Gems'
'Uncut Gems'Credit: A24/Netflix

Thriller subgenres 

To define a thriller movie and tv shows you have to understand that the general idea of "thrills" covers a number of subgenres. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, a political thriller, a religious thriller, a high-tech thriller, a military thriller... the list goes on and on. 

We have variations popping up all over. And because thrillers are so easily mashed together with every other genre, this list expands every day. 

As James Patterson says, "What gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job." 

'Patriot Games'
'Patriot Games'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Thriller movie conventions or tropes 

Some of the common themes of thrillers are crimes like ransoms, captivities, heists, revenge, kidnappings, "whodunit," and dirty investigators.  

Other characters may include criminals, stalkers, assassins, private investigators, victims, psychotic individuals, sociopaths, secret agents, terrorists, cops, cons, and more.

Oh, and don't forget about spies. We love spy thrillers. 

Thematically, we are looking at things like terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, murder, and serial killings. 

When you're watching a thriller you can encounter tropes like plot twists, psychology (see psychological thrillers), obsession, fringe theories, false accusations, and paranoia are common.

The cover-up of important information is a common element. Devices such as red herrings, MacGuffins, unreliable narrators, and cliffhangers are also part of the audience's expectations.

'Widows'
'Widows'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Alfred Hitchcock's thriller movies 

Often called the master of suspense, Hitchcock's best films were in the thriller genre. Stories like North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, Rear Window, and Vertigo changed the way we understood cinema. They were effectively roller coasters that became must-see movies. You had to show up and discuss what was happening. 

You had to know to talk about it with your friends. 

In fact, his particular style of using suspense and psychological elements to promote thrills got its own name...

The "Hitchcockian" style includes the use of camera movement to mimic a person's gaze, thereby turning viewers into voyeurs, and framing shots to maximize anxiety and fear. Film critic Robin Wood wrote that the meaning of a Hitchcock film "is there in the method, in the progression from shot to shot. A Hitchcock film is an organism, with the whole implied in every detail and every detail related to the whole." 

These details defined the Hitchcock move. He returned several times to cinematic tropes such as the audience as voyeur, suspense, the wrong man or woman, and the "MacGuffin," and twist endings that provided shock and awe. 

It would be easy to fill any article with only Hitchcock examples. So I wanted to give him his own section so I could go into detail on other great works. 

'Rear Window'
'Rear Window'Credit: Paramount Pictures

Examples of thriller genre movie and TV shows 

When it comes to finding examples of this genre, I wanted to keep things relatively current so you could see where we're at today. We might as well start off with best-picture winner and international sensation, Parasite

This Bong Joon-ho movie really builds on the worry of what's living in your basement, by answering the question literally.

Another movie I think had me so upset while watching that I nearly vomited was Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler headlines this Safdie brothers' masterpiece where the world of jewels and gambling is constantly swirled through high-risk sports betting. This character has his life turned upside down. Your heart beats so fast while watching the movie, it's fairly dangerous if you are out of shape.

That brings us to David Fincher, who I think has become our new Hitchcock in many ways. He's got his own personal style, and he doesn't always make thrillers, but when he tackles the genre as he did in Gone Girl, he's one of the best at it. 

Gone Girl subverts what we know about murder mysteries and has so many twists you have to hold on tight. 

'Gone Girl'
'Gone Girl'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Fincher is not only a master of thrillers on the big screen, but on the small one as well. 

His work on Mindhunter helped the show find its thrilling tone. Each week we meet and get in the minds of serial killers. We're hunting someone while they are hunting someone else. That kind of storytelling works on TV very well, as each week builds tension for the season finale. 

I cannot think of a more intense first season of thriller TV than that of Homeland

It's about a terrorist on American soil with access to the president. Someone who was converted and trained to do his worst. We also follow the CIA trying to see if there will be new danger moving forward. 

Each episode was one gut punch after the other. 

And it's not just American TV, Homeland was a remake of an Israeli show. Across the world, we love thrillers. 

Take a show like Killing Eve. It transcended the BBC and became an international sensation. It was a show that played on lots of different thriller genres and subgenres. From a police procedural to spies, to serial killers and hitman. 

As you can see, the thriller genre is a useful one to master.

You just have to make things go wrong for your characters every step of the way. Isolate them. Give them a clear goal.

'Killing Eve'
'Killing Eve'Credit: BBC

The best thriller movies and TV shows 

Making a list of the best thriller movies is a daunting task, so I wanted to highlight that AFI did one in the early 2000s where they picked their top 100. I put that list below. Take a look and then let's talk more after. 

The AFI Top 100 Thrillers 

  1. Psycho (1960)
  2. Jaws (19750
  3. The Exorcist (1973)
  4. North by Northwest (1959)
  5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  6. Alien (1979)
  7. The Birds (1963)
  8. The French Connection (1971)
  9. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
  10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  11. The Godfather (1972)
  12. King Kong (1933)
  13. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
  14. Rear Window (1954)
  15. Deliverance (1972)
  16. Chinatown (1974)
  17. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  18. Vertigo (1958)
  19. The Great Escape (1963)
  20. High Noon (1952)
  21. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  22. Taxi Driver (1976)
  23. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  24. Double Indemnity (1944)
  25. Titanic (1997)
  26. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  27. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
  28. Fatal Attraction (1987)
  29. The Shining (1980)
  30. The Deer Hunter (1978)
  31. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  32. Strangers on a Train (1951)
  33. The Fugitive (1993)
  34. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  35. Jurassic Park (1993)
  36. Bullitt (1968)
  37. Casablanca (1942)
  38. Notorious (1946)
  39. Die Hard (1988)
  40. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  41. Dirty Harry (1971)
  42. The Terminator (1984)
  43. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  44. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  45. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  46. Carrie (1976)
  47. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  48. Dial M for Murder (1954)
  49. Ben-Hur  (1959)
  50. Marathon Man (1976)
  51. Raging Bull (1980)
  52. Rocky (1976)
  53. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  54. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
  55. Wait Until Dark (1967)
  56. Frankenstein (1931)
  57. All the President's Men (1976)
  58. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
  59. Planet of the Apes (1968)
  60. The Sixth Sense (1999)
  61. Cape Fear (1962)
  62. Spartacus (1960)
  63. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  64. Touch of Evil (1958)
  65. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
  66. The Matrix (1999)
  67. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  68. Halloween (1978)
  69. The Wild Bunch (1969)
  70. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  71. Goldfinger (1964)
  72. Platoon (1986)
  73. Laura (1944)
  74. Blade Runner (1982)
  75. The Third Man (1949)
  76. Thelma & Louise (1991)
  77. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
  78. Gaslight (1944)
  79. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
  80. Rebecca (1940)
  81. The Omen (1976)
  82. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  83. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
  84. Poltergeist (1982)
  85. Dracula (1931)
  86. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
  87. The Thing from Another World (1951)
  88. 12 Angry Men (1957)
  89. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
  90. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
  91. Braveheart (1995)
  92. Body Heat (1981)
  93. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  94. The China Syndrome (1979)
  95. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  96. Blue Velvet (1986)
  97. Safety Last (1923)
  98. Blood Simple (1984)
  99. Speed (1994)
  100. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Other great thriller movies 

Obviously, that list is fun, but it discounts the last twenty years or so. So you won't find the movies I mentioned in my example section and you won't find things like Memento, Old Boy, Cache, and Zodiac

Thrillers reflect where we are as a country and as a world. It seems like every decade gets the thrillers it deserves. We had post-WWII film noir, Nixon-era conspiracies, the 80s erotic thrillers, 90s computer hacker phenomena, and the 2000s general fascination with terrorism and perverted patriotism.  

And we saw this genre leave movies and extend to television and streaming, picking up new fans everywhere. 

'Tenet'
'Tenet'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Thrillers never, ever go out of fashion. No matter what else is happening in cinema or even in the world, audiences always want films that get their hearts racing. They will always want to be entertained. The best thrillers all about the build-up and release of tension, the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.

That's the fundamental joy of cinema and why people return to these stories. 

Let me know which ones we’ve left off in the comments. 

And let's talk about thrillers in general down there. 

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2 Comments

WTF is this article. Was this written by a middle-schooler? This site has really gone down the drain.

November 5, 2020 at 8:29PM

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What could make articles like this better?

November 9, 2020 at 9:24AM

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