The thriller is an all-encompassing umbrella genre that corrals all other genres underneath it. It is difficult to determine if a movie is only a thriller. The most popular sub-genres of the thriller include spy, detective, psychological, horror, action, and supernatural thrillers. Thrillers habitually mix the tenants of other genres in a single film as well as the tenants of the sub-genres of the thriller. The main ingredient of a thriller is suspense, excitement, and tension, whereby thrillers set out to evoke an emotional reaction. Thrillers often create an atmosphere of creeping menace and sudden outbursts of violence, crime, and murder. Gunfights and chase scene are common set pieces. One of the main themes of thrillers is the existence of a double world — one civilized and one savage. In Hollywood, the dark corrupt, dangerous, savage world is usually overcome by the status quo, but with lingering side effects. Thrillers also favor, loose, episodic structures with labyrinthine, mazelike plots, filled with myriad twists and tangles. There is a loss of control for both hero and spectator. Both hero and spectator become tangled up and a part of the same mysterious world that they are investigating.

The Psychological Thriller

Some of Hitchcock’s work can be categorized as psychological crime thrillers. Hitchcock felt that it maximized suspense and highlighted the subjective aspects of character. Action spectacles such as car chases and shootout were often minor to his works.

– The hero: A classic variation of the psychological thriller is one whereby the primary psychological burden falls upon someone emotionally close to a murderer or suspected murderer. The characters internal dilemma might fall along the lines of: Am I married to a murderer? Should I trust him? Should I betray him? Am I the next victim? In the detective thriller, the detective is often the centerpiece driving the plot forward. In the psychological thriller, the detective figure is usually peripheral or completely absent from the storyline. Most often the protagonist is someone to whom things just happen. The hero’s inexperience with the world she has been thrust into increases her vulnerability.

– The plot: In contrast to the classical whodunit, the psychological thriller is constructed forwards. There is less concern with what has happened in the past and the focus is upon what will happen next — to the killer, the suspect, the potential victim. Is the killer going to be caught? Is the false suspect going to be able to clear himself? Is the intended victim going to realize the danger she or he is in?

– The antagonist: Whereas in detective stories, the characteristics of the murderer’s personality is withheld so as not to disclose the identity of the murderer, in psychological thrillers, the identity of the murderer is revealed right away or at least very early. In a classical “whodunit” the method of the murder is often bizarre, complicated, or misleading (e.g. some rare poison, exotic animal, or unusual weapon). Conversely, in psychological thrillers, the method of a murder is usually neither fancy nor misleading (e.g. plain, old fashioned shooting or strangling).

– The world: A psychological thriller is dominated by the emotional relationships of the characters affected by the inciting incident. Concealment of clues becomes less important than the characterization of characters.

Some Films with Psychological Thriller Elements: The General’s Daughter (1999), The Sixth Sense (1999), Sphere (1998), The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Event Horizon (1997), The Usual Suspects (1995), Se7en (1995), Boxing Helena (1993), Basic Instinct (1992), Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Cape Fear (1991), Misery (1990), Total Recall (1990), Pacific Heights (1990), Dead Ringers (1988), Dirty Harry (1971), The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958)

The Action Thriller

The main objective of a thriller is to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience albeit, suspense, tension, fright, or excitement. The method is through emotional attachment or identification with character. The action thriller is the infusion of spectacle with the thriller agenda.

An action thriller can be a psychological thriller, spy thriller, or any other thriller, which utilizes spectacle to heighten the excitement of some of the movie moments. Or, an action thriller can be an actual action-packed film whose major set pieces revolving around some form of spectacle yet it incorporates some of the tenants of the thriller or one of the thriller sub genres.

– The world: Action thrillers virtually always depict double lives and double worlds. One world is bleak, dark, dismal and corrupt. The other world is pure, optimistic and reprehensive of the status quo. In order for goodness and hope to prevail, the other world must be defeated, but it is never actually conquered, thus the battle between good and evil wages on.

Some Films with Action Thrillers Elements: U-571 (2000), Arlington Road (1999), Fight Club (1999), The Matrix (1999), Enemy of the State (1998), The Negotiator (1998), Face/Off (1997), The Rock (1996), Crimson Tide (1995), Heat (1995), Pulp Fiction (1994), Speed (1994), True Lies (1994), The Fugitive (1993), In the Line of Fire (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), Deep Cover (1992), El Mariachi (1992), Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Total Recall (1990), The Abyss (1989), Batman (1989), Die Hard (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Predator (1987), Dirty Harry (1971), North by Northwest (1959), High Noon (1952)


The thriller is an umbrella genre encompassing all other genres. It is difficult to say that a movie is only a thriller and not a member or any other genre. Any addition to touching every other genre, thrillers are known to mix genres within the same film including mixing the various tenants of the subcategories of thrillers. While other genres focus upon particular events and elements the thrillers strives for the evocation of a particular emotional response or visceral stimulus. And, although the thriller is connected to modern day life, it often preserves its earlier storytelling traditions (e.g., romance and adventure). Psychological thrillers are dominated by the emotional relationships of the characters affected by the inciting incident. Concealment of clues becomes less important than the characterization of characters. Action thrillers are the infusion of thriller tenants and spectacle to heighten excitement.

The thriller today has remained a popular and thriving genre because the thriller strives to heighten the emotion, excitement, and take the viewer on a roller coaster thrill ride. Since its birth, the thriller has remained a reflection of modern society. The classical thriller presents a double world — one dark and savage; one bright and civilized. The so-called civilized world is representative of the status quo. In recent modern day thrillers, the paradigm is reversed whereby those dwelling in the darkness are actually representative of goodness and must overthrow the status quo for truth and hope to survive. In the future, as the underclass expands, and the upper class closes up its ranks, it is likely that we will see more of this paradigm shifting in the thriller as well as other genres.

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