THRILLER- an overview
The term ‘thrill’ refers to the great excitement or emotion one feels. So the
genre ‘thriller’ is any film which creates such emotions from the audience. A
thriller film is usually set in a dark small place of an ordinary setting, where a
series of extraordinary events will take place, often a crime of some sort. The
characters will be normal everyday people, usually dragged into the action
unwillingly or unknowingly. There are many sub genres including:
•Psychological: Silence of the Lambs
•Natural disaster: The Day After Tomorrow
•Superhero: The Dark Knight
•Science-fiction: District 9
•Spy: Mission Impossible
•Legal: A Time to Kill
Narrative structure of a Thriller film will usually be very complex, for example in The Butterfly Effect the main
character repeatedly goes back in time and changes the future, by having a complicated plot it makes the whole
film more interesting to watch.
Another convention is the use of restricted narrative; keeping the audience in the dark about certain things until
the very end. This is used in Shutter Island, the audience don’t know the main character is actually the crazy man
until the end. Leaving the audience with these questions keeps them interested and watching.
Twists and turns are often used too, in Sixth Sense it turns out the boy and his psychiatrist have been dead all
along. This has the same effect as the restricted narrative.
The genre uses thrills at two levels: one level that uses danger and violence, the second being psychological.
Psychological thrills are used in The Silence of the Lambs, and create more emotions of terror and disturbance
than gore has in many films.
The use of ordinary people, objects and places, but bringing out danger in all of them has dark undertones of evil
in society. The way these things are filmed creates fear and suspense. This is effective because the audience feel
they can relate, and the emotions will be more intense. In Brick, the location of the murder is in a sewer, this is a
perfect example of an ordinary, unsuspecting place, (see below).
Todorov’s Theory of Narrative for the Thriller genre is this:
There is a state of equilibrium
The equilibrium is disrupted by some sort of action
There is a recognition of the disruption
The attempt and quest of restore the equilibrium
The reinstatement of equilibrium.
Todorovs theory is apparent in the narrative of the film Lucky Number Slevin, Slevin starts the film in a
state of equilibrium and is dragged into the action by a mistake of identity. Slevin realises the position
he is in and then throughout the rest of the film he has to find a way to overcome what he has been
dragged into and finally at the end, the equilibrium is restored.
According to Vladimir Propp there are seven different character types, those typical of the Thriller
•The protagonist- who will be the saviour of the villains plans or victims. Usually a male agent/cop, but
also sometimes an ordinary person pulled into the situation involuntarily. In Taken, the agent father
saves his daughter from kidnappers.
•The antagonist- the antagonist will create the disruption the equilibrium. Depending on the sub genre
or hybrid the antagonist could be a serial killer/criminal/psychotic individual, or others of that sort. In
Hannibal, the antagonist is a psychotic individual who appears invincible because of his extreme
•The helper- this is the character who aids the hero in restoring equilibrium. In Shutter Island the
second cop is the helper, trying to help store equilibrium by showing the first cop the truth.
•The princess- the victim, usually the most victimised by the villain and in need of help from the hero.
Again in Taken, the daughter who has been kidnapped is the victim in need of saving.
•The dispatcher- the character who sends the hero on his/her task. For example, Morpheus is the
dispatcher to Neo in The Matrix.
•The false hero- this character appears to be good but is revealed to be bad. Again in The Matrix,
Cypher is revealed as bad when he sets a plan at the others expense.
[protagonist father and
‘princess’ daughter- Taken]
These aspects of mise-en-scene are typical of the Thriller genre, they are used in almost every Thriller film and help to
make Thriller what it is:
•Setting/locations- settings will add to the atmosphere of the film. Often in a big busy city like New York or London, but
in the darker more sinister places you wouldn’t normally notice. For example, Taken is set in Paris but most of the
action is happening in places like brothels and construction sites within the city.
•Props- objects can contribute to narrative and can give hints to character. Décor used can offer information on the
time and location of the film. In Thriller props can be almost anything as long as they go hand in hand with the
narrative. In Psycho, stuffed birds are used a lot in one scene which one provide us information that Norman has a lot of
time on his hands, but also they have deeper meanings and depict the characters. One owl has a powerful presence
over Norman, representing his mother. The stuffed animals also represents death, initiating the death of the woman.
•Costume and makeup- again these can give us historical context, can show social status, personalities, situations and
changes. In Shutter Island, Chucks outfit compared to Teddy's shows that Teddy is more laid back, his tie isn’t smart and
he’s not wearing a suit like Chuck is (shown in image above right). The suit is typical of the Thriller genre and used a lot,
it is a good way of showing someone's character by the way it is worn. Can be used to hide identity, which is also very
important in Thriller.
•Figure expression/body language- expressions gesture and postures can tell us a lot about relationships between
characters and about the characters themselves. In Brick, in the scene where the boy has found the dead body he is in
crouched into the foetal position, hinting at vulnerability and loneliness.
•Lighting/colour- as a collective we attribute meanings to certain colours i.e. red for blood, lust and danger. Lighting
used in a film creates mood and adds to the scene. Desaturation, blue, grey and yellowy tints are often used. Again in
Brick, a blue tint is used for the dead body scene. It reflects the cold and unnerving feel of the water and the dark
Shots angles and movements which are typical of Thriller are:
•Low/high angle- often used to connote power of character. It shows who has the power in a situation by
having one character ‘higher up’ than the others, as Thrillers often have scenes including a power struggle
these shots are useful to show who’s in which position.
•Extreme close up- using this shot helps create suspension. Lets us see and feel the characters emotion, easier
for us to understand what they're are feeling, this is also useful in Thrillers as often the characters will be
scared or worried and having close ups of their faces helps the audience to understand the way the are feeling.
•Tracking shot- used a lot in Thriller chase scenes, this shot helps us to feel part of the action, going along with
it. Almost every Thriller film will have some kind of chase/following scene.
•POV/APOV- this shot puts the audience in the characters shoes. We see what and how they’re seeing things.
These shots are used a lot to help with the building of suspense, if we are in the characters shoes we then
know as little (or much) as them.
•Unconventional angle- using a slanted angle makes the audience uncomfortable this helps create atmosphere
and adds to the scene.
•Reverse tracking- This also makes the audience uncomfortable as it is an awkward shot to watch. Often used
in realization shots as the main focus is kept on the main subjects face. As well, this shot helps build the
tension, as the character is realizing something important.
Certain techniques help to heighten the scenes and emotions in thriller films, they let the audience to feel
more involved with the action and characters by using shots and angles which make it easier for us to relate
with what is happening.
In Collateral’s opening title sequence close ups are used to show importance to different objects and
characters. We are shown a MCU of the suitcase dropping, this tells us that the suitcase is significant in the
narrative. Also in Collateral, when Vincent is walking through the airport the surroundings are defocused, only
he is in focus. This is an obvious way of telling the audience that this character is the most important thing in
the frame. This is the YouTube link to Collateral’s OTS introducing Vincent’s character---- http://
Cinematography- Se7en OTS
Extreme close up of the man shaving off his fingerprints with a razor. As well as hinting at a violent,
crime scene narrative it also introduces the villain as suspicious and cunning. The razor makes the
audience cringe and feel uncomfortable.
The movement of the shots is quick paces, showing the photos of dead bodies only for short
moments. The fast pace leaves the audience with questions as the only just get to see the images.
The fact the villain has these pictures hints that he is a psychopath .
Close ups of the villains hands sticking and arranging papers. Together with the images of dead
bodies the audience gets the idea that this character is unstable and up to something.
Extreme close up of the person highlighting the words transsexual and heterosexual, as we have
also seen the word God the audience can realise the highlighting has religious connotations.
Close up of the hand cutting out the word God out of a dollar bill, this hints at a religious narrative,
and the fact the word God is coming from money fits in with the Seven Deadly Sins.
Close up of the paper being sewn together. The fact that he is sewing the pages together instead of
something easier shows he is quite obsessive over things and has to have things in a particular way.
There are no establishing shots within the OTS, this is typical of the thriller shot and we cannot tell
where the action is taking place or who the character is.
We never get to see anything of the person except their hands. This keeps their identity hidden,
very typical of thriller and adds to the mysterious cunning of it all.
YouTube link to Se7en’s OTS---- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S32RP5SnEM
Both diegetic: Sound that naturally occurs within a scene, and non-diegetic: Sound added in like a
soundtrack, are used in the Thriller genre.
•Diegetic sound is that which has a source in the frame, examples are dialogue , doors banging, animal
sounds etc. Ambient (also diegetic) sounds are naturally occurring sounds i.e. birdsong, wind etc. Often
used in thriller films are bangs, screams and suspense building sounds like the ticking of a bomb or
clock. These help create tension and build up to the climax. For example, in Se7en there is a ticking as
detective Somerset goes to sleep thinking over the murders he has seen.
•Non- diegetic sound is that which is added in the editing process and does not have a source within
the frame. Voice overs, SFX and the film score are examples of non-diegetic. Non-diegetic sounds in
Thrillers will build up and get faster along with the action. In a chase the film score will follow and
imitate the action. For example in Casino Royale (Daniel Craig) there is a chase between James Bond
and another man, the film score matches the action; as Bond starts to chase the music drops and
becomes more fast paced, as he sees the man getting away the music slows and sounds like its come
to a stop when it starts up again as we see Bond realise a way to catch up. The music slows again when
the man stops and looks for Bond coming and begins when he starts shooting.
YouTube link to this scene in James Bond---- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5M5R2pcPJ0
•Pleonastic sound (often non-diegetic) will imitate or reinforce the action. Like before, if there is an
uncomfortable scene the film score will be harsh to hear, reflecting what is on screen. These sounds
are used a lot in Thrillers as they will help the action to cause bigger impact on the audience. For
example, in Machete whenever a knife is unsheathed or used to kill, the sound we hear is much more
exaggerated, unrealistic and violent to what we would naturally hear.
•Silence used in a film can also have a great impact, sometimes much more powerful than sound itself.
Sound- Se7en OTS
The OTS of Se7en is one (non-diegetic) soundtrack, added over the top in the editing
process. Within the soundtrack diegetic sounds like a type writer and clogs turning
are heard. These just reinforce what we are seeing on screen and add to the overall
effect of the soundtrack. Screams are also heard, this hints towards a violent narrative
and gives us an insight to what the film will be like.
Non-diegetic sounds are used within the soundtrack as well, pleonastic scratching and
high pitch screeches are sharp and piercing, harsh for us to listen to and reflect the
violence to come. The scratching also reinforces the hand writing and the negative
tone of the action we are seeing.
The lyrics at the end are about God, this goes well with the narrative as the film is
based around the Seven Deadly Sins. As the word God is said, the word also appears
YouTube link to hear this soundtrack 2 slides back.
Typical editing found in Thriller films is fast paced, short cut shots. These help to imitate the fast
action we are shown and can be used to help create a state of tension, building up to the final climax.
•180͘ degree rule- this is part of continuity editing, by using it you maintain clear spatial relations and on screen direction. The
camera stays behind an invisible line so the characters/objects stay on the side they are on. (e.g. objects on the left stay on
the left.) Sometimes the rule is deliberately broken to create disorientation.
•Graphic match- this is where there is a familiar relationship between the shots which make the change smoother. This could
be the continuity of direction, similar actions/subject/colours. For example in L4yer Cake graphic matches are used
frequently, in an early scene the title is shown on the door of a house and the next shot if of that door being opened but just
as the number 4.
•Match on action- when the ‘cut’ is made during the action. E.g. the character jumps off a building, next shot is of half way
through the fall, the third shot is of them landing on the ground. Because the audiences eyes will be focused onto the action
the editing is less likely to be noticed. An example is in Sin City when ‘The Customer’ turns around. We are shown her
turning half way then the shot is cut and we see her turn from a different angle.
•Eye line match- this is when the character reacts to something off screen, the eye line must match the actions positioning so
it is obvious what is the cause of the reaction. This then motivates the cut and the next shot shows what was seen. In Brick
we are shown a shot of the boy looking off screen, the shot is cut and the next is of the girls dead body.
•Shot reverse shot- this technique is where one character is shown looking at another character (often off screen), the next
shot will be of the second character looking back. Because the characters will be shot showing that they are facing opposite
directions the viewer can assume they are looking at each other.
•Parallel editing- Also called cross cutting, this technique alternates between two or more scenes often which are happening
at the same time but in different locations. An example of this is in The Silence of the Lambs, the two scenes being alternated
mislead the viewers on to think that the FBI have found Buffalo Bill when really Clarice has. It is used to create a state of
tension and anxiety, and when the realisation hits us we can see that Clarice is now in great danger.
Typical certification for a Thriller film is a 15, sometimes a 12 and sometimes an 18. Depended on
the Thriller hybrid will help determine the certificate. Often for a Horror or Crime hybrid the
rating will be higher like an 18 as it is more likely to contain violent/sadistic gore. An example of
an 18 Thriller is Fight Club as it contains very graphic violence, glamorising it as a positive thing. It
also contains strong language and sex scenes. If the Thriller is rated a 12 it could be a superhero
hybrid or spy, this is likely as the action is usually more focused on the wider problem like a
bomb, instead of individual tortures. For example, The Dark Knight is rated a 12a because it
contains scenes of violence, but none which is depicted graphically or glamourized.
The kind of audience response expected from a Thriller should be that of excitement, suspense
and anticipation. Other emotions such as fear, for the lives of characters or genuine fear of the
action in the film is often found more in the Horror/Psychological sub-genres.
To attract a wide audience, the Thriller genre often has other aspects to the film than just the
main action. For example, a love interest might help to keep the female audience interested. In
Lucky Number Slevin along with the main action there is a side romance between Slevin and his
neighbour, who also plays a part in solving Slevin’s problem.
Kill Bill- 18
Rating 18- Will show scenes of graphic violence, anti-social behaviour/ language, or contain graphic
sexual content. This material wont be shown if it cant be justified by context and will not breach
Kill Bill- The film contains many glorified fight scenes showing the violence and blood. Strong
language is frequently used. Ideas of rape also portrayed.
The sub genre of Kill Bill is Action/Crime. Use of black and white in scenes, contrasted to show
blood. Scenes in red. Scenes in low key lighting and blue tint. Weapons used: knives, guns and
swords. Frequent fighting scenes. Confusing narrative, done in chapters going back and fourth in
I think it has been given this certification because even though the violence isn’t too graphic it has
been glorified as a deserved revenge instead of a negative thing. Because of this it could encourage
anti-social behaviour from the audience. The language used is quite explicit and used lightly,
The Butterfly Effect- 15
Rating 15- Drug taking, nudity and violence can be shown but not graphically and should not be prolonged.
The drug taking should not promote or glorify and the violence shouldn’t show detail. Sadistic or
sexualised violence is not acceptable. Strong language can be used but the strongest will only be used if
they can be justified by content.
The Butterfly Effect- Language is used quite a lot but is not strong. And nudity used but infrequently. Idea
of child abuse but not shown or prolonged. Violence is shown but again not too often and not in great
The sub genre is Sci-fi . The use of supernatural ways to change the past makes the film Science fiction but
the suspense through that causes it to be Thriller. Low key lighting and blue tint used in some scenes. The
narrative is very complex as it starts from the end then goes back and fourth through time changing the
future differently each time. Mysteries and questions are answered as the tense changes.
I think the film has been certified 15 because even though the acts and ideas of violence in the film aren’t
shown very graphically, they are still too extreme and dark to be shown as a 12. The language used isn’t
very strong but is often used and could be imitable.
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