To look at what constitutes a ‘thriller’.
The ‘Thriller’ – what is it?
Discuss with your partner
what films you have seen
that you think are
Make a list of as many as
you can think of.
Films you have chosen:
For the purpose of this unit, I want you to
think about thrillers less like:
And more like:
The ‘Thriller’ – what is it?
‘The thriller is a very
difficult genre to pin down
because it covers such a
wide range of films.
Thrillers are films of
suspense … that are
supposed to instil terror
into the audience.’ –
Susan Hayward, Key
Concepts in Film
Different types of thrillers
… and, most obviously,
Aspects of the Thriller
“When you enjoy something, you must
never let logic get too much in the way.
Like the villains in all the James Bond
movies. Whenever Bond breaks into the
complex: ‘Ah, Mr Bond, welcome, come
in. Let me show you my entire evil plan
and then put you in a death machine that
-Jerry Seinfeld (SeinLanguage, 1993)
Animated director Chuck Jones
worked at Warner Brothers for
decades making short movies
starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy
Duck and company.
He also made the Road Runner
cartoons and from the first
episode, an elaborate set of
The Road Runner cannot harm or upset the coyote except by going
No outside force can harm the Coyote, only his own ineptitude or the
failure of Acme Products.
The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic.
No dialogue ever, except ‘MEEP! MEEP!’
The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he
would not be called the Road Runner.
All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two
characters – The Southwest American desert.
All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be
obtained from Acme Corporation.
Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
Do films follow rules?
Some film-makers will claim that ‘there are
no rules’ or that ‘rules are there to be
However, most would agree that there are
certain conventions that mainstream films
observe in order for them to be acceptable
to the mass audience.
Working with a partner, try to think of as many
‘features’ or ‘rules’ which you think make up a
Obviously, as we have discovered, there are
many different types of thrillers, so this may be
difficult. You can include:
Different technical aspects
Brainstorm a list of thriller films, then, in pairs see if
you can identify some of the rules that they always
seem to follow.
Make a list for yourself to record your own ideas
Are some rules less likely to be broken than others?
Try prioritising your rules (into those that are never
broken and those which can be broken).
Aspects of the Thriller:
The only way to get
rid of my fears is to
make films about
“There is no terror in the bang,
only in the anticipation of it.”
Hitchcock was the
master of suspense whose films
came to be the benchmark for
“If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience
would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”
“Always make the audience suffer as much
“I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be
looking for a body in the coach.”
The Suspense ‘Thriller’ – Hitchcock
‘Under the strong
influence of Alfred
Hitchcock, thrillers often
begin with a crime and the
accusation of an innocent
bystander. Were the
accused to contact the
authorities, no doubt the
case could be promptly
solved, but instead the
poor bystander runs from
the law thus further
jeopardizing life and limb.’
– Rick Altman –
‘The 39 Steps’ – 1935
‘North by Northwest’ –
“ [In]…The Thirty-Nine
abandon both thrills and
suspense when the
falsely accused character
finally reaches safety” Rick Altman (again)
Suspense and Shock
Example: Imagine a scene
Example: Now imagine
the same scene except
that instead of the
camera revealing the
bomb under the table it,
without any warning,
explodes and kills all
This is SHOCK!
in a film similar to this
teacher). The camera reveals
that there is a bomb under the
table to the audience but we
(the students, teacher) are
unaware of it.
Will we be saved?
Will the bomb go off?
This is SUSPENSE!
Watch this scene
and imagine how
shocking it must
have been to an
audience in the 30s.
How is suspense
Tells the story of two young, wealthy men,
Brandon and Philip, who strangle and murder
a friend of theirs just to see if they can get away
They then invite other close friends (including
the murdered man’s parents!) to their apartment
for a dinner party, whilst hiding the body in a
chest/box in their sitting room, just to see if
they can get away with it!
The suspense is
the body in the
What will happen?
Will the body (and the
two men) be discovered
and brought to justice?
Do we, the audience,
even want this to
Maguffin) is a plot
advances the story,
but has little other
relevance to the
“We have a name in the studio, and we
call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the
mechanical element that usually crops
up in any story. In crook stories it is
always the necklace and in spy stories it
is always the papers."
The ‘Psychological’ Thriller
The Mind, Conflict and the Past
The suspense created by psychological thrillers
often comes from two or more characters preying
upon one another's minds, either by playing
deceptive games with the other or by merely
trying to demolish the other's mental state.
Sometimes the suspense comes from within one
solitary character where characters must resolve
conflicts with their own minds. Usually, this
conflict is an effort to understand something that
has happened to them.
Narrative – Structure,
Formulas and Devices
Use of ‘continuity editing’.
The clear establishment of ‘cause and
effect’ plotting which establishes character
motivations and helps tell an interesting
story which proceeds logically and
This refers to a puzzle,
something mysterious or
inexplicable, or a riddle or
In thrillers this is commonly
something which the protagonist
has to try to find out or solve before
the narrative is resolved and the
A red herring is the name given to a
device which intends to divert the audience
from the truth or an item of significance.
Can work with other devices (enigmas) to
For example, in Saw two characters spend time imprisoned in a room in
which a third character lies dead. Throughout the film, both characters
appear to be guilty of a series of murders, until it is discovered at the end
that the third person in the room is not actually dead but is, in fact, the
North by Northwest (Hitchcock,
“…dusting crops where there ain’t no crops”
Main character, Thornhill,
sent to meet a man
(Kaplan) who will explain
why he has been mistaken
for a government agent
and, we believe, help him.
Sometimes, although not always, used.
Often feature a main character in a
precarious or difficult dilemma, or
confronted with a shocking revelation.
This can entice the audience to keep
watching in order to see how the situation
It’s not exactly, strictly
speaking, a thriller, but
The Italian Job (1969)
gives us a witty
example of this in it’s
Go through the work sheet, filling in the
details as we watch the openings of these
This film has an extremely
difficult narrative structure where
events are told in 10 minute
segments but backwards.
This echoes the confusion that
the main character feels as he
struggles to remember events.