What is generally understood by the notion of film genre ?
Genre, in it’s most basic sense, is a borrowed French word which refers to a type or grouping. In
film it is used in general to mean certain groupings or types of film. The way in which these
groupings occur, though, and the differences and similarities between them have been an issue of
debate. The main arena where this type of classification is used is Hollywood, from it’s classical
age right through until present. Critics, producers and viewers all, to some extent, use genre in
this basic sense to convey even a vague meaning to others but the meaning of genre can go far
It is perhaps misleading to think that within all of the varied film institutions, the
viewers, the critics, and the film makers themselves there is going to be one overall complete or
fixed notion of genre, that even any two people might have the same idea of what this concept
means and entails and also the particular variations which can be applied to it in order to
categorise individual films.
To the general public, placing films into genres is a matter of placing films which have
similar content or storyline or even similar mise-en-scene, into a particular grouping so that they
can be readily explained to any other person. Horror, Sci-Fi, Western, Romance and Comedy are all
terms we are familiar with in respect to films and we have a degree of expectation as to what
each should contain. Other terms such as thriller or weepy pertain to the emotional response they
incur (Hollywood Cinema) You would not expect for instance to go to a Romantic film and see
the leading lady have her head ripped off by a killer bunny rabbit - it simply doesn’t fit into that
genre. Overall this shows the public awareness of genres as descriptive devices and use them as
quick means of portraying a story to one another.
Directors and producers of film can use this public awareness of set types of film to their
advantage, surveying people about their likes and dislikes. They can broadly categorise things
and still get an indicative response. Directors can then look at ways to combine aspects of
popular genres. Genre also represent a way for film makers to make money quickly or ‘easily’,
if they catch on to what might be popular at one point in time or, in the case of many successful
films, make a sequel/prequel to it to re-use the ideas which were so apparently popular before. In
recent times this mix and matching of genre has become commonplace perhaps in an attempt to
create greater audiences by including something for everyone, but these do not help in any way
those who are trying to define genres as distinct units. There is a great deal of fluidity in both
the term genre and the many things we class as being genres and boundaries between these
elements are constantly changing.
There have been many critics who do not pertain to the Hollywood notion of genre and
look at it’s method of classification as being of little use. Some of those critics look towards the
fact that although many genres can overlap and have similar elements there are specific
combinations that can perhaps only occur in one particular genre. They look at things which
genres have in common, but also what is different between them, trying to use this to classify
particular genres. This is not an easy thing to do with the level of overlapping that can occur
especially when different genres are combined deliberately for example comedy horror.
Critics also identify the seasonal nature of genres, in that for a while some particular genres or
mixes become extremely popular. This, they noted, comes in waves and is related to the
phenomenon of sequels and waves of popularity of some genres for instance the recent
outpouring of fantasy films.
Looking at Hollywood and film with genres is almost an opposition to the auteur theory,
with the critics and industry alike looking not for film and authors individuality, but for an
overall theme and looking for sameness between different films which they categorise into
genres. They do, however tend to only have a limited number of categories, with many of the
others which we would normally describe being placed as sub-genres.
There are others again who describe genres by how we are likely to respond to them.
Although we do describe some genres already by their effect, this method is describing how
directors may use genre as a visual or sub-conscious clue when trying to relate some things to the
audience. To look at the many which in which genre can be seen it is useful to consider one
genre in particular and how the above points may be related to it.
The horror genre is one which is usually not disputed, we all know vaguely what to
expect from one when we see it. The genre has been established since early in the last century,
around the 1930’s, and has many hundreds of examples. A horror movie usually follows this
very basic plotline:
‘instability is introduced into an apparently stable situation; the threat to
instability is resisted; the threat is removed and stability restored. ... Absolute closure (threat
removed and stability restored) is no longer obligatory.’ (Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists)
This change illustrates the slow
of genre which occurs over all as producers try to change some elements to make the
film more interesting or even just to leave the audience with more of a sense of unease. The
horror genre always has the main antagonist as some sort of ‘monster’ wether in the literal sense
or in the slightly more subtle human ‘monster’ such as a psychotic murderer. There are few
other genres which will have this element with perhaps the exception of comedies, though those
which do are generally classed as comedy horrors.
In horror there is also usually a mystery given at the beginning of the film about why or
how a creature or monster is killing, maiming or scaring to death the victims. The climax will
generally come just after this reason has been revealed and in many cases understanding allows
for the victory of the victim (or in some cases the hopelessness of the situation of the
hero/heroine) These areas are those which allow critics seeking to define horror as a genre
(though some would still define it as only a sub-genre) Horror is also usually designed to cause a
fright, and to allow us to be frightened in a ‘controlled’ manner. We have also become used to
the music which plays before a victim is ripped apart or comes to some other kind of violent
death, the build-up, although we know what is going to happen, still usually brings tension and a
little fear, leaning towards a definition of horror based on it’s effect on the audience and how it
uses known clues to let the audience know what is going to happen.
Horror is also a genre which is affected by trends. Producers look very much at what
people are buying at a time and will tend to make movies along a similar vein this is at times
even more noticeable with horror movies than many other genres.
As can be seen by the above arguments, there is no real agreement on genre and how it
should be defined. At best, the most general ‘notion’ of genre would be the one used by the
public, that is a form of description which conveys a set of descriptions in one or two words.
These descriptions themselves are also constantly being redefined. Genre, therefore, as a notion
or idea is one which is constantly evolving.
Tudor, Andrew, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A cultural history of the horror movie,
(Cambridge, Blackwell, 2003 )
Maltby, Richard, Hollywood Cinema (Oxford, Blackwell, 2003)
Watson, Paul, Critical approaches to Hollywood Cinema : Authorship, Genre and Stars, in An
Introduction to Film Studies, ed. by Jill Nelmes, (London, Routledge, 2003)