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Genre Breakdown: The Different Types of Thriller Films

Jourdan Aldredge

In this genre breakdown, we dive into the chilling, suspenseful subgenres of the “Thriller” to learn how you can add tension to your filmmaking projects.

Whether it’s joyous laughter from a comedy, a heartfelt connection from a romance, or blood-curdling shock from horror, film is one of the greatest platforms for making someone feel something truly powerful. One genre that is perhaps the most emotive of them all is the bone-chilling suspense and pulse-pounding excitement of the thriller.

While one of the more modern genres of the cinema tradition, the thriller goes back to some of the earliest stories and films. Its paperback exploits and man-on-a-mission plots have been a major part of film throughout the decades. And while it’s given us big names and franchises such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Grisham, and James Bond, it’s also a very important film style that bleeds over into many other genres.

So, let’s take a look at some of the most basic — and most famous — of the thriller subgenres to learn how these elements have developed, and how you can harness them for your own nefarious, tension-filled endeavors.


Conspiracy Thriller

Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in "JFK"

Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in Oliver Stone‘s conspiracy thriller JFK (1991). Image via Warner Bros.

The first subgenre we’ll dive into, which might be the most synonymous with the genre overall, is the “conspiracy thriller.” These films trace their conspiracy plots back to the rise of ’70s pulp thriller authors like Robert Ludlum — who would pen such great novels-turned-films as The Chancellor Manuscript and The Bourne Trilogy.

A good conspiracy thriller works within the confines of many real-world issues and institutions, and it’s actually a great way for society to explore relationships within traditional power structures, like we see in Capricorn One, JFK, and The DaVinci Code.


Crime Thriller

Sterling Hayden in "The Killing"

An image from the famous heist scene in Stanley Kubrick‘s The Killing (1956). Image via United Artists.

Another prime example of a thriller subgenre is the “crime thriller,” which is a hybridization of the crime film genre, which has a rich history all its own. However, the crime thriller is very much its own unique subgenre, with a great reputation for bringing the mundane procedurals of law enforcement to much higher stakes.

Some famous crime thrillers include the convoluted, intriguing, and (at times) scandalous films such as The Killing, The Silence of the Lambs, and No Country for Old Men.


Legal Thriller

Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief"

Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts star in the John Grisham novel adaptation of The Pelican Brief (1993). Image via Warner Bros.

Almost an offshoot of the conspiracy thriller, there’s one subgenre that has evolved from the dedicated efforts of one man — author John Grisham. A practicing attorney from Mississippi, Grisham has published over forty fiction novels, and half have become feature films or television programs, classified as “legal thrillers.”

Some of Grisham’s most notable projects include The Pelican Brief, The Client, and A Time to Kill. Other legal thriller examples include Hostile Witness, Presumed Innocent, and The Lincoln Lawyer.


Spy Film

Roger Moore as James Bond

Roger Moore portrays the famous spy James Bond, based on the spy novels of Ian Fleming. Image via United Artists.

Perhaps the most popular version of the thriller would have to be the “spy film.” While the spy film traces its roots back to paperback novels, spy films have developed over the years with twisting and turning serials from authors like John Le Carré and Ian Fleming into big-budget action thrillers, including Casino Royale, Mission: Impossible, and Jason Bourne.

The spy film takes audiences down a fascinating voyage into a world of high-stakes and double-crossing agents, while simultaneously navigating world histories and international espionage, which has enticed audiences since the Cold War.


Supernatural Thriller

Hayden Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense"

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis star in the hybrid supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, by M. Night Shyamalan (1999). Image via Disney.

Finally, as with every mainstream genre, the offshoot genres often become numerous, as well as “out there” in terms of what filmmakers can dream up. The “supernatural thriller” is a great example of how thriller elements can combine with other genres — like sci-fi and fantasy — to create some truly unique visions and stories audiences find new and refreshing.

Some notable supernatural thrillers (which pull from conspiracy, crime, and spy sub-genres, as well) include Jacob’s Ladder, The Dead Zone, and many of the modern films by M. Night Shyamalan, including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Glass.


Cover image via Paramount Pictures.

For more genre breakdowns and filmmaking insights, check out some of these articles below.

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