The Problem with Genres

It is autumn and that means the leaves are changing, the nights are getting colder and the days chillier and shorter (my favorite time of year), and I can start burning autumn scented candles and the holidays are right around the corner. The first holiday? Halloween. Halloween is right around the corner. It’s only about a month away, and with Halloween comes horror films. People love to get scared around the end of September and throughout October. American Horror Story is in full swing on television, new horror films are coming out in theaters, and old classics are resurrected for the next month and a half. I’m not the biggest fan of horror films, but sometimes I think some so-called “horror” films aren’t really horror films at all.

The genre is horror, but what does that mean? It has to be scary? It has to explore fears and the dark side of humanity? These elements can be in a good drama film too. So what’s the difference? Are genres really all that important? (There are many film theories based entirely around genre, so I won’t say genre is completely irrelevant, but it is at least something to question.) Take for example a horror film I like that I really don’t consider just a horror film.

It is “The Exorcist”. I love that film, but I don’t get scared at it. Granted, I will admit it has many elements of a traditional horror film (those exorcism scenes!), but at the end of the day it is really a film about the love of a mother, and the faith of a disillusioned priest. The really scary stuff doesn’t come until maybe halfway through, and even then they are isolated scenes. I think the film is more a cross of a drama and a horror than just a straight horror film.

However, I can definitely see why it was, and still is, labeled a horror film. It definitely takes things to the next level (heads spinning, levitation, etc. etc.), but there are some others that don’t necessarily fit the horror bill exclusively. A lot of these horror films play out more like a drama, but because they feature something supernatural, or something considered “scary” they are deemed horror, and this can turn some people off. I hold a belief that I will watch any movie once, regardless of genre, because every film deserves a chance, but some people run the other way when they hear a film is a horror film. What if they gave them a chance and saw that these films were drama films with some trace elements of horror? (Or they could get scared out of their wits because its one of those films which is definitely just a straight horror film, but I digress.)

This doesn’t have to apply solely to horror films either. (There are some horror films, I will admit, that could not be categorized as anything other than horror, but that’s a different article for a different time.) How about comedies? Aren’t there many comedy films out there that play with your heartstrings and could be considered a drama? Or what about a drama film that can get pretty funny at times? Couldn’t you classify that as a comedy? A dramedy?

And then you have the films which are marketed all wrong. Take for instance, “The Village”. Now, the film itself is extremely flawed, so I won’t even go into that, but it did have potential. The problem (well, one of the many problems I should say), with that film was how it was marketed. I still remember the marketing for this film back when it came out. They made it look like a straight horror film. The website they had was creepy as hell with red marks on doors and those sounds of the woods and all that. People went to go see the film. There was no horror. Maybe a scene. Maybe. But that was it. The film is really a romance, not a horror, and not really a thriller either (what defines a thriller?). People went in thinking they were going to get scared, and when they weren’t scared they trashed the film. Now, like I said, the film has many things going against it, but I think if it was marketed as a romance it may have been slightly less trashed. But who knows.

You see this all the time (“The Rite” was labeled as a horror film, but it is really a drama about lost faith), and I think that is where genre fails. I think most films could be categorized into two or three different genres. Very rarely does a film fit solely into one genre. It’s extremely difficult. All genres share traits of each other and it creates this massive grey area. What defines a comedy from a drama from a thriller from a horror from a western (isn’t a western just a drama that takes place in the old west?).

I am oversimplifying some of this, but the point is the same. How can we label a film? Labeling a film can help it, and it can hurt it. I haven’t really provided any answers in this article, but let me close with a thought: instead of defining a film by its genre, why don’t we look at a genre label as a poorly drawn road map to what the film may be? This way, we go in with open minds, and know that the film probably has, at the minimum, the elements which define the traditional genres. Read the reviews. Watch the trailers with caution (they can be misleading!), and watch the film for what it is, not what you were told it was.