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This week's question: 

Will someone please, please, for the love of Mike, tell me what the difference is between a thriller and a horror?


This week's Answer: 

The Thrill and Horror of Naming Your Genre

Caitlin, I’m more, more glad than you know that you raised this question (although I must admit that I’m a bit horrified by it, yet somehow thrilled at the same time.  And who is Mike?)   It’s not always an easy call whether or not a screenplay is a thriller or a horror.  And, then to make it even more complicated, I hear they’re coming out in 2006 with a new genre:  thriller horror.  And in 2007 we can look forward to horror thriller.  Not to mention that in 2008 there will be horrifically bad thrillers.  And 2009 will present thrillingly awful horrors.  2010 could be the worst.  Look forward to Throrors and Horillers.  Do you see the problem here?  I do.  And I’m not thrilled.  (I’m also not telling the truth – and I hope that doesn’t horrify you.)

  Actually, the way to tell a thriller and horror apart is quite simple.  When watching one, ask yourself these easy questions:

How To Tell The Difference Between A Thriller And A Horror!

  1.  While watching the film, did you get excited and scared... or did you throw up.  If you threw up, you probably watched a horror.

  2.  If you found yourself wanting the scantily-clad vacuous (if you don’t know what the last word means, you probably go to horror films) females to stop being so ridiculous by going into dark, scary rooms by themselves, you’ve most likely watched a horror (and most likely not a very good one).

  3.  If you related to the lead character, who seemed to get caught up in something that put his or her life at risk but that something wasn’t some silly monster or unrealistic and badly made-up creature, you probably watched a thriller.

  4.  If you dropped your popcorn and spilled your 32-ounce of syrup in the first 5 minutes of the film, you probably watched a horror (or, if you’re a guy, you might have seen a “hot chick” go by).

  5.  If one of your first instincts as you watched the film was to kill or at least maim somebody, you’re probably at a theatre with somebody checking his or her cell-phone for messages, thereby beaming bright light into the dark theatre and not caring that it disturbs you or anybody else who wants to watch the film, you’re probably at a horror (or it will be soon when somebody strangles that cell-phone addict).

  To be a little less cavalier on the subject, thrillers often have a strong psychological component, the protagonist needing to discover how to outwit his or her oppressor.  And there’s often an element of mystery, questions regarding Who, Why, and When Do I Get To Leave This Theatre Because It’s Such An Unthrilling Thriller?  That’s not to say that, in a horror, the hero doesn’t have to come up with the solution for outwitting the monster, creature, inexorable force (Ah.  Now that’s a good term for describing a horror:  inexorable force.  Think of it that way.  The hero must discover how to make an inexorable force become exorable.  There you have it.  The perfect definition.)  I mean, Steve McQueen had to figure out that the only way to stop the Blob (definitely an inexorable force.  It was like Playdough out of control, overly substantial Jell-O gone amuck, muck gone awry, etc.) was to freeze it.  Brilliant.  An inexorable force forced into the condition of “exorableness.”  

Actually, screenplays/films that use creatures as antagonizing antagonists usually fall into the category of “creature features.”  But they can also be considered horror films.  Cases in point (or would it be “cases in points”?):  The Thing (electricity was not its friend), Frankenstein (wasn’t pleased with fire), Dracula (not an aficionado of sunlight, crucifixes, or stakes), The Werewolf (silver bullets were a problem for him.  Hey!  The Long Ranger should have been contracted to take the hairy guy out), The Were-Rabbit, The Mummy, The Daddy, The Fog, Jason (he only stopped when it was the end of the movie.  He had to get ready for the next one), Freddy, Chucky, Mikey.  In that regard, it seems that if the horrific force is more human-like or is an actual human, it or he or she (e.g., Frankenstein’s bride, a lovely, significant other for Frankie, I must say) is considered a candidate for horror.

Thrillers thrill us because... they can.  No, there’s a better answer than that.  Take North by Northwest, if you will.  Now there’s a thriller, still entertaining us, by the master of suspense (and you might add, “master of thrillers”)... Alfred E. Newman.  Sorry.  Alfred Hitchcock.  The plot of N by NW is an everyman caught up in a sinister plot.  Definitely a thriller.  Often it’s:  Somebody is stalked by an unknown killer (maybe those should be called, “killer thrillers"  Or "chiller killer thrillers.")  And there’s:  Somebody is known by a killing stalker.  And let’s not forget:  A known stalker is thrilling an unknown killer.  (On second thought, that last one is probably a horror.) 

In a thriller, we usually don’t know what’s going on in the beginning and we want to find out before it’s too late (I mean, we do have to get home sometime).  In a horror, we usually know basically what’s going on and sometimes we’d rather not know.  Because it’s headed this way.  Horrors are not everybody’s cup of tea.  Many prefer thrillers.  Now here’s the thriller I’d like to see:

An unknown script consultant, when trying to watch thrillers and horrors, stalks and destroys the expensive phones of rude cell-phone users.

  Cell Stalker!!!


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