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I think I have an ok good idea of what makes up a horror piece. But recently I've come across the term genre shift and wondered what exactly makes something not straight up horror but a piece that genre shifts into horror? Some movie examples:

Sci-Fi shift to Horror/Thriller

  • Hollowman (2000): starts of as a scientist research project, then turns into a slasher leaving only two characters in the end

Action shift to Horror

  • Predator (1987): starts of as a pretty typical action/arnie flick, then turns into a brutal cat and mouse game with again only two characters left alive in the end

What confuses me is exactly what draws the line between a straight up horror and a genre shift? For example the classic Psycho (1960) is usually considered a horror movie even though it really starts as a heist movie and shifts into horror later. With Babysitter (2017) and Texas Chainsaw (1974) there are quite a few horror like hints for a while but it takes some time for the actual horror to really kick-off, compared to the majority of straight horror movies which open with a horror scene eg. plane crash in Final Destination, Casey's death in Scream etc.

I would love some thoughts on this.

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  • I think this is more of a question for the literature stackexchange, as your question is more related to genre studies than writing.
    – veryverde
    Dec 7, 2021 at 13:15
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    The best example of this kind of thing it the movie Pandorum, with great sci-fi suspense and horror blended very well. REALLY underrated movie, but not without some logic flaws. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandorum
    – DWKraus
    Dec 7, 2021 at 15:50
  • If you consider the 1st part of Psycho a heist movie, do labels even matter?
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 7, 2021 at 16:08
  • @wetcircuit I may have been unclear; it is not that I consider it, this is a well known hitchcock technique. He does a similar thing with The Birds as well
    – FrontEnd
    Dec 7, 2021 at 23:03

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The term "genre shift" usually notes that a significant portion of the story fits within a genre standard but will depart that genre in order to explore another idea or concept with the premise. For example, Titanic starts out as a romantic period piece only to become a disaster film revolving around the whole reason why the ship became so infamous. In fact, I'm old enough to remember the film being released on two VHS tapes with the first tape showing only the romantic period part and the second showing only disaster (I think they strike the Iceberg as a cliffhanger in part 1).

Where I would say Predator differs is that it blends two genres and while it starts out as an 80s action film, the sci-fi element does get top billing. It's not trying to hide the ball (not that Titanic was either) but it's also pretty blended in concept. The 80s Arnie Action flick never stops being an 80s Arnie Action flick, while there is a pretty solid point in Titanic where Jack and Rose's romance is only advanced as they are the POV for the entire disaster (one person moving through that much of the Titanic sinking IRL is very unrealistic in truth and the film does break to show actual historical characters in place in the event, something that is sparse in the first half.).

Genre shifts can also occur over sequels. To point to another Arnie film series, Terminator and it's sequel Terminator II show a tremendous genre shift. Both are firmly in the Sci-Fi Genre, but Terminator is Sci-Fi/Slasher Horror while Terminator II shifts the franchise to Sci-Fi/Action .Here this was intended to be a shocking surprise as the Terminator (Arnold) in the first film is not the same Terminator (Arnold) in the second film and are two separate products of the same model line, both looking like Arnie. If you watch the build up in T2, the Terminator, John Connor, and Robert Patrick's character are all built like the Terminator, Sarah Connor, and Reese in the first film. It's only when the three players meet do we get the reveal that it's the Terminator who is the hero and Robert Patrick who is the villain. Unfortunately, the concept of "Spoilers" was not a thing and marketing heavily gave this away. T2 sets up to mimic it's predecessor's slasher horror elements up until the first confrontation... but it then goes action movie and never ceases, while any element of a horror film has been long tossed out.

Another notable group of films to do genre shifting well are the Marvel Cinimatic Universe Film. While the early entries are pretty straight Superhero, Thor breaks to become Science Fantasy, shifted to Fish out of water Comedy, shifted to Sci-Fantasy Superhero. Captain America: First Avenger would also break from superhero to enter into Period Piece/War Film/Super Hero and both sequels would similarly shift (Thor would lose the Fish Out of Water Comedy elements in Darkworld and then go into full blown sci-fi/fantasy/superhero in Ragnorck. Captain America would shift into Superhero/Spy-Thriller for it's two sequels.). Guardians of the Galaxy were Space Opera Comedies, Ant-man was a Heist Film/Super-Hero Parody (many of the traditional epic superhero shots would get a zoom back to reveal the scale is not as impressive as it is filmed.). Doctor Strange was Medical Drama shifted to Urban Fantasy.

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I think a lot of this labeling is rather fluid; there is no central committee giving a final answer.

It is kind of like the color spectrum; going from infrared to ultraviolet — exactly where does red stop and orange begin? Or yellow stop and green begin?

So you can have a heist or a mystery that becomes a horror story, but it isn't a "genre shift" horror if the heist or mystery are not all that prominent, and the audience is never really engaged or intrigued by the heist or mystery.

If those are treated as just an excuse to get some characters into the horror situation, it is not a genre shift.

For example (I'm making this up), we open on six people, three men and three women, that tunneled in to rob a bank, taking a bunch of safety deposit boxes. They get away clean, go to their hideout and start cracking open the boxes, looking for valuables. They find a weird old puzzle box, one guy, Jocko, is weirdly attracted to it, he gets obsessed with solving the puzzle box. He insists, the rest know Jocko is a weirdo that can get violent, so they let him play with the puzzle box and continue cracking the safety deposit boxes. Then Jocko laughs, and opens the puzzle box — And all six criminals are suddenly somewhere else, each in different rooms of a huge, crazy old mansion. We pull back and this mansion is on an island in the middle of nowhere. To avoid cliché, let's say it is beautiful, a paradise, absolutely serene. Heaven on Earth, until we see the waters around it,filled with dead fish.

So, some elements of a crime, some fantasy element, but if I do all the above in the first 12 pages of a script (typically the setup for a catalyst; 1/10th to 1/12th of the script), this is not really a genre shift.

I don't get the audience interested in how they got into the bank. We saw a tunnel. Or whether they will get caught, as the police are never involved.

Heist movies are all about the how, the clever ruses and unexpected genius and trickery, the con games. In Ocean's 11, we wonder why we need a master pickpocket, an electrician, an acrobat, the remote control brothers, etc; but it all comes together.

In my little example, there is a magical transport but we don't get deep into the rules of magic, it is just there so we don't have to explain how we got from the Suburbs to a malevolent mansion on a mystery island with no way to escape.

To be a genre shift, I think you have to provide more of the tropes of the genre: To the audience it has to feel like a mystery unfolding before it becomes horror. A full act:

  • Robbery, and criminals escape.
  • A detective at the scene of the crime.
  • The distraught but senile owner of the puzzle box is terrified.
  • The detective, from photographs, discovers some backstory of the puzzle box, teasing the audience into the supernatural horror aspect.
  • She is led to a Chinese monk [edit] that tells her about the puzzle box, and uses a ritual to divine it's location; so more supernaturalism.
  • She doesn't believe it at first, but then follows up and finds their hideout.
  • She arrives just in time to be transported with the criminals.

Seven beats; about 15 pages. Ultimately, supernatural horror aside, maybe the detective is the sole survivor, the criminals die horrible deaths, but she figures out how to re-trap the evil in the puzzle box, and when she does, she is magically returned to the hideout she found, puzzle box in hand. The criminals are nowhere to be found.

So technically, mystery solved! With about 60% of the story a straight-up horror flick between the first act (~30 pages) and the Finale (~15 pages).

I'd recommend this kind of genre-shift as a fun way to pad out an otherwise simple horror concept.

(Edited to correct a minor bug in the plot.)

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