Crime and Horror- related but distinct

Scream is a horror film. I don’t really think that is up for serious debate, it was marketed as a horror film, follows the beats of a horror film, was directed by a horror director and frequently makes top horror movie lists.

The description of it though could easily be a crime thriller, imagine seeing this on the back of a box:

A masked killer, the police on his trail, an investigative journalist who thinks a man may have been convicted for a wrong crime. The clock is ticking to find out who is behind the Woodsboro killings.

On the other hand, The Godfather is a crime film- despite the fact horrific things happen in it.

Mass murder.

Horse mutilation.

One scene is almost Saw worthy, a mobster has a blade smashed through his hand and is strangled from behind.

A newly wed bride is obliterated in a car bomb attack.

There seems to be this line between these two genres I wanted to discuss. They are related, brushing against each other but distinct.

Here are a few points that I think generally separates them:

  • Crime is underpinned by logic

Even if it is twisted logic, crime films and novels tend to have an undercurrent of reality. You can work out what is happening even if the detective is one step ahead of you, often the central plot is being carried out for a particular reason. In L.A. Noire, all the murders are to conceal a property scam. In The Godfather, mafia families are struggling for control.

Horror is free of logic. It can embrace it but it doesn’t need to. A murdered paedophile called Freddy is killing teens in their dreams. Okay, you don’t think twice and enjoy the ride, getting scared and nauseated in equal measure.

Scream is set in the real world but liberties are taken, we don’t question in Scream 2 how a nerdy college film major brutally murders two trained and armed FBI agents because he put on a rubbery Halloween mask and got a knife out the kitchen. We can suspend our disbelief because it doesn’t really matter in horror.

  • It is possible to solve the mystery in crime

One of the best things about a good crime mystery is once the big reveal happens, you see how there has been plenty of hints along the way, plenty of opportunities to pick up on it. Then you can put it on again and spot it all, it is what makes them so rewatchable.

Horror on the other hand is less concerned with this. Fear, death, over the top violence or a foreboding atmosphere, that is what matters. There is no way to work out in Scream who is behind the mask, there simply isn’t. No clues, no leads, no real mystery. Ghostface will keep killing people until the gruesome crescendo. It isn’t necessary in a horror movie to work out who the killer is, it doesn’t add or take away from it.

A crime movie that has no investigation or problem solving wouldn’t be very good.

Jason going on a rampage doesn’t need that to be an effective horror film.

  • Death in horror is the main event

In horror, death is often the main event and takes centre stage. Characters die, try to avoid death, the threat deals out death.

Death in the crime genre is usually to get the plot moving, in a great many of them it isn’t especially graphic or gratuitous, indeed it can even happen off screen.

I could show you a death scene from Friday the 13th and show you a death scene from Scarface and you could probably tell what genre they belonged in. Being gunned down in your club is vicious and brutal, but crime. A seven-foot brute tearing your arm off and letting you bleed out in agony is horror.


This isn’t an exact science and there are some that straddle genres (Seven being a good example) but as a rough rule of thumb, this is how I tend to separate them.




Funny AND Scary

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Striking the right balance between comedy and horror is not an easy thing to do, so most writers and directors will go for one over the other. Either blood curdling and scary (The Aliens from the Alien franchise) or outright silly (think of the straight to DVD Bruce Campbell movies or tongue in cheek modern B-movies). Few will try and take on the centre ground.

It is hard to do right but when it works, it really works. Examples include:

  • Gremlins
  • Eight Legged Freaks
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space

If you are aiming for this kind of vibe in your horror I think there is one key rule to keep in mind. The monster can be funny, look at the Gremlins going on their rampage through the city, it is like something out of Looney Tunes. Similarly, the Killer Klowns raiding the pharmacy or the spiders in Eight Legged Freaks attacking a stuffed moose head and spitting out the flesh in disgust.

Yes, they can be funny.

But, and this is key, they also need to be a genuine threat. The gremlins are funny but when they attack the mum in the house, there is the very real danger they are going to kill her. Likewise, although the spiders are silly, almost slapstick, when the main characters meet them, you know they could die.

You can laugh at their antics but equally, they are perceived as dangerous.

When this balance fails, you never really consider the enemy a threat. The locusts from Alien Apocalypse seem ridiculous and as if they couldn’t hurt anyone, they barely seem able to move their limbs. Same with some of the more absurd Dr Who monsters, they aren’t threatening.

Another way around it is to make the henchmen ridiculous and silly but the big boss frightening. The minions can have goofball moments but when the big boss shows up, you know heroes can die and the fun is over. In Eight Legged Freaks, you see the silly spiders jumping around when the massive tarantula stomps into view, the tone changes. Look at Labyrinth, the goblin muppets are stupid and not really a threat but when the Goblin King shows up, there is genuine menace.

In your own work, if you want this kind of vibe, remember they can be funny but they must also be a threat.