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.
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.