Die Hard action. Source: 20th Century Fox.

You’ve probably heard the term, but its meaning is vague and slightly confusing. So what is a genre film?

Good question, internet friends (are any of you attending my birthday party or what?). Let’s start at the beginning: film genres.

You’d probably be able to explain to an alien trying to dabble in film-making what genres are. Romance films are about romance; comedy films are funny; fantasy films involve… fantasy.

In the early days of Hollywood, studios recognised that films were generally crafted in certain ways. And those styles appealed to certain audiences. In a sense, genres were a way of segmenting the market.

And they were also about consistency. If you had however much movie tickets cost back then (I bet it was way less than the crap we pay now), you’d want to know what you were watching. Sure, you couldn’t guarantee the latest Western would be great. But you’d be pretty certain it would involve cowboys and cool doors that swung back and forth every time you entered the room #bringbacksaloondoors.

film genre preferences
Different people (in this case genders) want different movies. Studios cater for that. Source: Mideastmedia.

And for a long time, that’s how films were. Largely, they categorised within the limited existing genres, and remained loyal to their stylistic principles.

Yet as the world of cinema progressed (bear in mind, cinema really started in the early 1900s; sound didn’t come along until the late 1920s), so too did their genres.

Not only did we get the addition of genres like sci-fi and fantasy, but we also got the melding of many genres. Action started getting imbued with slap-stick comedy; Dramas started incorporating elements of crime.

Now, this isn’t to be confused with things like Rom-coms. These are new genre films in themselves (we’re getting to it, I promise). Instead, think about a modern film like InceptionInception holds a place somewhere between action, adventure, and sci-fi. It is no one clear genre; it is a mix of many. Today, most films are.

Genre films are pure representations of their genre.

While many movies nowadays are like Inception, combinations of various genre elements, there are also certain films that remain truly loyal to its type.

This is trickier than you’d think. It takes an awareness to remain so close to a particular genre, in a time where influences are everywhere. But still, as there was in the earlier days of cinema, there’s certainly a market for it.

And that doesn’t mean an action genre film can’t have any comedy in it. It can. It just has to stay very aligned with the general principles of an action flick. Each genre has a stylistic, thematic rubric of sorts.

what is a genre film
Western movies are very clear in their genre. Source: United Artists.

One area of film where you’d find lots of genre movies is in B-film. For example, lots of your cheap gore horror films are exactly that: gory horror.

But even in mainstream cinema, as I said, there is still a market for genre films. Studios continue to market films as particular genres for a clear reason. People who enjoy watching funny movies want to know when something is a comedy. People who enjoy watching action movies enjoy watching stuff getting blown up and people punching each other in their necks and stuff.

It’s one of the reasons why more indie films (a genre in and of itself) struggle in the mainstream market. They’re not as clearly defined as, say, your latest Expendables movie. You know what your getting with a genre-marketed blockbuster.

Here are 5 modern genre film examples and recommendations.

1 – Action: The Raid.

The Raid knows exactly what it is. An Indonesian film, The Raid follows a local policeman’s attempts to fight his way to the top of a gang-controlled apartment block to arrest a crime boss. No frills, just cold hard action.

The raid genuinely has some of the best fight scenes ever. 

2 – Rom-com: Love Actually

A classic example of a rom-com, Love Actually is actually about love (nailed it). And its narrative functions like a comedy. So boom, you’ve got yourself a rom-com.

It follows the lives of eight separate people and their various romances in the lead-up to Christmas. (If you’re looking for some Christmas movies, here are our favourite 10).

Love Actually is written by one of the dudes who revolutionised the genre, Richard Curtis. He’s behind iconic films like Notting Hill, About Time, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and more. I recommend checking him out if you can here asking “what is a genre film” and left saying, stuff everything, I’m only into rom-coms.

3 – War: The Hurt Locker 

The Hurt Locker is set during the Iraq War, centring around a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad.

Like most War films, The Hurt Locker is gritty and tense. And this one’s great.

4 – Fantasy: Pan’s Labyrinth

A Spanish film, Pan’s Labyrinth is about the daughter of a very dickheady army officer, who escapes into a creepy but incredible fantasy world.

This is a unique take on the fantasy genre, but a fantasy film through and through. A must watch.

5 – Gangster films: The Departed

Gangster films are a sub-genre of crime films (that’s the issue with genre films, they just get more and more niche), typically revolving around organised crime.

The Departed is a Martin Scorsese film, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon (yes, epic cast). It tells the story of a mole and an undercover cop investigating a Boston gang trying to identify each other.

So summing up, what is a genre film?

Alrighty, one last time for the people in the back. A genre movie is a pure example of its genre. It may feature various influences, but at its core, it categorises within the generally agreed upon rubric of that genre. It can be broad, e.g. crime. Or it can be more niche, e.g. slasher films. And there you have it: genre films.

If you enjoyed this article on ‘What is a genre film’, have a read through our list of the best Australian movies ever. They’re the best. Ever.

Writer, musician, professional movie-ist. Josh likes his films the way he likes his food: preferably quite good.