Film Genres & Subgenres: Definition & Types

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define both the concept of film genre and the related concept of film subgenre. Several examples of film genres will be provided, as well as examples of subgenres within those genres.


Like other forms of popular media, film relies on the concept of genre in order to establish an audience and work within a particular narrative framework. A genre is an informal set of conventions, references, rules, and settings that establish a particular film within a particular tradition of similar films.

Within each genre, there are usually subgenres, or more specific variations on a larger genre tradition. For instance, within the larger genre category of science fiction films, it is possible to distinguish subgenres, like alien abduction narratives, or time-travel scenarios.

Contemporary film is filled with innumerable genres and subgenres, far too many to go into here, but in order to illustrate the intended point, we will explore three main genres and discuss a few subgenres within each: horror, romantic comedy, and action.


Horror is one of the oldest and most well-established genres in the history of film. Early horror films like Dracula (1931). Jr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908) and Nosferatu (1922) elaborated on and often adapted the gothic and Victorian horror novels of the previous century. Horror films usually attempt to create a spooky, Halloween-like atmosphere in order to give audiences a sense of romantic wonder, mixed with a fear of the unknown and the supernatural. Monsters like vampires, zombies, werewolves, or demons are often used as antagonists, contrasted by noble, pure-of-heart protagonists, often children or teenagers. Horror films frequently stress themes like the moral struggle between good and evil, the dangers of pushing the boundaries of science and technology too far, or the supernatural tension between nature and civilization.

The horror genre contains numerous subgenres, each with well-defined characteristics and requirements. The slasher subgenre, popularized in the late 1970s and 1980s is best exemplified by films like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Slasher films typically involve a human, or semi-human, antagonist murdering a group of teenagers, often as apparent punishment for their sexual promiscuity, drug use, and social deviance. Other horror subgenres include zombie apocalypse narratives, demonic possession stories, and haunted house scenarios. Why do you think some people enjoy horror movies so much, while other people find them so unpleasant?

Romantic Comedy

Romantic comedy (sometimes shortened to RomCom) is one of the most popular and enduring film genres. Although occasionally derided as superficial and sentimental by critics, romantic comedies nonetheless continue to attract large audiences. Romantic comedies are usually light, comedic narratives concerning the romantic courtship of two people. The two romantic protagonists concerned usually start off the film as an unlikely and often antagonistic pairing, but through a series of humorous misadventures fall in love by the end of the film. Classic examples of romantic comedies include When Harry Met Sally (1989), Annie Hall (1977) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). What do you think accounts for the enduring popularity of RomComs?

High school and/or teen romantic comedies can be understood as one of the most successful romantic comedy subgenres. High school RomComs are typically set in a high school and detail the courtship of two teenagers from different social or economic backgrounds. Examples of high school RomComs include Pretty In Pink (1986), She's All That (1999), and Bring It On (2000).


Action films generate huge profits for the film industry and remain on the cutting edge of special effects technology. Action is a highly diverse, international genre with many subgenres. Generally speaking, action films concern a crisis in which an antagonist is attempting to subvert public order in some dramatic way, forcing a protagonist to prevent their subversion through direct confrontation, violence, and/or the protagonist's unique skills. Action films invariably feature elaborate battle scenes, spectacular displays of special effects, and graphic violence.

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