Every movie comes with a genre. The genre may be as simple as comedy or horror. Sometimes it gets a bit more complex and you get sci-fi horror or romantic comedy. And sometimes it gets a bit wild and you get Shaun of the Dead, a movie described by its writers as a zombie romantic comedy or zom-rom-com.
But these are the genres that are given to us. The studio tells us a movie is a horror movie and packages it with a spooky poster and ominous trailer. Or it’s a rom-com so we get a kooky trailer that spoils most of the movie and a poster of two attractive people looking at each other.
In the end, though, the genre of the movie is up to us. If we’re promised a horror movie and it turns out to be laughable trash, then surely it’s not a horror movie at all; it’s a comedy. At least to us it is.
A phenomenon I’ve found is genres changing with age. I recently saw The Wolf Man (1941) at the cinema, and though the movie is billed as a terrifying horror movie, the crowd I saw it with were rolling in the aisles at some of the dialogue, special effects, and acting. Audiences in the forties were probably terrified of the movie, but seventy years later the movie has changed genre to become something much lighter and entertaining in a different way.
The age of the film is a genre changer, but our own age also plays a big part. I think we’ve all had the experience of watching a movie as a child and then re-watching it as an adult and finding the genre vastly different. For me, re-watching Home Alone a few years ago turned it from the lovable hi-jinks of a precocious child into an unfunny drama about an annoying kid whose parents subconsciously (or consciously in his dad’s case, as he doesn’t seem to really get that agitated that they’ve left Kevin at home) leave their child at home for Christmas.
I’ve heard stories from other people about different circumstances which will drastically alter a genre. A friend of mine worked as a nurse in a prison for a while and now anything set anywhere near a correctional facility is a horror movie for her. Another can’t go anywhere near a movie about cancer since the recent diagnosis of a family member has brought to their attention that there is nothing remotely romantic about the disease as it sometimes depicted in movies.
A very interesting one that has recently come to my attention concerns the movie The Lobster. The Lobster is described on IMDB as being a “comedy, drama, romance,” on Wikipedia as a science fiction romantic comedy, and on Rotten Tomatoes as “drama, science fiction & fantasy, comedy, cult movies.” All that’s missing is horror.
And that’s where the audience comes in. The Lobster is the story of a man played by Colin Farrell who lives in a world where a person who finds themselves single for any reason must travel to a hotel where other single people live. They have 45 days to find true love in the hotel or face being turned into an animal. Each person is looking for someone else who shares a distinct feature with them, such as a lisp, limp, short-sightedness, chronic nosebleeds, or any other physical malady.
When I saw this movie it had a huge effect on me and my own writing. I realised that there are no boundaries to how wild a plot can be provided the execution is spot on. It also made me laugh until I nearly pissed myself. There are some utterly absurdly comic moments in this movie and other much bleaker ones that are pitch black funny.
A friend of mine recently posted on Twitter that she had seen the movie and loved it, but that it was also terrifying. Some mistake surely, I thought. The Lobster is a wry take on society’s obsession with partnering up and that a family is the norm and the scorn we reserve for single people until they find someone. It’s a comedy, not a horror.
So I started asking around. And it was the same everywhere. Some people watched the movie in cinemas where half the dialogue was drowned out by laughter and others watched it in cinemas as quiet as catacombs. And both said they loved the movie. It was a comedy or a horror and it worked both ways.
My theory is this: My friend who thought it was a horror is single. So for her the movie is a scary look at how a dystopian world would treat her should it occur. The movie is a countdown to oblivion for these poor people as they desperately try to find The One and save themselves from a life of being an animal, an outsider, someone who society does not need to acknowledge.
On the other hand, I’m happily married (three years this month), and when I saw the movie I could put myself in Colin Farrell’s shoes, but only in the abstract. My take was more wiping my brow and saying, “Phew, that’s a bullet I’ve dodged; now let’s see what wackiness is going to happen.” The characters most like me are the ones working in the dreaded hotel. In The Lobster’s world my marriage means my relevance is assured, whether I warrant it or not.
But this theory doesn’t hold water completely. I’ve spoken to other single people who thought the movie was hilarious and married people that it terrified, and in the end the genre of the movie, or any movie, is our own choice. Even though IMDB, Wikipedia, the studio, the creators, and Rotten Tomatoes will all label a movie one way or another, it comes down to the person who sat in the seat, in the dark, and who says, “This comedy isn’t funny, it’s actually terrifying,” or “This horror movie is hilarious.”
That is one of the beautiful things about cinema. In the end it is the audience who has the power. A creator forgets this at their peril. I don’t know if Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Lobster, intended for the above effect to occur or if it was a happy accident, but, other than the few people who have said that they didn’t get The Lobster, everyone I’ve spoken to about the movie has taken something away from it. That something might be fear or laughter, but either way they have enjoyed it immensely, choosing the genre to watch the movie through based on their own lives and experiences, making their personal history become a part of the movie.