As time progresses, transformations in the film industry can represent—or document—the way society also progresses. Movies change and reflect how we view ourselves and the world around—tackling ideas such as acceptance, the horrors of humankind, and the uncertainties facing newly implemented technology.
Regardless of the genre or message, one thing is common throughout this list—each film transformed its genre and heavily influenced ensuing media. Like other aspects of society, nothing remains the same. Featured below are each genre’s most metamorphic movies to date, each proving timeless as they permeate our present-day cinema and culture, and shape our humanity.
Horror – Psycho (1960)
With the release of this instant masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock further cemented himself as the Master of Suspense, crushing old norms, inventing new ones, and altering the trajectory of horror flicks forever. In Psycho, the shower scene shocked audiences with its violence and sexual explicitness. Combine this with the pre-marital, post-coital opening scene, and gone were the days of innocent storytelling and the cheery 1950s.
Before Psycho, horror was dominated by monstrous creatures and botched experiments from Nosferatu (1922) to Frankenstein (1931). Hitchcock swapped civil disorder with humanity’s horror, jolting American populations with domestic terror. The scariest part about Psycho is it could happen to anyone. Another radical departure from the genre’s norms—and film norms in general—was the killing of the protagonist a third of the way through, a disorientation that pioneered the brutal shock-value seen in today’s horror.
Psycho also famously uprooted theatre norms, as it was the first film to enforce cinema showtimes. Before, moviegoers could attend films throughout the show’s duration, but Hitchcock insisted that this laissez-faire approach would ruin the plot twist. It’s clear the ripple effects of Psycho are alive even 60 years later.
Comedy – Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
When the British slapstick troupe released this King Arthur spoof, nobody expected much beyond a low-budget, throwaway comedy. Not only was the movie a success, it revolutionized comedy for decades to come, becoming a classic of the genre and a staple in mainstream culture.
The Pythons arguably invented trolling with their 25-minute pre-title sequence. They took pleasure in having their critics trash their off-beat piece at the time, especially the film’s unsatisfactory ending. In typical Monty Python fashion, the creators had the last laugh.
The comedy troupe thrived by juxtaposing heroic shenanigans with gray, dismal atmospheres. Monty Python—far removed from the tired comedy synonymous with traditional slapstick—led many comedians to benefit off of their success in later years.
Musical – Grease (1978)
After a summer of passionate yearning, two star-crossed lovers reunite in high school during senior year. Grease’s lightheartedness confidently addressed complex issues that weren’t commonplace with prior musicals. The film executed this in a manner that didn’t patronize nor minimize the gravity of adolescence, even with its slick tuneful approach.
With $396 million at the worldwide box office, Grease became the highest-grossing live-action musical of all time, until it was dethroned by Disney’s recent edition of Beauty and the Beast.
As the 1950s waned, Grease challenged audiences with its raunchy undertones and messages of peer pressure. The film complemented a new era of opposing acquiescence and the re-examination of virginity, relationships, provocative costumes, and unprotected sex.
Coming of Age – The Breakfast Club (1985)
This poignant and relatable tale of a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal, all braving adolescence together one Saturday morning, tackled the themes of teen angst, without trivializing their issues and experiences. Overcoming the ruthless hierarchical archetypes of high school, the movie embraced adolescent insecurities, creating a hopefulness by stripping away their cliques.
In the heart of the 1980s, The Breakfast Club portrayed authentic teenage emotions and acceptance in an era that perpetuated conformity. The movie’s quintessential story broke off and birthed teenage comedy by the end of the decade, inspiring all other coming-of-age stories to come.
Romantic Comedy – Pretty Woman (1990)
It seems simple now, but featuring a “good guy, bad girl” relationship was quite groundbreaking. Pretty Woman dared to buck the trend of films before, which typically explored the steady corruption of the innocent femme by their male partner, alike Say Anything… and Heathers, both of which were released the year previous. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Pretty Woman was a rom-com renaissance and proved the genre cannot only compete but dominate others at the box office.
This modernized retelling of the classic Cinderella fantasy reverberated throughout Hollywood, creating a successful blueprint for future romantic comedies—a dramatic makeover, a movie montage complemented with a pop song, and a grand kiss to allow all of its audience to swoon. This crowd-pleasing formula helped other up-and-coming female actresses such as Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, and countless others to become ensnared in the rom-com world.
Psychological Horror – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Being the only horror film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs helped other psychological horror movies garner critical acclaim, although none to the same level.
This cinematic-opulent flick is a masterclass in subliminal tension. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto used subtle camera techniques were used to maximize our identification with the female protagonist, Clarice (Jodie Foster). For most of the movie, the camera is diverted under Clarice’s chin for its entirety rather than above—a tactic usually used to disempower women and emphasize them as perilous. This simple tactic was effective in allowing the audience to care for her, despite being outside the confines of the jail cell. It was rare for 1990s’ movies to possess strong female persuasion, but Clarice’s courageous actions overcame the tightening camera.
Meanwhile, the audience caught the male characters’ gaze directly, causing viewers to understand the feeling of being surrounded in a male-dominated, patronizing law enforcement environment. Silence of the Lambs sparked protagonist diversity in subsequent years, whether in Scream, The Conjuring, Hereditary, or many other psychological horror films.
Action – The Bourne Identity (2002)
Although fairly recent, The Bourne Identity revolutionized action scenes, particularly how they were filmed, serving as a breakthrough for the genre. The Bourne Identity, along with the rest of its trilogy, chopped down on average shot length (ASL)—the mean length of a scene before it’s cut. In Bourne Identity, the ASL was around four seconds; the sequel was further condensed to 2.4 seconds; and finally, Bourne Ultimatum did the impossible with an ASL of two seconds. Three-thousand two-hundred camera shots in only 105 minutes.
With this feature, the camera work is shaky and disorienting and meant to increase viewer anxiety, so it’s not just observed, but experienced. The filming mimics how our sensory perception works, with bits of information being accumulated to formulate an action sequence. This choppy chaotic intensity has been recreated many times, spearheading a monumental shift in the way we consume action.
Dystopian Drama – Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
While only a recent release, Bandersnatch has no doubt transformed entertainment. This interactive film—the first of its kind—uprooted film narrative conventions that stretch back over a century.
Audiences had to decide between two gruesome outcomes after the next, all with the click of a button. Given Black Mirrorpushed the boundaries of bleakness in the past, a choose-your-own-adventure became an obvious next step in the show’s evolution.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, this stand-alone, feature-length episode explores the dangers of emerging technologies. Ironically, the interactive element symbolizes how society fears new technology, but embraces it when deciding the fate of others.