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Why Action Films are a Close Cousin to Horror Films

Die Hard

When thinking about the other types of films that horror fans would be attracted to, it’s probably safe to say that action movies are one of them. I’ve been watching a lot of action films myself lately–reacquainting with old ones that I’ve loved for years and discovering new ones that are quickly becoming some of my favorites. These films are a great way to offset all of the horror movies we watch while still staying within a similar genre.

What I noticed while watching some of my favorite action flicks is that they actually have a lot in common with horror movies. And that the kinds of films that I prefer in both genres share the same qualities and the best offerings in both genres use similar story elements and character arcs.

Action and horror films are very similar structurally when you break them down. Generally, there is an introduction to both the hero and the villain at the beginning. The hero or protagonist will have some kind of flaw or other character drama going on in their lives to make you root for them as they go on their violent journey. The villain will be evil, but will also be kind of charming and cool at the same time. There will probably be some fighting, some random kills, and some close calls for our hero until the final fight scene or confrontation at the end where the hero (hopefully) comes out on top. I could be describing any number of horror or action films here–all this basic plot needs is a few tweaks and you could have a successful film in either genre.

Hero John McClane in Die Hard is out of his element, but still kicks butt.

Another thing that these two genres have in common is the violence. Action movies, while less gory, arguably take the win on this front, as they typically have more elaborate fight sequences, more gunplay, and more explosions than horror films, which usually feature quicker death scenes. But these elements still have to be done right to make a truly engaging film. Just like horror fans seem to prefer something practical over something computer-generated, I feel the same way about action films. For it to really be a true action flick, I want the movie to feel gritty and raw, and most importantly, real. In the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, there’s a huge fight scene in the middle of the movie between Iron Man and the Hulk. They tear through the streets and buildings, destroying everything in their path as Iron Man tries to subdue the Hulk during an epic rage. The fight goes on for a long time and there are a lot of special effects–and I was bored to tears the whole time I was watching it. I feel the same way about horror films like the Underworld series, for instance. Movies that are as effects-laden as those make me disconnect from what I’m seeing, and it becomes more about style over substance.

What does make me connect when watching either type of film is seeing real people getting into some real shit. I want to see the dust and debris fall from gunshots or explosions. I want to see real people throwing punches and getting all bloody and sweaty. I’m not knocking those aforementioned special effects at all–without them, we would not have been blessed with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But neither horror movies or action movies should feel so clean all the time. I’m sure Rob Zombie would agree with me on that. The hero or heroine should be a mess by the time it’s all over, so you can really see all that they’ve been through. The action movies of the 80s and 90s (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Speed, The Terminator, Desperado, etc.) always seemed to have that “dirty” quality to them, which makes them much more fun to watch because it makes it easier to believe that it’s really happening, and there aren’t all those constant reminders that you are watching a movie. The same is true for horror. Adding to the dirty feel of action movies, let’s not forget that they can be just as gory as horror movies sometimes. People die, and they can die very bloody deaths. The World War II tanker drama Fury has a moment that was more gory and disturbing than any of the horror films I had been watching at the time. Most recently, the mostly quiet, more character-driven western Bone Tomahawk made me literally curse out loud in one very surprising and very disgusting death scene that alone could move it into the realm of a horror film.

Rama and foe get into an epic an elaborate fight scene in a kitchen in The Raid 2.There are times, though, when you maybe don’t mind a little style over substance; when a movie may not have everything you want in terms of character development or story, but still delivers the goods anyway. The 2008 film Taken has definitely got some logistical holes in it, but I don’t care. They did the smart thing and took an actor that we already knew and loved–Liam Neeson–and just had him kicking ass all over Europe for two hours. It’s genius, and I love it. But the movie was also shot beautifully and handled with the right skill to really show off the fight sequences. However, if you want to see the best fight choreography you’ve ever seen in your life, look no further than Gareth Evans’ The Raid: Redemption. I actually prefer this film over its sequel, though The Raid 2 has just as much martial arts awesomeness in it as its predecessor. Showcasing the silat fighting style of Indonesia, The Raid is a contained action movie with some of the most amazing fight sequences for almost a straight 90 minutes and it is amazing. There are even a couple of unique kills (i.e. the staircase) which should get a horror fan’s blood pumping just as much as their beloved genre films.

I would say that the main thing that brings horror films and action films closer to the viewer’s heart is the characterization. Horror movies are always in danger of being meaningless or less powerful without a strong protagonist to lead us. Our heroes have to be able to kick ass, but they also have to be likable and engaging for the audience to watch. A good action film should also utilize this power of characterization. Peppering in a generous amount of humor, like horror movies often do, can certainly help with this. Who doesn’t love the buddy cop bromance of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys? I don’t know if Die Hard would be the beloved movie it is today if it wasn’t for John McClane and all his wise-cracking one-liners. However, it isn’t this trait alone that makes us root for him. John isn’t exactly the perfect guy to take on the skilled group of thieves who invade Nakatomi Plaza–he’s all alone and out of his element. He doesn’t even have shoes. It’s the fact that he doesn’t give up, and continues to fight and succeed at every step that makes him a hero that the audience wants to see win. His backstory with his estranged wife and the communications he has throughout the movie with Sergeant Powell on the walkie-talkie also humanize him.

The relationship of Leon and Mathilda in The Professional help to make this movie more than just a cool action flick.My absolute favorite example of excellent character exploration in an action film is Luc Besson’s 1994 masterpiece Leon: The Professional. I used to watch this movie all the time when I was younger, and always loved it because I thought it was just a cool action flick with a girl the same age as me doing cool stuff. Then when I saw it as an adult, I realized that what elevated the movie above others was the characters of Leon and Mathilda and their relationship. Jean Reno and a young Natalie Portman excel in these roles. Though they are technically criminals, or wannabe criminals (in Portman’s case), we can still see that Leon has a good heart and a strong moral code. Mathilda is the energizing life-force that brings this loner out of his shell and teaches him to love and connect with another human being again. That’s really what the story is about. The fact that this story is wrapped up in an invigorating action movie with Gary Oldman as one of the best villains ever is just icing on the cake.

So if you’re a horror fan that has maybe been avoiding action films like these, give them another shot. You’ll likely find plenty of the elements in these movies that you enjoy from your favorite horror films–plenty of violence and good gory kills, but also strong characters. The two genres really are close cousins, and should be regarded with the same level of respect.

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Written by Michele Eggen
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Michele Eggen has been writing about all things horror at her blog, The Girl Who Loves Horror, since 2010. She loves anything having to do with ghosts or the supernatural realm. Her favorite films are Poltergeist and Child's Play.
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