There are some things we expect from a certain kind of story. Nobody goes to a sports movie to see the heroes lose the big game; nobody goes to a superhero movie to see the superhero die; nobody watches a western to see John Wayne be the bad guy. But some great sports movies do have the hero lose (Rocky); some superheroes do die (Super); John Wayne can be a bad guy (or rather a complex guy, in The Searchers — though I’d say planning to kill your niece because she was hanging around with people you don’t like is not exactly a heroic choice, right?).
There are beats that must be hit in every genre, and that’s a fact that most writers simply acknowledge and live with. But we can also subvert those beats, and play with the cliches and conventions that come with the genre to create a wholly unique experience for an audience. Scream, Kingsman: the Secret Service; This is Spinal Tap. Movies that took their respective genres and completely subverted them, creating a new life all of their own.
By 1995, the slasher genre had become oversaturated and predictable. Audiences were seeing endless sequels to Halloween (six movies), Friday the 13th (nine movies), A Nightmare on Elm Street (seven movies), to name three. They were getting worse. There were no unexpected twists, no original characters, and Freddie was practically giving impromptu stand-up performances after murders. From the opening prologue and first kill to the return of the villain for one last scare, audiences had become savvy to the tricks horror wizards kept up their sleeves. Then, in 1996, Scream came along and changed the game by simply acknowledging these ‘rules’.
Just two decades earlier, Blazing Saddles simultaneously revitalized and killed the Western by essentially subverting every genre trope. It was clear to audiences that Mel Brooks had been a big fan of Westerns, poking fun at just about everything from the all-white cast to the studio production values. Kevin Williamson approached Scream in much the same way, taking the conventions and cliches of the genre and making the mockery an integral part of the plot.
Instead of desperately trying to be ‘new’, it took pleasure in mocking the ‘old’ — subverting by dismantling the genre and poking fun at it.
The simple subversion of setting a horror movie in a non-horror-movie world; of having smart characters that were savvy with the horror tropes, created a whole new experience for audiences, where anything could happen. Except the expected.
Look no further than the opening prologue — a 10-minute ratcheting of tension that every horror screenwriter should study. Taking a cue from Hitchcock’s Psycho, the audience is misled by the heavy marketing of Drew Barrymore only to see her killed off in the first scene. It was a bold moment nobody saw coming, and it became an iconic moment of cinema. This is subversion in a nutshell: set-up with the familiar, then take a sharp left turn.
Though the biggest subversion Scream made was to not follow the biggest convention of a slasher movie: one clear killer. Scream has an unknown ‘ghostface’ killer that really could be anyone, in the whole film. There is no ‘Freddy’, ’Michael’ or ‘Jason’. Just Ghostface. The movie becomes a whodunnit, actively involving the audience in a way slashers never could. Like Blazing Saddles or even Young Frankenstein, Scream made itself subversive by acknowledging the ludicrous plot elements of the genre at every turn, creating a brand new genre of its own.
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service
As a native Brit, I shamelessly adore the Bond franchise. But there are so few spy movies that subvert the tropes the 007 franchise has birthed. Obviously, we have Austin Powers, Johnny English and the criminally under-rated OSS 117 series. But those are parodies, or at the very least, Bond-alikes. Luckily, we now have Kingsman. Considering the tiny scope of the British film industry, Kingsman is a genuine feat of filmmaking. The reason, for me, that Kingsman reaches heights no other spy movie has is in its perfect tone — it feels like a 1960s Bond movie, but it’s a contemporary story of its own. Spoilers follow (Sorry!).
Let’s look at the Bond origin story for a moment — the exquisite Casino Royale (2006). When we meet Bond for the first time, he’s already polished. He speaks well, he wears suits, and he’s good at his job. Matthew Vaughn completely subverts this for Kingsman. Eggsy is a working class boy, living in a house of domestic abuse and essentially heading for a life of crime. He doesn’t wear a suit, he doesn’t speak well, and he’s really kind of a mess. This is such a basic subversion of a protagonist that we almost take it for granted. But then comes Harry Hart. Harry completely embodies the 1960s Bond archetype in every way. He speaks with an almost emotionless, yet proper, tone; always wears a sharp suit, and he appears to be a hell of an agent who cannot be taken down. But that’s where the subversion begins. Because the infallible Harry is brainwashed, kills hundreds of people and is callously murdered before the third act. This, again, is another incident of the Scream or Psycho subversion — a high-billed, well-known actor killed for misdirection.
Now, it’s here that I’m quick to elaborate that subversion does not mean killing a character as a shock tactic. The real subversion of Kingsman is that the ‘admirable’ archetype murders hundreds in a truly shocking, visceral moment. This scene alone is a masterpiece of subversion:
- Harry enters the church, it’s full of hate.
- Harry listens, then goes to leave.
- A woman won’t let him out; Harry insults her.
- Valentine and Gazelle active the SIM card signal.
- The woman pursues Harry, who turns and kills her.
- The church bursts into a murderous rage, and Harry joins in.
The scene sets us up for traditional Harry Hart — witty, but morally dignified. We, as an audience, believe he cannot be corrupted by the hate. But then he is the one that inadvertently sets off the chain of violence that leads to his death. It’s devastating, unexpected, and more violent than anything we have seen before in this world. And it makes us take note. Because it’s not Bond — it’s something else.
3. This is Spinal Tap
One of the first ‘mockumentaries’, This is Spinal Tap is the ultimate subversion of a genre that arguably is least prone to ‘cliche’. As with much of Christopher Guest’s work, it takes one particular ‘subgenre’ of documentary — here, the ‘music’ doc — and manages to sell it with such conviction that it’s easy to believe Spinal Tap is a real band (as I did when I saw them on The Simpsons).
The subversion of the Mockumentary is taking seriously the unserious. We live in a world of so many absurd, yet serious, documentaries (Tickled, for instance) that the whole documentary genre is becoming more and more comic. Spinal Tap and those that came after— Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Borat and the recent Mascots — project their ridiculous subjects with a very ‘serious’ lens, no matter how absurd the context. They gleefully showcase the beats of their respective subgenres (e.g. watching old performances in ‘music’ mockumentary A Mighty Wind; talking heads in ‘industry’ mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous; the owners talking strategy with their pets in ‘event’ mockumentary Best in Show) with satirical joy, taking the joke so seriously that to the unfamiliar, it’s real.
Like Scream and Kingsman, the writers of these mockumentaries respect their genre. You must know your genre inside and out before you can even consider subverting any expectations. But more than any other genre, comedy is entirely based around subversion.
I recently worked with a comedy producer that had a habit of comparing everything to shooting. A scene I had written wasn’t playing well and he tried to explain how comedy depends on the subversion of expectation. He said:
"Think of it like this. Your friend throws a couple discs. But your gun won’t fire. You look down the barrel, stick your finger in the end, all sorts of dangerous stuff but ultimately you decide to put it away, to check later. Getting ready to leave, you’re changing shoes but the laces are knotted together too tight. You put your shoes down by your car to find your keys and a minute later, you hear a BANG. Nobody got hurt, but the gun finally fired. You pick up your shoes to find the knot in your laces shot off, separating the shoes. But it also burst your tire."
To subvert, you must understand, respect and love your genre.
To subvert, you must establish an understanding of the genre, make the audience aware of the context and set-up, then take a sharp left turn.