Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Movies That Created Entirely New Genres

Cave paintings. Greek theater. The Bible. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Jane Austen. Steven Spielberg. At this point, humans have been telling stories for over 40,000 years. If you can think of an idea, it's probably been done—more than once.

And yet, occasionally, a filmmaker stumbles on something brand new. Sometimes, they simply borrow disparate elements from different movies, and that fusion ends up being more than the sum of its parts. Other times, a writer or director decides to rebel against Hollywood, creating a new format that reacts to but isn't actually part of the system.

Most of the time, however, birthing a whole new type of film isn't the goal. Most filmmakers just want to tell good stories, novel or not. If a new genre emerges as a result? So much the better.

Spies (1928)

A handsome secret agent identified by his number. A gorgeous female sidekick with a checkered past. An evil mastermind who oversees a global crime syndicate. A femme fatale who uses sex to get what she wants. High-tech gadgets. Elaborate death traps. Questionable ethnic stereotypes.

If you think you know who we're talking about, guess again. A quarter century before Casino Royale introduced Ian Fleming's martini-guzzling James Bond to the world, and 35 years before 007 made his big screen debut in Dr. No, German director Fritz Lang made Spione (or Spies), a silent film that contains pretty much all the trappings of the modern spy adventure. In Spies, Number 326 must find and stop Haghi, a high-ranking bank executive who's secretly trying to steal a top-secret Japanese treaty. What unfolds is a globetrotting adventure filled with plot twists, betrayals, and a healthy dose of seduction. So, you know. Spy stuff.

While Spies isn't the first movie to feature secret agents—that's probably 1913's O.H.M.S., which, yes, does actually stand for "On Her Majesty's Service"—it was the first to introduce the pulpy, over-the-top elements that've made franchises like Bond, Mission: Impossible, Austin Powers, and the Bourne movies so popular. And while there's no evidence that Fleming knew anything about Spies when he created fiction's most famous secret agent, given the similarities, it's hard to imagine that he didn't—at the very least, he was almost certainly aware of some of its immediate successors, including British Agent and Notorious.

Halloween (1978)

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has a lot of slashing (that's hard to avoid, given that Mother Bates' weapon of choice is a kitchen knife) and its infamous shower scene is one of the greatest horror moments in movie history, but it isn't really a slasher flick. The body count is low—while Norman Bates has a blood-soaked backstory, there are only two murders in the film itself—and, structurally, the plot is a crime story and then a murder mystery. It's scary, but it's not really horror.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas have most of the hallmarks of a traditional slasher movie, but for our money, the movie that brought everything together was Halloween. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween stars a masked killer (Michael Myers) hunting down a group of teens, and pushed the limits of what could be shown onscreen.

But a slasher movie isn't really about the killer—it's about the victims and punishing them for their transgressions. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sally, Franklin, and the rest of the gang are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Halloween, Annie is murdered after she shirks her babysitting duties and heads out to meet her boyfriend. Bob and Lynda die after having sex (and enjoying a post-coitus alcoholic beverage). Meanwhile, Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie, the first real "final girl" in slasher movie history, survives. After all, she didn't do anything wrong.

There's a lot of Psycho in Halloween's DNA (quite literally: Psycho star Janet Leigh is Jamie Lee Curtis' mom), but under John Carpenter's direction, the slasher movie gained its skewed sense of morality, and that's what really informed the flicks that followed. Need more proof? Just check out Scream and Cabin in the Woods, which follow Halloween's basic template while simultaneously tearing it into tiny, bloody pieces.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

1999's The Blair Witch Project might've been the movie that made found-footage horror popular, but it wasn't the first. Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato, came out all the way back in 1980.

In Cannibal Holocaust, an anthropologist heads to the Amazon to hunt down a missing documentary film crew. As the title implies, what he finds isn't very pretty. While the filmmakers themselves are dead, an indigenous tribe called the Yacumo have their film, which they trade to the anthropologist after he gives them a tape recorder and joins them for some good old-fashioned cannibalism.

Naturally, the film is full of grotesque footage, including multiple rapes, dismemberments, corpse mutilations, and at least one beheading (in addition to actual footage of animals getting slaughtered). It's not just the Yacumo who partake in violence, either: in order to make a more compelling (if completely false) documentary, the young director commits a number of truly disturbing acts. It's viscerally gory and looks very, very real.

Too real, maybe. Like The Blair Witch Project, the studio promoted Cannibal Holocaust as if its found footage was completely legit, and kept the actors from appearing in any other projects for about a year. Unfortunately, that led many viewers to believe Deodato had literally killed people, and he was arrested for obscenity, animal cruelty, and murder. In order to clear his name of that last charge (he was found guilty of the first two), Deodato had to bring all of the "deceased" actors into court and explain, under oath, exactly how all the special effects were made. That sucks, but hey, at least Cannibal Holocaust is a lot more exciting than an hour and a half of entitled white kids running through the woods.

Godzilla (1954)

Sometimes, you get it right the first time. Godzilla has almost everything you want in a kaiju movie: a man dressed in a rubber suit, masquerading as a giant monster; the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (or some sci-fi variant thereof) portrayed as the toughest, most technologically advanced military organization on the planet; some iffy science; lots and lots (and lots) of destruction. In fact, the only staple of the genre that isn't present in Godzilla's first outing is a brawl with another giant monster—that wouldn't happen until the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, when Godzilla went one-on-one with Anguirus, a time-lost dinosaur.

While Godzilla was inspired by American films, including King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, don't be fooled: despite Hollywood's best efforts, it's almost impossible to separate kaiju from Japanese culture, and it's been that way since the very beginning. While later Godzilla movies became campier and campier, the first movie plays the action decidedly straight—the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred less than ten years before Godzilla premiered, after all, and as such the movie is downright scary. Later kaiju films might have softened their tone, but that sense of foreboding apocalypse, and the idea that nature will always strike back when humanity pushes itself too far, never went away. Those themes are even more important to the kaiju genre than rubber suits, and they're front and center in the very first kaiju film ever made.

While Godzilla: King of the Monsters!—the international version of the movie which includes extra scenes featuring American actor Raymond Burr—is more of a typical Hollywood monster movie, one viewing of Godzilla makes it clear why the series has produced over 25 entries during the past 60-plus years (to say nothing of a slew of imitators, including the excellent mid-'90s Gamera trilogy).

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero didn't invent zombies. The word's been around since at least 1819, when it generally referred to characters from Haitian folklore, in which sorcerers would take bodies, living or dead, and transform them into mindless slaves. In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, which tells the story of two lovers caught between a voodoo priest with the on-the-nose name of Murder Legendre and a lecherous plantation owner. In King of the Zombies (1941), a pilot crash lands in the Caribbean and stumbles on a voodoo ritual in a rich man's basement.

But George Romero wasn't trying to make a zombie film, either. In both Night of the Living Dead's screenplay and its final cut, the monsters are referred to as "ghouls." There's no mention of voodoo or Haiti at all. In fact, Romero says he thought he was doing something "completely different," drawing more on influences like Frankenstein, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, and H.P. Lovecraft stories like Herbert West–Reanimator than zombie fiction. After all, Romero notes, traditional zombies didn't eat flesh or spread their infection by biting the living. In fact, he says, "The traditional Haitian voodoo zombie...is not dead. And I thought I was doing something completely new by having the dead rise."

But for whatever reason, people started calling Romero's undead creatures zombies, and it stuck—and these creatures, whatever you want to call them, are decidedly Romero's creation. Treating the undead's resurrection like a plague? The brain-focused cannibalism? The disease spreading through bites, or the shambling, apocalyptic hordes? That's all Romero's doing, and if you liked Zombieland or The Walking Dead or World War Z or the hundreds of other zombie-related shows and movies out there, he's the man to thank.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

Blaxploitation is complicated. On one hand, many of the genre's films celebrate African American culture (particularly its music) and depict strong and capable black men and women fighting back—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—against an oppressive system. On the other, many blaxploitation films (which were, in cases like Coffy and Mandingo, directed and produced by white men) reduce their characters to a series of tropes, perpetuating the same stereotypes that the genre is supposed to fight. After all, it's exploitation for a reason.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, an independent production that's considered the first real blaxploitation movie, embodied those problems from the very beginning. Written, directed, produced, edited, and scored by filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, it tells the story of a poor black man who's framed for murder and on the run from police. Many critics, especially black ones, loved Sweet Sweetback's rebellious attitude and his focus on the black community, and praised the film's raging sexuality, which was a complete reversal after decades of asexual black characters in traditional Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was a box office success, and provided a roadmap for black filmmakers who wanted to work outside the prejudiced Hollywood system.

On the other hand, some black critics criticized the film for glorifying poverty, and complained that the movie's sex scenes (Sweet Sweetback solves many of his problems with his girthy sexual "gifts") objectified both black men and black women. Either way, it's easy to see why Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song kicked off an entire genre: problems aside, it's an emphatic statement, and the movie oozes a seductive confidence. It's almost impossible to leave the theater without wanting more.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Comedy existed long before It Happened One Night, but it never looked quite like this. Oh, sure, the film's basic formula had been around since at least Shakespeare: a man and a woman fall for each other, but increasingly ridiculous circumstances keep them apart until their love triumphs over all obstacles, no matter how absurd. Slapstick was a staple of both vaudeville and early silent cinema, including those featuring superstars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Sex has always been funny.

But It Happened One Night didn't just borrow from what came before—it tied it together with gender equality, creating the screwball comedy in the process. The man and the woman are both strong, motivated characters, making each half of the couple a worthy adversary in addition to a romantic partner. The push and pull between the lead duo is where It Happened One Night derives much of its tension, and it influenced countless films that followed, including Bringing Up Baby, Some Like it Hot, and When Harry Met Sally.

Of course, it helps that It Happened One Night is also really, really good. Claudette Colbert was a perfect match for Clark Gable, and together the two pretty much set the bar for screen couples. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed: It Happened One Night won all five Oscars it was nominated for, including both Best Actor trophies, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.

The Wild One (1953)

Before Elvis rocked jailhouses around the country, and before James Dean rebelled without a cause, Marlon Brando set the standard for '50s cool. As Johnny Strabler, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, Brando is stylishly disobedient and seductively dangerous, and he redeems The Wild One's ridiculous plot and thin characters with charisma alone.

Given Brando's performance, it's easy to see why a string of imitators popped up in The Wild One's wake, eventually coming together to form the pulpy outlaw biker genre that'd birth exploitation classics like The Hellcats, The Wild Angels and informed later projects like Mad Max and Sons of Anarchy. The movie's reputation helped, too. Loosely based on a true story, The Wild One begins with a warning—the opening crawl claims it's "a shocking story" and warns that preventing this type of gang-on-gang combat is a "public challenge"—that succinctly sets up the movie's appeal: you're going to see bad things happen, and despite your best instincts, you're going to enjoy it.

Ultimately, The Wild One was censored or banned in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, where authorities worried that "the very real problem of burgeoning juvenile delinquency, and a seemingly increasing lack of respect for authority, could only be aggravated by young people seeing this film." Today, The Wild One carries a PG rating, but for years, it was considered dangerous, and that set the tone for the flood of biker films that followed. Very few of The Wild One's progeny feature actors as magnetic as Brando. They don't need it. As it turns out, watching anarchic violence, unrepentant outlaws, and generally thumbing your nose at authority is fun all on its own.

Rock Around the Clock (1956)

Rock Around the Clock wasn't supposed to pioneer a whole new genre. It was just a marketing stunt. As the story goes, Bill Haley and His Comets' "Rock around the Clock" played over the opening credits of the drama Blackboard Jungle and became an instant hit. In order to capitalize on Haley's success—and help introduce teens to this newfangled rock and roll thing—producer Sam Katzman rushed Rock Around the Clock, which features a handful of Haley's songs (including the title track, played three times during the movie), as well as tracks by artists like the Platters and Tony Martinez.

As a movie, well, you've probably seen this one before. Rock Around the Clock tells the story of an obscure band (Bill Haley and His Comets themselves) and their dedicated manager, chronicling their rise from obscurity to worldwide superstars (there's also a disposable love triangle between the manager, played by Johnny Johnston, Haley's fictional manager as portrayed by Lisa Gaye, and Alix Talton's conniving agent). The story is thin and contains no surprises.

But the plot isn't important. Rock Around the Clock was designed to capitalize on the music, and on that front, it succeeds. When the film hit London, the teenage audience took the aisles and danced along with the film, leading theater owners to cut the number of screenings. After it played in Norway, teens took the streets, clamoring for "more rock!"

In short, Rock Around the Clock proved popular music could prop up a flimsy plot and a threadbare budget—a formula Katzman used again and again when he produced a number of Elvis Presley's rock-fueled features, including Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. The Girl Can't Help It, Go, Johnny Go, and Rock, Rock, Rock owe their existence to Rock Around the Clock, as do other, more sophisticated—or at least more self-aware—movies like This is Spinal Tap!, The Blues Brothers, The Commitments, and That Thing You Do.