Top 10 Dark Movie Themes [To Keep You Up All Night!] | Script Revolution

Top 10 Dark Movie Themes [To Keep You Up All Night!]

Introduction: 

You might want to sit down and get comfortable for this insightful blog by Neil Chase, but don't get too comfortable because the topic is going to get under your skin. Dark themes aren't exclusive to horrors or thrillers, they're part of everyday life, so don't skip this one thinking it isn't for you. Detailing a lot about the craft itself and providing helpful examples, Neil goes to remarkable trouble here to list what he feels are the top ten dark themes that can be leveraged to help make a resounding story - CJ

If you’re looking for dark movie themes that will keep your audience on the edge of their seats, look no further.

I’ve compiled a list of some of the most powerful dark movie themes out there. These themes can be used in any genre, so they’re perfect for any screenwriter looking to add suspense and intrigue to their screenplay.

Use these dark movie themes to create a truly unforgettable film experience for your audience. Keep reading to learn more about powerful dark movie themes for your next screenplay!

What is a Dark Theme?

A dark theme is a work of fiction (usually a movie, but sometimes a book or video game) with a sinister, often tragic, story. It is often about characters with corrupt or damaged psyches, bleak backgrounds, struggle with mental illness, or those who battle inner demons.

Dark themes can also be present in stories with more lighthearted plots; for example, a comedy film might have a dark subplot about illness or addiction.

While dark themes can be found in all film genres, they are particularly common in horror, suspense movies, and dramas.

In general, dark themes are meant to evoke strong emotions in the viewer, such as fear, sadness, or anger. They can also be used to explore deep character flaws and human nature. While some people find dark themes depressing, others find them compelling and thought-provoking.

What is The Difference Between A Theme and Subject Matter in a Film?

A film's theme is its central idea or message - it is the why. On the other hand, the subject matter is the stories and events that the film portrays - it is the what.

While the subject matter may be based on actual events, the theme is usually a message that the filmmakers want to communicate to the audience. For example, a film about a group of friends who go on a road trip may have a theme of friendship and adventure. The subject matter of the film would be the actual road trip itself.

To effectively communicate its premise, a film must have both strong subject matter and a well-defined theme. Otherwise, the audience will likely be confused about what the film is trying to say.

What Are the Top Ten Dark Themes in Movies?

Dark themes can add a sense of depth and complexity to a work, giving it greater emotional resonance. However, they can also be challenging for audiences to watch. As such, filmmakers must tread carefully when working with darker material.

Let's look at the top ten darker themes in popular films and discuss the best examples of each.

Power

When it comes to dark themes in movies, power is definitely one of the most common.

There are countless examples of films that explore the dark side of power, whether it's corrupt government officials, ruthless business tycoons, or even everyday people who abuse their power.

The theme of power is so popular because it's something that everyone can relate to. We all have had experiences with people in positions of power who have abused their authority, and we all know how destructive that can be.

The best movies about power explore how it can go wrong, and they help us understand the temptation to abuse our power. By shining a light on the darkness of power, these movies help us to stay alert and prevent ourselves from succumbing to its darker impulses.

A great example of this theme is found in The Godfather 2 (1974), which tells the parallel stories of the rise to power of Michael Corleone and his father, Vito, within the Italian Mafia in New York.

Vito's story details how he came from nothing as an orphaned immigrant child to the head of the Corleone crime family in the 1920s. Michael's story, by contrast, tells of the extreme lengths he must go through to solidify his place as Vito's successor in the 1950s.

Revenge

The theme of revenge is popular in movies, particularly in the dark genre. This is because revenge is such a powerful emotion that it can drive people to do terrible things.

In some ways, revenge is the ultimate act of violence. When someone has been wronged, they often feel like they have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands and exact vengeance.

This desire for retribution can consume someone and lead them down a dark path. As a result, revenge is often a source of great conflict and drama in movies. It is also a theme that audiences can easily relate to, as everyone has experienced some form of injustice at some point in their lives.

As such, the theme of revenge is both popular and complex, making it perfect for dark film genres.

As Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) underscores, this theme isn't restricted to a specific genre.

The sci-fi classic tells the tale of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew facing off against the genetically engineered tyrant Khan Noonien Singh, who has escaped a 15-year exile to exact revenge on Kirk by stealing a planetary terraforming device and a starship. Khan is so driven by vengeance he essentially turns his back on sure victory for the chance to defeat Kirk once and for all, and in doing so, ensures his own destruction.

Death

Death is a popular theme in movies, especially in the horror and thriller genres. Why do audiences love to watch films exploring human nature's fatalistic side?

One theory is that it allows us to confront our fears in a safe environment. By watching characters face terrifying situations, we can vicariously experience the thrill of fear without actually being in danger.

In addition, films that deal with death often have a sense of catharsis, providing a release for the pent-up emotions that come from living in a safe and orderly society. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that death is a powerful and popular movie theme.

A surprisingly heartwarming take on this theme can be found in Meet Joe Black (1998), wherein successful business mogul Bill Parrish is visited by Death itself, taken human form in a young man who recently died, and calling himself Joe Black.

Joe and Bill make a deal to postpone Bill's impending death so that Joe can spend a few days learning what it's like to be human while Bill gets his affairs in order. The story drives home the idea that though we can't evade death, we can make the most of the time we have and focus on the people in our lives that matter the most.

War

The theme of war is a good choice for filmmakers looking to explore the darker side of human nature.

On the surface, war movies tend to focus on battle's physical and emotional hardships, but many also explore the psychological toll that war can take on those who fight.

For example, the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) depicts the brutal reality of warfare in World War II, depicted in graphic detail, but it also shows the bonds created by strangers thrown together to fight on the same side and the lengths they will go through to protect one another. Furthermore, this film successfully illustrates how such a prolonged and traumatic experience can haunt soldiers long after they return home.

In addition to exploring the dark side of human nature, war movies often serve as an allegory for current events. The Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now (1979), is a prime blueprint of this, as it uses the conflict to comment on America's changing role in the world and how the soldiers themselves were viewed - and viewed themselves - differently than their predecessors.

Whether based on true stories or fictionalized accounts, war movies have a unique ability to entertain and enlighten audiences from many different perspectives.

Destruction

One of the top themes in dark films is destruction. This theme is often used to add suspense or create a feeling of hopelessness. It can also be used to show the characters' journey from a state of innocence to one of experience.

In many cases, destruction is used as a metaphor for the end of innocence or the beginning of a new era. It can also show the fragility of our world and how the simplest of actions, or even words, can lead to utter ruin.

One of the best examples of this is the dark comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), in which an Air Force General goes insane and sends a squadron of bombers to destroy the Soviet Union.

Satirizing Cold War fears and prejudices of the time, the film explores the fine line between patriotism and pragmatism and how blindly following orders can result in cataclysm. The movie also shows how a story created for humor and entertainment can also teach valuable lessons when told well.

Consequently, destruction is a powerful tool that can be used to convey a variety of messages in films.

Corruption

Corruption is such a familiar and relatable human experience. We have all experienced being cheated, lied to, or taken advantage of, and we can all understand the desire for power and control.

Movies that explore the theme of corruption often do so through the lens of crime and punishment, as corrupt characters are brought to justice by an incorruptible force. This can provide a satisfying sense of closure for audiences, who feel satisfaction at seeing justice served.

The theme of corruption can also be used to explore the darker side of human nature, as we see characters succumbing to greed, lust, and violence.

This is illustrated well in the crime thriller Training Day (2001), which follows two LAPD narcotics officers, Jake and Alonzo, over the course of a 24-hour period in the gang-ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

While Jake is the by-the-book newcomer, hoping to effect positive change in the world around him, Alonzo is the world-weary veteran, ready to bend and break the very laws he is sworn to protect, as he has long since given up on bettering anything more than his own position. The contrast in personalities and outlooks underscores both the seductive and destructive effects of corruption in our world.

Disillusionment/Loss of innocence

The theme of disillusionment, or loss of innocence, is a popular theme in dark movies.

This theme can be seen in films like The Dark Knight (2008), The Godfather (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976). In these films, the protagonists face the dark reality of their world. They must confront the corruption and violence in society and often make tough choices with moral implications.

As a result of their experiences, the protagonists become jaded and cynical. They may lose their faith in humanity, and they may become willing to use morally questionable methods.

However, one of the best examples is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), wherein young Scout Finch and her brother, Jem, experience a loss of innocence through witnessing their father, Atticus, defend an innocent black man accused of a terrible crime in 1930s small-town Alabama.

While they become understandably disillusioned with the inherent racism and injustice of their world, their father's bravery and strong moral compass serves to underscore that good people still exist, and that truth is always worth fighting for.

The films that explore this theme often end on a note of hope, with the protagonists finding a way to overcome their disillusionment and envision a better future.

Prejudice

Prejudice is defined as an unjustified negative attitude toward an individual or group, usually because of their membership in a particular social category. Prejudice can be based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics.

The theme of prejudice is one of the most popular dark themes in movies. Movies about prejudice often explore how bigotry and discrimination can lead to violence and conflict. They also examine the psychological effects of prejudice on both the victims and the perpetrators.

Prejudice is a dark and complex theme, but it can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about the dangers of intolerance.

A great case in point is found in American History X (1998), about Derek, a young skinhead who is jailed for killing two black men trying to steal his car.

While in prison, he's confronted with the harsh and ugly reality of the group he's allied himself with, and vows to change his ways upon his release. But with his younger brother following in his previous footsteps, Derek tries to undo a lifetime of hate in order to save what's left of his family.

Greed

Greed is a powerful emotion that can drive people to commit acts of great evil. It is no surprise, then, that the theme of greed is one of the most popular dark themes in movies.

From classic tales like Citizen Kane (1941) to modern thrillers like There Will Be Blood (2007), filmmakers have used the theme of greed to explore the dark side of human nature.

The allure of wealth and power can lead even the most upstanding person astray, and the desire for more can have disastrous consequences. By shining a light on the destructive power of greed, movies can serve as a warning against its dangers.

There are few better stories to illustrate this than the Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a biographical comedic thriller about Jordan Belfort's meteoric rise to riches in the 1990s by defrauding wealthy investors out of millions.

This film depicts Jordan's hedonistic excesses, not only regarding money, but also sex, drugs, and other ills, which all spiral out of control. In the end, the lack of restraint proves his undoing as his dream of wealth and pleasure comes crashing down in reality.

Whether concerning money or power or even lust, at their best, movies can help us understand the darkness lurking within us all.

Pride

Pride is a popular dark theme in movies because it is an emotion that most people can relate to. Everyone has experienced pride at some point in life, whether it is feeling proud of themselves or someone else.

While pride is often seen as a positive emotion, it can also lead to negative consequences. For instance, someone might become too proud of their accomplishments and believe they are better than others. This can lead to arrogance and a sense of entitlement, which can ultimately result in that person losing everything they have worked for.

As such, pride is a complex and nuanced emotion that provides filmmakers with plenty of material to explore.

While there are many examples of physical vanities, such as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and Mean Girls (2004), a great choice for unchecked ego and pride comes from Scarface (1983), wherein Cuban refugee and small-time criminal, Tony Montana, rises to the top of a Miami drug cartel.

Fueled by an insatiable appetite for money and power, his pride proves his undoing, as he comes to believe so thoroughly in his own superiority that he becomes his own worst enemy.

Conclusion: Dark Movie Themes

While it's certainly morbid, audiences can't seem to get enough of watching movies with darker themes.

Whether it be greed, power, revenge, death, or war, these films explore the darker side of human nature and often offer a more complex and interesting story than your average light-hearted entertainment.

If you're looking for a new twist on a movie night with friends or family, consider checking out one of the many great films that explore these dark themes.

About The Author

Neil Chase's picture
Real name: 

Neil Chase is a published author and produced screenwriter. He started his career as an unfulfilled engineer but found his true passion in writing and filmmaking.

Neil has won over 100 international awards for his writing and filmmaking, including the prestigious FilmMaker’s International Screenwriting Grand Prize Award & the ScreamFest Best Screenplay Award. His directorial-debut feature film, Spin The Wheel,...Read more

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