SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen SINISTER or THE CONJURING, there are spoilers ahead.
There was a time just a few years ago where horror movies had seemingly lost their way. Predictable to a fault and filled with every genre cliche, filmmakers routinely put their movies on autopilot hoping to rake in the dollars. Sure, the torture porn of SAW created buzz (no pun intended) and films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY were hot, but those too lose their edge, confined to antiquated storylines and poor acting, two columns of the 80’s/90’s experience. And like a hooker, those moments were fleeting, replaced with a mess and the realization that you didn’t really enjoy yourself along the way. Yes, I did just relate hookers to horror — go figure.
Recently, a string of excellent — or at least enjoyable — horror flicks has made us wonder if the genre is finally back from near death. Let’s look at the evidence:
Smarter, More Refined Stories…and Underbudget
Recent experiences have shown a correlation between a smarter film with a much lower budget and box office success, and while that’s not always a guarantee of strong performance, check out the following list (courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo), which shows budgets and lifetime grosses from the past two years:
- THE CONJURING ($20m) – $137.4m
- INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 ($5m) – $83m
- MAMA ($15m) – $71.6m
- INSIDIOUS ($1.5m) – $54m
- SINISTER ($3m) – $48m
- ANNABELLE ($6.5m) – Guaranteed an $80m haul based on its current run
This list clearly shows that low-budget and ‘well-made’ can happily coexist. One could even make the case for THE PURGE franchise, which has made $135m on a $12m combined budget. Smart tales that meld engrossing (and frightening) historical fiction with talented casts is the formula that made each of them a financial (if not critical) success. Moreover, all of these sell the sizzle — not by dismemberment or gory sequences — but with story, making the inevitable slasher death that much more enjoyable. Directors like James Wan and Scott Derrickson understand that fright for fright’s sake is no longer appealing, and that smarter, more refined elements need to be introduced.
With movies like THE AVENGERS and BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE transforming the industry into big-budget must-see experiences, low-budget horror can be extremely profitable if it’s done right. A movie destined to turn a 10x profit will always make sense with the studios, especially if those films feature recognizable names in situations just a few steps away from people’s real experiences. With the very fabric of the Hollywood machine poised for a major makeover, those genres that survive the impending storm will need to make their impact at the bottom line. From that standpoint, horror seems perfectly capable of enduring. Romantic Comedies? Not so much.
Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with a topless cheerleader getting her head handed to her by the psychotic murderer of the month, but character development in films like SINISTER seem far more marketable. The idea of an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole experience plays out perfectly as Ethan Hawke slowly learns that both his life and that of his family are in serious danger. And when that moment comes, he’s as powerless as the last victims and those before them. Vera Farminga’s tortured character in THE CONJURING shows us that there’s an enduring cost of fighting evil, and it’s played to perfection by one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents. That sort of storytelling — mixed with requisite crime scene photos and a little bondage — feels like the right mix. Hawke’s death — and the taking of his child — makes it all the more engaging, while Farminga’s struggles make their way to the film’s ending in a way that makes it feel more realistic. That’s the sort of horror we can get behind.
There’s Still a Place for Gore, But…
The 2013 remake of EVIL DEAD was as gory as they came, and proved that audiences are still down for a rain of blood with their popcorn and soda. With its $17m budget taking home over $54m in domestic ticket sales, audiences are guaranteed to see more of these. What’s lacking is someone who can take the blood and elevate it to mainstream respectability. Perhaps someone like director David Ayer — whose film FURY is currently in theaters — can step in to give this sub-genre the polish it so desperately needs. He understands the role which blood and ultraviolence can play in telling an effective story, and others should get on board.
Gotta Move Back to Go Forward
Sure, we’re channeling a little Matthew McConaughey here, but for good reason. Horror films seem to be in a renaissance. Filled with great casts and sporting stories that play up old-school scare tactics, the genre appears poised to do more than merely entertain. With films like THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS setting the blueprint for a quality experience (at a lower cost to studios), audiences are destined to get stuck with it, particularly when they elevate themselves above the captured footage malaise of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. Call it a ‘maturing’ if you will, but horror seems ready to take the next step back to the days of THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING, reminding us that history can repeat itself, and so may the Oscars one day. In so many ways, horror’s future seems brighter than ever.