These are hard times for original horror films, particularly inside the studio system. Most horror movies that get any sort of wide release are sequels, remakes or else based on some other existing property. In 2014, spinoff-sequel Annabelle and board-game-adaptation Ouija did some of the best business in the genre, despite abysmal reception by critics and audiences alike.
Meanwhile, a well-crafted, well-received genre exercise like this year’s The Babadook barely found its way into enough arthouse theaters to make back double its measly $2 million budget. Compare that $4 million to the $255 million Annabelle raked in, and the numbers become downright depressing. But why the disconnect between quality and returns?
Horror is an especially fickle genre, where quality, budget and even promotional resources don’t ensure success. When a no-budget flick like Paranormal Activity can inexplicably become a cultural phenomenon, how can producers predict what scary movie will take off next? Hollywood’s answer, as always, is to bet on what’s worked before. As a result, non-arthouse theaters are flooded with sequels, remakes and adaptations of previously successful horror films.
Even when decent horror films do find their audience, success all but guarantees a low-grade sequel that pulls funding away from other original horror. Director James Wan comes to mind for directing respectable high-budget horror like The Conjuring and Insidious, only to have them inspire unlikely cash-grab spin-offs, and that’s not even to mention the unending torture porn franchise spawned by his Saw.
Admittedly, the sequel problem isn’t new or unique to horror, but it does hurt this niche genre more than it hurts, say, superhero films. Horror movies are designed first and foremost to scare, and scares rely on the unfamiliar. Unfamiliar unfortunately doesn’t fly in Hollywood, where producers count on tried-and-true formulas to ensure a return on their investment.
It’s fine for studios to worry about their pocketbooks, but the results are underwhelming when the scariest monsters turn into something familiar and therefore boring. Ask Jason Vorhees, or Freddie Kruger, or Michael Myers. No Halloween sequel or reboot, no matter how much backstory is heaped on, can quite equal the terror of that unstoppable masked murderer in the 1979. Michael Myers was at his most unfamiliar and unknowable and therefore, his most terrifying.
Halloween at least had enough success to spawn a franchise, however diminishing the returns, but The Babadook never had the chance. And why not? Though it is an Australian import (which shouldn’t matter—it’s still English after all), the film could have been a smash if Hollywood gave it the chance. True, the film traffics in metaphor more than your average haunted house-flick, but the classic-but-still-terrifying boogeyman conceit should have been easy to sell.
Again, it comes down to the unusual mechanics of horror as a genre notorious for hit-and-miss output. Notorious among audiences for inconsistent quality, and notorious among financers for inconsistent box office receipts. Even with decent promotion, it’s easy to go wrong, as was the case for 2013’s You’re Next. A solid home invasion thriller, You’re Next got its fair share of appropriately cryptic and creepy advertising and easily made back its low budget and then some. With it assured direction and unusually faithful promotion, courtesy of Lionsgate, it deserved more—certainly more than Ouija.
Like any worthwhile final girl, horror will stay alive. It’s a cheap genre and what’s more, it’s one that speaks to some basic human desire to be frightened, to be disturbed. Independent studios and filmmakers continue to crank out quality horror each year, but few manage to see them during their limited runs at limited theaters. Fascinating and frightening films like The Babadook, or this year’s upcoming It Follows, deserve releases beyond what the average independent distributor can offer, so they can disturb us and change the way we think about horror. A genre needs change. Without it, mainstream horror will continue to flounder under the weight of so many recycled sequels and tired tropes and uninspired jump scares.
The problem may not be new, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Producers respond to results, and positive results come when movie fans like you and me pay the ticket price to see interesting horror films instead of recycled reboots that substitute familiarity for genuine horror.
There are plenty of great horror directors and trends coming into their own—Ti West (The Sacrament), Michael Flanagan (Oculus), and David Robert Mitchell (the upcoming It Follows) come to mind. They’re doing their part, and average audiences like us need to do ours by seeking out the local hole-in-the-wall theater that shows these films, making sure quality horror doesn’t just survive, but thrive.
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