Is Horror Dead at the Box Office?

Based on this article at Reuters.Com, Lucius Gore of E-Splatter.Com ponders whether the horror genre is dead at the box office, proclaiming that the slump in ticket sales is no myth and that a backlash is in full swing.

Although there is no denying that several recent horror films have underperformed, I still think this sounds a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy: while Chicken Little cries that the "sky is falling," studios will back off of making and releasing horror films, and the alleged down-turn in the genre will turn into a reality.

The concern about the strength (or lack thereof) of horror at the box office is based on ticket sales of five films released since May 6: HOUSE OF WAX ($32 Million), LAND OF THE DEAD ($20-million), DARK WATER ($23-million), HIGH TENSION ($3.6-million), and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (just over $16-million so far).

The problem with drawing conclusions from such a limited data set is that, almost inevitably, one will make generalized conclusions that ignore other factors. The first and perhaps biggest factor in this regard is that the horror genre did not provide the biggest flops this summer; that honor goes to the action-packed science-fiction flicks THE ISLAND and STEALTH. Both films had budgets in the neighborhoodof $100-million; both will end up with final domestic box office tallies in the low- to mid- $30-million range -- hardly better than HOUSE OF WAX (which cost a fraction of those pictures).

So our first conclusion should be that there is probably not a specific horror slump; rather, this summer has proven to be a disappointing one overall. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, which was supposed to be the next GLADIATOR, couldn't break $50-million domestically. The latest Disney animated film, VALIANT, made its debut in 8th place, with less than $6-million in ticket sales. DUECE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGALO, a sequel to a successful comedy hit, dropped out of the box office Top Ten in its second week (it will be lucky to reach $25-million). The star-studded BEWITCHED barely passed the $60-million mark, despite its high concept and a big advertising campaign. Even the highly regarded drama CINDERELLA MAN, which was meant to be an Oscar-contender blockbuster, was a big disappointment, with a box office total falling shy of $62-million --and I don't see anyone saying that Oscar-bait movies are dead.

The second factor to consider is that the last two successful horror movies were THE RING TWO (approximately $70-million) and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (approximately $65-million). What do both of those films have in common? They were released earlier this year -- before the summer season began. As the Reuters' article points out, horror films are, by tradition, modestly budgeted efforts that are designed to yield a high profit margin on a minimal investment. These means their advertising campaigns are relatively low-key -- so it's no surprise if a half-dozen little fright flicks get lost in the summer blockbuster season, regardless of their quality.

In this regard, particularly interesting are comments made in the Reuters article by an anonymous "studio production executive involved with one of the recent horror disappointments." (Although he's not identified further, I would guess, based on what he says, that he is talking about Universal's handling of LAND OF THE DEAD):

"They got carried away with horror films and thought that they could release them whenever. But these summer releases are being promoted by massive marketing campaigns, and if you don't do the same, you're going to get lost. The money spent on the horror films was more like a fall campaign."

Of course, the other thing to consider when discussing a so-called slump is whether any of these titles is really "underperforming" in any meaningful sense; that is, should they have done better? In the cases of most of the titles mentioned in the Reuters article, the answer is clearly "no." HOUSE OF WAX is a pretty dismal film -- basically, a piece of junk with little appeal to anyone but gore-hounds. DEVIL'S REJECTS is an attempt to turn a gang of Manson-family style misfits into anti-heroes that can carry a franchise -- something that might appeal to fans of exploitation-trash cinema but not to mainstream viewers looking for a good scare. HIGH TENSION was little more than a desperate attempt to build a buzz that no one wanted to hear: all the verbiage spilled in the press over this French thriller never articulated a clear reason why anyone should want to see the film -- especially when its champions admitted that the English-dubbing was distracting. (Even the title was merely vague and uninteresting -- by way of comparison, if I released a comedy called "Really Funny," I suspect most ticket buyers would smirk "Oh yeah?" and then go see something else).

DARK WATER was not a bad film, and it did have an Oscar-winning pedigree (in the form of star Jennifer Connelly). However, as I've pointed out endlessly, this film was pre-empted by the THE RING and, particularly, THE RING TWO -- which borrowed elements from the Japanese version of DARK WATER. By the time the American remake of DARK WATER reached screens, audiences felt as if they had seen it before -- because, more or less, they had. And it didn't help that the film downplayed its supernatural horror, turning the story into a domestic drama about divorce, with a ghost thrown in for a little thrill now and then. It's a formula that could have worked in a less competetive season -- if the film had been carefully sold to a female audience -- but during the summer, it couldn't even work as counter-programming.

The only film that truly deserved to do much better than it did was LAND OF THE DEAD. That much-awaited return to zombie territory by writer-director George Romero had the misfortune of opening in between BATMAN BEGINS and WAR OF THE WORLDS -- two of the season's biggest bockbusters. Although Romero pushed this chapter of his zombie tetra-ology a bit more into the action-adventure realm, that was not nearly enough to compete with the big guns of summer. This is a film that should have been a sleeper hit around Halloween (when it was originally scheduled to open); instead, it was carelessly thrown into the marketplace by a studio that thought the audience would show up, no matter what.

In other words, what we have seen this summer is not so much a horror slump but a glut of films that were ill-concieved and/or badly distributed. Back in the late 1990s, RINGU in Japan and THE SIXTH SENSE in America re-established horror as a vibrant, robust genre. In Asia, that inspiration continues to fuel a steam of entertaining and even sophisticated films like PHONE, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, and PREMONITION. In the U.S., the lessons have not been so well learned, outside of the fact that remaking Japanese horror films can sometimes be profitable (as in the case of THE RING and THE GRUDGE). Instead, we have a handful of no-talent schockmeisters trying to cash in on a craze by churning out garbage that is not only bad but also woefully out of date, ignoring the current trends and stylistic innovations that have made Japanese-inspired horror big business for the last few years.

One final point: Back in the early 1990s, the Hollywood trade paper Variety declared the death of horror at the box office, and we can learn a lesson from that declaration. This was at a time when SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had not only earned over $100-million at the box office; it had also recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. In order to maintain that horror was dead, critics of the genre had to ignore the film's horror content by labeling the film as a "thriller."

This summer, something similar has happened. WAR OF THE WORLDS, with a box office gross of over $200-million, is the season's second biggest hit (after REVENGE OF THE SITH). It is also a film clearly designed to terrorize and traumatize -- one might even say, horrify -- its audience. Yet because its scary monsters come from outer space, the film is classified as "science fiction," not "horror."

Let's be honest: no one went to see WAR OF THE WORLDS for its speculative rendering of a culture clash between two alien civilizations upon their first encounter. Audience went into theatres to be scared out of their wits, and the film delivered. With this in mind, it's almost ridiculous to worry that "scary" movies are on the way out, just because an obscure, dubbed French thriller about a maniac in the woods sank into oblivion. Audiences enjoy fear on the screen, and whenver possible they will manage to find it in a form that appeals to them, even if it's in the guise of a "thriller" or a "science fiction" film.

Let's hope (even if it's just wishful thinking) that Hollywood learns this lesson, and gives us some effective fear films that audiences actually want to see, released at a time when they will not be crowded out of the market place. I suspect this would prove that the reports of horror's death have been greatly exaggerated. (Now if only the slump would last long enough to put an end to the TEXAS CHAINSAW sequels and HITCHER remakes...)

1 Comments.

Posted by Anna:
I love horror movies and I have to say that I don't think it's dead at the box office. The main problem I have is that they don't make them like they used to. Most of the stuff they come out with now is just crap and I honestly wouldn't consider much of it actually "horror". And honestly, I don't see where anyone would consider House of Wax and Deep Water horror. 😮
Wednesday, August 24th 2005 @ 9:33 AM

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