How horror became Hollywood’s safe bet in a scary box office climate

Zach Cregger’s ‘Barbarian’ film has already had to be brought back from the dead once – by film company New Regency after its funding collapsed before production began.

So the actor-turned-director was adamantly not expecting a theatrical release for his twisted horror flick when he finished shooting it in Bulgaria. But unbeknownst to him, executives at the Walt Disney Co., which releases the New Regency films, had seen “Barbarian” at an early screening in Long Beach and thought it was good for the big screen.

The $4.5 million film, about a young woman who finds himself double-booked with a strange man in a rental houseended up opening at No. 1 at the box office and eventually grossed over $40 million in ticket sales.

“I thought, best-case scenario, I could get it on a streaming platform that would get enough attention that someone would let me do another movie in the future,” Cregger said. “So the idea that he had this amazing life as a theatrical movie…I honestly didn’t dare dream something like that.”

The film is another prime example of the horror genre’s resounding success this year, and why some see it as a rare bulwark against the takeover of Hollywood by superhero movies and other action movies. sprawling.

Yes, horror has long enjoyed a loyal following. But 2022 has proven to be a particularly commercially strong year for scary movies, producing hits such as Universal Pictures’ and Blumhouse’s “The Black Phone,” directed by Scott Derrickson ($160 million in box sales). global office); “No,” by Jordan Peele ($171 million); and Paramount Pictures’ “Scream” ($140 million).

Most recently, “Smile,” which was planned as a straight-to-stream release until Paramount saw reaction from test audiences, spent two weekends at No. 1 in the United States and Canada and garnered 169 million worldwide so far. Even “Halloween Ends,” the poorly-reviewed third installment in Michael Myers’ latest reboot series, grossed $84 million worldwide on a $33 million production budget, and that was when it was. also aired on Peacock.

A24’s intoxicating brand of horror also added momentum, with “X” by Ti West, its sequel “Pearl” and the Gen Z satire “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” all of which received critical acclaim while doing strong business compared to many other independent films.

The series of high-quality, profitable horror films has captured the attention of audiences and studios alike, especially as romantic comedies, R-rated comedies, dramas and original action films – “Sunday of Easter,” “Bros,” “Ambulance,” all duds — are struggling to convince moviegoers they need to be seen on the big screen, especially without the A-list movie stars. It’s a change that was happening long before the coronavirus outbreaks and has been accelerated by closures. Horror has been a rare safe bet for studios as the box office as a whole has struggled to recover from the pandemic.

C. Robert Cargill, who co-wrote the screenplay for “The Black Phone” based on a short story by Joe Hill, attributes a confluence of factors that have built over the past decade: greater acceptance of horror by the general public, the embrace of Latinos in the genre, the critical recognition of films like “The Witch” and “It Follows” and the resounding success of films such as Warner Bros.’ “This.” This all came to a head during the pandemic, when it was simply easier to make horror films on a smaller scale than other genres.

Mia Goth in “Pearl”.

(Christopher Moss / A24)

“Horror is the last remaining genre that doesn’t need IP to succeed and doesn’t need big names or big budgets to succeed,” Cargill said. “It gets around all the problems that Hollywood usually has with making movies and getting them out to audiences. And we’re just getting this moment where horror dominates and in a way that’s going to open the door for it to be a major force in the community.

There are multiple explanations for the enduring appeal of horror in theaters. The first is that fears are felt best in a darkened room, with minimal distractions, and in a group setting.

“Horror stands out in relief compared to others [genres] as an experience people dream of,” said Abhijay Prakash, Chairman of Blumhouse. “They want to have a common experience, and the resilience of the genre has just been confirmed by the performance.”

Another is that horror movies allow viewers to identify with the characters and reflect on how they would react under threatening circumstances. One of the movies that helped reopen theaters during the pandemic was “A Quiet Place Part II,” a film with a conceit that thrived on the experience of having a rapt, quiet crowd.

“It allows for a more participatory experience for the audience,” said Mike Ireland, co-head of Paramount Motion Picture Group.

Horror also lends itself to marketing ploys that work well on social media, with marketers grabbing iconography from movies.

Close-up of a woman with a wide annoying smile and a scar

Caitlin Stasey in the movie “Smile”.

(Paramount Pictures)

For Paramount marketing executives, it was obvious that the signature image in “Smile”, of a person smiling menacingly at the camera, should anchor the marketing campaign. To promote the film, they sent actors to baseball games to creepy smile in the stands hoping to go viral. The first attempt didn’t work because it wasn’t clear what was happening. The company adjusted its tactics and again sent in actors, this time wearing yellow “Smile” t-shirts.

“It’s great when you have a really well-made, fun horror movie, because it just allows you to be creative in marketing it,” said Marc Weinstock, president of marketing and distribution for Paramount Pictures.

For risk-averse studios, horror movies are also attractive because they’re usually made on low budgets.

This in turn allows filmmakers, especially up-and-coming writers and directors, to take creative risks. Filmmakers have been more inclined to imbue their films with metaphors about deep societal and personal issues, while entertaining moviegoers.

The issues of heartbreak and gaslighting (think of the woman in the haunted house that no one in town believes) have always been implied in scary movies. The original “Godzilla” was basically a long metaphor for nuclear peril, and George A. Romero used zombies for social commentary.

In recent years, these monster-as-metaphor themes have increasingly appeared in horror films, as evidenced by Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook”. and perfected by Peele with “Get out” and “We”.

“If you want to make a touching film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, it’s hard to get people into the theater,” Cargill said. “But if this struggle with mental illness takes the form of the Babadook and tries to convince her to kill her own child, all of a sudden the audience is like, Oh, I’m going to buy a ticket for this.”

Horror has gone through boom and bust cycles before. There was a wave of slasher in the late 70s and 80s, followed by a boom due to the popularity of home video which made it easier for movies to recoup their budget. But it also brought a glut of cheap schlock that sent the genre into a slump until ‘Scream’ brought back slashers in 1996, followed by ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and the torture-porn explosion. with “Saw” and “Hotel.”

Cargill fears studios will learn the wrong lessons from the current horror renaissance and simply start churning out ugly movies just because they can feature a creepy face on the poster, like ‘The Black Phone’ and ‘Smile’ have done it.

“My main concern now is that we don’t allow the studios to run wild and destroy this beautiful thing that we have all of a sudden,” Cargill said. “We need to make sure that we continue to focus on entertainment and quality, and that’s the one thing I think we need to think about when we talk about the period we’re in right now.”

Kimberly B. Nguyen