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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
We really are in the midst of a horror movie renaissance. It seems like every month these days there’s a new one released in theaters, and many have opened to high box office takes and surprisingly strong reviews. Much like comedy, however, horror is something completely subjective. What is scary to some often isn’t scary to others. Additionally, horror is very contextual, and often also cultural (remember all those Japanese horror remakes in the mid-2000s? Yeah, none of them were scary). An action movie or a romantic comedy are much more easily quantifiable. Do explosions go boom throughout? Probably an action movie, and probably entertaining if competently done. Does the once-arrogant guy who learns his lesson get the girl who lets down her ponytail and takes off her glasses and thus becomes beautiful? Romantic comedy, my friend. And so forth. Horror just doesn’t work as easily in the same manner, and is also much easier to screw up.
Horror movies are almost universally known for being some of the schlockiest, stupidest shit out there. There are often untold numbers of bad sequels and direct-to-video crap shot on a budget that could otherwise have purchased a decent used car. Horror movies also rarely break out in the box office, and when they do, they tend to suffer mammoth drops in subsequent weeks. While it is true that some horror films are among the most profitable movies ever released (such as The Blair Witch Project), the amount of horror that truly breaks out remains considerably low, especially when compared to action movies and star-studded romances. 2013 has seen a few horror breakout hits, however, and yet a few more remain on the schedule for release in the near future. Something about the recently released horror films have clicked with audiences, and something tells me the horror films left on the schedule have this potential as well.
The early winter horror release Mama grossed over a hundred and forty million dollars worldwide against a miniscule budget of only 15 million dollars. A Universal Pictures production, Mama rode the success of star Jessica Chastain (who had recently received massive Oscar notice for Zero Dark Thirty) and to a lesser extent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who has gained attention due to his role on HBO’s Game of Thrones) into a leggy horror hit. Mama debuted to decent reviews as well, garnering a 66% approval rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes – much higher than a large majority of horror releases. The film also had the backing of noted director and producer Guillermo del Toro, who invested in the project after the success of the Spanish-language short film Mama is based on. The PG-13 rating for Mama contributed to such a good box office run as well, as it was accessible to a large audience.
The low-budget Ethan Hawke horror/thriller The Purge was released in June to poor critical evaluation but robust box office numbers, becoming another surprise hit for Universal. The film was produced for just a few million dollars, mere pennies compared to the expensive budgets behind films like After Earth, Man of Steel, and World War Z (three mega-budgeted features all released around the same time as The Purge). The film went on to gross about 65 million dollars domestically, making it one of the most profitable films of the summer when budgets are taken into account. The R-rated feature drew in fans for its controversial subject matter – the legalization of all crime for one evening per year. A simple premise and the promise of mayhem is sometimes all a movie needs. The Purge is the prime example of how to market to a specific fan base. Universal is currently planning a sequel to the film.
The biggest success of the genre this year has been the James Wan-directed (Saw, Insidious) hit The Conjuring. The Conjuring is, like The Amityville Horror before it, a haunted house tale marketed as being “based on a true story” (something that is total bullshit 99% of the time but almost always works as a marketing strategy). Featuring a bevy of acting talent including Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed), the film is, like The Purge, rated R for content. Opening to tremendous acclaim for a horror movie (86% on Rotten Tomatoes), The Conjuring captured audience attention and has grossed an amazing 170 million dollars worldwide since its late-July debut. New Line Cinema (the Warner Bros. off-shoot that just refuses to stay dead) is already planning a sequel film featuring the characters portrayed by Farmiga and Wilson (who were easily the best characters in the movie). Though I have seen The Conjuring (the only one of these movies I actually have seen) and didn’t find it scary, audiences have clearly disagreed with me and the movie will be one of the most profitable release of the summer.
This Friday, yet another anticipated horror film makes its debut. The awesomely-titled You’re Next is a home invasion story that looks similar to 2007’s The Strangers (one of the last films I found legitimately frightening) as well as this year’s The Purge. Completed in 2011 and already having racked up significant notice at film festivals, You’re Next is also garnering positive critical acclaim thus far, with an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though this will probably drop somewhat throughout the week). You’re Next is also gathering buzz solely through its bizarre characters wearing creepy animal masks, in yet another effective use of marketing (seems like horror movies are the only releases properly marketed these days).
In 2011, Insidious (a Leigh Whannell/James Wan joint) debuted to decent reviews (66% on RT) and big box office (accumulating 97 million dollars against a 1.5 million dollar budget) making it yet another in a long line of successful “evil children”-themed horror movies. A sequel was obviously inevitable. Thus, Insidious: Chapter 2 opens in mid-September of this year, with Whannell and Wan back on board for another go ‘round and Wan hot off the success of The Conjuring. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne reprise their roles as the parents of Ty Simpkins’ creepy child character. Though horror sequels rarely live up to the success of their predecessors (horror is a genre that often features diminishing returns, not only in box office but also in terms of sequels), Insidious: Chapter 2 has a shot at success based solely on the goodwill of recently released horror hits.
It has been a really good year to be a horror fan. I’m not terribly big on the genre myself, but I will admit that these feature films have created quite the atmosphere at the theater. Though The Conjuring didn’t really scare me, I was quite happy to see such an old-school throwback of a horror film. I have somewhat high hopes for You’re Next, and I might just venture out to see it this weekend. The concept of diminishing returns will be tested once again with Insidious: Chapter 2, and I hope it passes muster, as I want to see James Wan succeed as a director, and Patrick Wilson seems like an incredibly nice guy (I was also a fan of his character from The Conjuring and would see a sequel almost solely due to his presence). 2013 has been packed to the brim with comic book action fare (much of it generic and not really interesting to me) so it is likewise nice to get a change of pace in the form of a horror movie every month or so at the theaters these days. Let the renaissance continue.