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Norditorial - This Is A Great Time For Horror Cinema

Published at: July 29, 2013, 8:35 p.m. CST by Nordling

Nordling here.

As this summer's releases wind down, and we make our way towards the fall and winter, I'm sure studios are thinking about what lessons they can take from the box office and audience responses.  I think audiences, for the most part, were mixed on the big tentpole offerings this year.  We didn't get a movie to rally behind like last summer's AVENGERS.  I can't claim to be an expert on reading the tea leaves that make up box office predicting and studios' reactions to it.  I can only go with my gut, so to speak, and it seems to me that horror cinema has become the most financially successful genre of the year.

What does that mean for horror fans?  It means that studios can throw serious money at a horror movie and not only make something good, but something... dare I say, respectable.  A zombie movie like WORLD WAR Z, with its gargantuan budget, is still doing well, even after many film people spoke gloom and doom about the project for months.  Movies like THE PURGE and THE CONJURING continue to rake in huge amounts at the box office for their budgets.  Movies like V/H/S/2, the MANIAC remake, ANTIVIRAL, and AMERICAN MARY seem to be doing very well on Video On Demand.  And there are even more interesting films coming, like INSIDIOUS PART 2, YOU'RE NEXT, CHEAP THRILLS, HORNS... even the CARRIE remake looks promising.

What seems to have changed is this - budgets are expanding, and horror movies along with it.  It used to be that horror was an expendable genre for studios; they never had to spend a lot of money to make these movies, and they basically left filmmakers alone to make them.  In a strange way, with the bloated budgets of tentpole releases, a rising tide has lifted all boats, in a manner of speaking.  And now it's not uncommon for a horror film budget to rise above $10 million.  That may not seem like much in comparison to a $250 million budget for WORLD WAR Z, but you can buy a lot with $10 million or $20 million - more than you might think.  You can buy respectable actors who are skilled at their craft, writers who care about the genre and want to make the most effective film that they can, and directors with a real artistic vision.  THE CONJURING cost $20 million to make, and James Wan used every penny to build atmospheric dread and to assemble a cast that worked their hardest to make an effectively frightening and compelling movie.

With great casts come respectability, at least for regular audiences.  Now you have Academy Award nominated actresses like Jessica Chastain making movies like MAMA, or Julianne Moore for CARRIE, or Brad Pitt making a zombie movie.  This would have been unheard of as little as ten years ago.  But with increased budgets, we get effective stories and effective filmmakers to tell them.  Even the littler movies seem to be doing well under this new economic paradigm - a movie like ANTIVIRAL, made for a little over $3 million, can expand on its ideas with smaller budgets and it doesn't feel like a compromise.  A movie like V/H/S/2 or AMERICAN MARY is still just as effective under a smaller budget because the filmmakers can do a lot more with that money.

The quality of horror filmmaking is rising with such directors like Wan, Scott Derrickson with last year's SINISTER, EVIL DEAD's Fede Alvarez, or CARRIE's Kimberly Peirce, who are finding their voice in the genre and not only telling the stories that they want to tell, but even injecting their social ideas and messages into the work.  This makes these movies resonate in a way that I don't think the genre has ever quite done before.  Yes, there have been horror films that have always gone deeper, but because these play to larger audiences, in a way it's stealth filmmaking - using a genre film to say something insightful about our world today.  Horror has always been the best genre for that, even more than science fiction.

Take YOU'RE NEXT, coming this August.  On the surface, Adam Wingard's movie seems to be another routine home invasion horror story.  But it isn't.  It's practically genetically engineered to entertain audiences, and I really can't wait to see what people make of it.  YOU'RE NEXT has the real potential to be as big an audience success as SCREAM was.  But here's a little something you may not know - YOU'RE NEXT is better.  It's thrilling, funny, and full of what I like to call "whoop-dee-doos" - those moments, like on a rollercoaster, where the movie surprises you in those best of ways, as you laugh and scream and bond with the movie.  It's also got one of the best horror heroines ever in the genre - Shari Vinson's performance ranks right up there with Sissy Spacek's or Jamie Lee Curtis's.

But YOU'RE NEXT also has quite a bit to say about not only the state of horror but the state of us.  There are characters in it that seem to behave in standard horror boilerplate ways, but then the movie changes and then we realize that it's our own expectations that trip us up while watching it.  It's scary and exciting, but it's also smart and doesn't treat the audience like so many tentpole movies do these days.  It's not just showing us spectacle, but inviting us inside.  Where we're vulnerable.  Where they can get us.  YOU'RE NEXT is one of the most thrilling movies I've seen this year, and pound for pound can stand with any summer movie this year in regards to filmmaking power and enjoyment.

With all the sequel exhaustion, it's also nice to see original voices and projects out there in horror.  Yes, there are still plenty of sequels and remakes to go around, like any other genre out there.  But horror cinema thrives on fresh voices and ideas, and it seems even sequels like V/H/S/2 and INSIDIOUS PART 2, or remakes like EVIL DEAD and CARRIE, have something new to add.  But for the most part, there's been a ton of original work out there this year, and it al feels like a direct injection of new blood.  We have new filmmakers entering the scene; filmmakers like Brandon Cronenberg, Jason Eisener, and Adam Wingard, and finally more women are making great horror movies like Jen and Sylvia Soska and hopefully BOYS DON'T CRY's Kimberly Peirce gives us a unique take on Stephen King's famous novel. 

I've had a great year with the horror genre.  While not everyone agrees, I thought EVIL DEAD was great fun, a nice callback to the original movie as well as something new and innovative.  I appreciated that the bigger budget went straight to the realistic makeup effects.  I thought MAMA was chilling and effective as well, with a performance by Jessica Chastain that brought me into that world in a way that a lesser skilled actress may not have.  I saw ANTIVIRAL last year but it's making the rounds this year, and it's one of the best horror movies in the past several years - making us think while making us squirm.  V/H/S/2 was leaps and bounds better than the original (which I also quite liked) - my favorite entry, Jason Eisener's "Slumber Party Alien Abduction," was a great homage to Steven Spielberg, and yet still scary as hell, and Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans' "Safe Haven" was utter nightmare fuel.  I haven't seen THE PURGE, but I'm hearing good things from audiences and some critics (not all, to be sure). THE CONJURING was an atmospheric marvel, with Wan getting great performances out of everyone. It builds up a sense of dread that on the surface seems easy to pull off, but only the most skilled directors can do it well.  We even got a great horror documentary, ROOM 237, exploring the various theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING.

Now, there may be horror fans out there who think that with this increased exposure and budgets that films will be dumbed down, or made for the PG-13 crowd.  We've seen that happen so many times that, yeah, fans get jaded.  I think a very strong signal was sent when THE CONJURING, a rated R movie (and perhaps unnecessarily rated that way, but that's another discussion), took in $40+ million on its opening weekend.  That says to the studios that people will come regardless of the rating, if you give them something good to see.  Perhaps it's only me, but I feel a change coming around when it comes to the watered-down PG-13 horror movie - I think we may be seeing less and less of them as movies like THE CONJURING and EVIL DEAD become more successful.  That's pure speculation on my part, and honestly, if it's a good movie, the rating is meaningless.  I thought MAMA was a quite good, well done horror film, and it was PG-13.  As that rating becomes more meaningless, perhaps studios will use it less frequently.  It all depends on box office, the one true Elder God.

And there's still more to come.  CARRIE.  BIG BAD WOLVES. INSIDIOUS PART 2. ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (to be fair, this one's been in the vault for a while). And more that we can't foresee yet.  That's the great thing about horror - there are always surprises.  I love that studios are spending more money on horror.  It means that more filmmakers - both new, still testing the waters, and old, playing with genre conventions and tropes - get to play.  It means better quality work from artists and writers, better performances from actors, and the stigma that seems to surround horror like a veil slowly gets lifted away.  I always want horror to be something of the rebel stepchild, but I also want studios to understand that not only is there huge potential for a large return, but that this is a genre that can (and should always) be taken seriously.  Horror has the best potential to break Hollywood from the creative rut it seems to find itself in these days.  And perhaps, breaking through in horror will free up the other genres as well.  The potential is limitless, now more than ever.  Audiences are begging to be scared, entertained, and enthralled.  And while tentpole films flounder, horror keeps chugging along.  It's time that studios recognized that.

Let's dim the lights... settle into the dark... and await the coming of monsters.  Long live the new flesh!

Nordling, out.

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