Superhero films still draw a crowd, and any movie with Tom Cruise will earn its money back, and then some. James Cameron proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he holds the Master Key to our cinematic hearts.
One genre still stands tall at the box office in 2023, even as the pandemic fallout and streaming reduce ticket sales to alarming levels.
And, with “M3GAN” slaughtering the competition, the new year may keep the streak alive.
Last year delivered one horror hit after the next. Think “Smile,” “The Black Phone,” “Barbarian” and “Halloween Ends.” “Nope” may be Jordan Peele’s worst film, but it still hauled in $123 million.
Other horror films made far less but had a cultural impact.
“Terrifier 2,” a film boasting no major studio love and a microscopic budget ($250,000) snagged $10.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. That’s on top of the film’s successful crowdfunding campaign, which earned more than 400 percent of its initial goal.
Even some financial disappointments delivered top-flight chills. Think “X,” “Pearl” and the exhilarating “Men.”
Why is horror mostly immune to the public’s waning interest in movie going? And how do directors keep churning out inventive stories while the rest of Hollywood clings to sequels, reboots and remakes?
It starts with the nature of horror itself. We’ve all watched a slasher film at home and shuddered over any unexpected sounds. It’s scary to watch a shocker at home, alone, and in a darkened den, no less.
That’s still a singular experience. There’s no one there to bond with, though, to feel a common sense of escalating dread.
Let’s Get Scared … Together
The movie theater offers the opposite. You’re sitting in a sea of strangers, clutching your armrests while others are doing the same. You gasp at a jump scare, and a dozen people do the same.
That communal experience is why the theatrical model still matters. It can’t be replicated at home no matter how big your “man cave” might be. No one invites strangers into their home to watch a scary movie, but they’ll happily sit with them to do just that at the local theater.
And, when the film delivers, it’s glorious.
Anonymous Stars, Big Results
That’s not the only reason for horror’s healthy receipts. Horror films rarely rely on “name” actors to sell their scares. Yes, “M3GHAN” boasts “Get Out” alum Allison Williams, but her presence doesn’t explain the film’s box office might.
“Barbarian” begins with two relatively fresh faces (Georgina Campbell and Bill Skarsgard) who hook the audience from the jump.
“Smile” didn’t need an A-lister attached to the project. That creepy grin plastering the marketing materials proved irresistible.
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Marquee actors never hurt, although when fans expect to see them shine and they’re treated like an afterthought (Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween Ends”) box office receipts droop accordingly.
Plus, lesser-known stars can’t command the kind of salaries that balloon a film’s budget. Even better?
Fresh faces lack cultural baggage, the kind that coaxes some audiences to stay home. A horror movie featuring Sean Penn, for example, might alienate fans exhausted by the Oscar-winner’s divisive comments.
Smaller budgets often mean less studio interference, fewer notes from up above and more faith in the creators behind the scenes. That doesn’t always yield superior stories, but in a pure genre like horror an auteur’s touch helps.
Getting to Know You …
Horror creatives are also more in touch with their fans. The horror community passionately supports genre legends and newbies alike.
It’s why “Terrifier 2” creator Damien Leone’s Twitter feed brims with an appreciation for the film’s fans.
— Damien Leone (@damienleone) January 24, 2023
Horror conventions keep that familiar spirit alive.
Horror also has a rebellious streak. It brims with social commentary, sometimes to a fault, but often serves as a reaction to the status quo. “Terrifier 2” isn’t political, but its wall-to-wall violence and embrace of ‘80s tropes feel like a subtle middle finger to the woke mind virus.
“The Black Phone” features a villain stalking children, a target many mainstream screenwriters would avoid.
The horror rulebook, brimming with tropes like Final Girls, is loose enough to allow for creative departures.
New Year, Same Results?
The rest of 2023 promises a mix of new tales and old favorites.
So far, a trio of indie shockers is over-performing at the box office – “Infinity Pool,” Fear” and “Skinamarink.” Two other entries – “Sick” and “There’s Something Wrong with the Children” – prove the genre’s creative streak remains strong.
The sixth “Scream” installment (March 10) is almost guaranteed to be a blockbuster, while M. Night Shyamalan of “Knock at the Cabin” fame knows the genre better than most.
The Cage-assaince continues with “Renfeld,” which seems like a potent blend of horror and comedy. And any film swiped from Stephen King’s imagination, like the upcoming shocker “The Boogeyman,” gets horror fans’ hearts thumping.
That film already has social media buzz, and it doesn’t hit theaters until June 2. That film, originally bound for Hulu, will hit theaters instead.
Otherwise, expect a flood of remakes (“The Strangers,” “The Exorcist” and “Salem’s Lot”) which will sink or swim based on their creative DNA, not merely name recognition.
The one unsung force in horror’s favor? Western culture is in obvious decline. Major institutions are no longer trustworthy, starting with the mainstream media. Farcical headlines are now the norm, and our court jesters lack the guts to mock them as they should.
Inflation is high, optimism is low and the future looks dim despite our smartphone distractions.
Is it any wonder we’re so eager to gather in the dark for a good, old-fashioned scare?