THE WASHINGTON POST – No debut feature better reflects the trending tastes of many audiences right now than a small film not even intended for theatrical release.
The dark thriller Smile was set to head straight to streaming. That is, until the reported USD17 million movie from writer-director Parker Finn scored “crazy well” with test audiences, Paramount Pictures Chief Brian Robbins said last month, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Redirected to theatres and boosted by savvy marketing campaigns, Smile – about a therapist’s seemingly supernatural experiences – recently won three straight weekends across North America and has grossed more than USD165 million worldwide, nearly 10 times its production budget.
In the ramp-up to Halloween, horror films have won five weekends since September began, holding their own while squeezed between the blockbuster contrails of Top Gun: Maverick and next month’s massive release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Just what in the name of good fun is going on? To be sure, the studio behemoths still reign.
The top of the Hollywood box office this year is packed with action and adventure franchises, as well as capes and cartoons.
Peek a bit beneath those floorboards, though, and a different picture emerges: For original films, the most commercially reliable and pandemic-resilient genre in the American market is the horror movie.
Factor in all horror titles – including a couple of beloved franchises and one feature adapted from a short film – and the genre has slashed its way to winning nine domestic weekends so far in 2022.
And the promising The Menu (starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes) and Bones and All (Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet) are still to come next month.
It’s been such a Year of the Fright Film that even a Marvel superhero movie like Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness offered nods to the Evil Dead director’s mastery of the form.
Horror has always been a Hollywood staple, of course, and every so often, the genre has a breakout year, like in 2017, with It, Get Out, Split, Annabelle: Creation, Alien: Covenant each grossing more than USD250 million worldwide. Yet there is a confluence of particular factors surrounding the run of horror hits this year. In two cases, the nostalgic comfort of familiar slasher franchises helped draw filmgoers.
One of the early weekend winners of 2022 was Scream (which went on to earn USD140 million worldwide), featuring the return of Courteney Cox, and one of the most recent box-office champs was Halloween Ends (USD84 million and counting), highlighting the return of Jamie Lee Curtis.
Yet much of the current wave of popularity has been powered by original stories like Jordan Peele’s Nope (USD170 million-plus globally) and Zach Cregger’s Barbarian (USD42.3 million) – weekend winners both.
Writer-director Ti West has scored twice recently with the strong word-of-mouth hits Pearl and X, both of which star Mia Goth.
Genre fans have also especially embraced The Black Phone, The Invitation, X and Bodies Bodies Bodies, and the recent release Terrifier 2 is gaining ground.
“As a horror fan, I feel so blessed – there’s something every week I want to see in the theatre,” said Meg Hafdahl, the podcaster/screenwriter whose horror novels include Her Dark Inheritance and who has co-written the Science of book series.
Hafdahl thinks that horror has been “the perfect genre” for filmgoers who are returning after missing the communal experience earlier in the pandemic.
There is the “palpable tension in the theatre,” as well as the shared “tension and sadness,” she said by phone from Rochester.
“This is why I love horror: It’s such a roller coaster of emotion to share with people.”
Author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture Rob Salkowitz said that the early stages of the pandemic itself felt like a fright film or a ‘70s apocalyptic thriller like The Andromeda Strain or The Omega Man. Part of the appeal of horror on film, he said, is that in the face of the story’s deadly threats, there is “familiarity to the formula.”
Whether it’s Jason or Cthulhu, at least the killer in horror follows the rules of the genre, Salkowitz said by phone from Washington state.
“It’s a reassuring aspect to a horror movie that it’s going to be resolved, even if you’re creeped out.”
Industry observers also note that the metrics for success are often different with the cinema of jump-scares and psychological terror. Bloated-budget tentpole movies and many star-studded dramas are expected to have huge opening weekends, while a smaller horror film is allowed more time to find its box-office success, said William Earl, the editor of Variety.com who specialises in horror coverage.
A superhero movie that doesn’t “open in nine digits can be a misfire”, he said, while a film like Terrifier 2 flies lower but steady.
Horror experts also underscore that given these financially safer projects, studios are more willing to take chances on less proven filmmakers and lesser-known actors, fostering a diversity of rising voices.
“People are making horror movies who weren’t necessarily allowed to make horror movies before,” Hafdahl said.
She also thinks that Hollywood is more fully appreciating the breadth and malleability of the form: “Studios are not underestimating the horror viewer – we appreciate good, well-drawn characters.”
And as a wave of horror films enjoys “must see in theatre” word of mouth, the genre is winning over fresh converts.
“It’s such a huge and diverse genre that there’s something for everyone,” Hafdahl said, whether it’s a slow-burn psychological thriller or hardcore gore.
Added the author, “I love that people are experiencing horror again and in a community space – not just at home with our big TVs.”