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Horror’s Spooky Secret: Why Serious Scary Movies Like ‘The Witch’ Get No Respect

The numbers are scary.

“Paranormal Activity”

Researcher Stephen Follows specializes in data-driven analyses of the movie industry, so he has the numbers to prove what most of us already believe: Movies with positive reviews make more money than movies with negative reviews. But there’s one genre where this idea breaks down — or, as Follows puts it, goes “downright bonkers.”

That would be horror movies, where good reviews and profitability correlate fewer than one time out of five.

Chart Stephen Follows

Stephen Follows tracked 3,700 films to learn about the correlation between critical reception and box-office performance.

Stephen Follows & Bruce Nash for the American Film Market

According to Follows, part of that wildly divergent result is because horror movies don’t get good reviews. Raw data on the more than 3,700 films studied is here, but Metacritic’s entire database shows only 26 horror movies that rate 80 or higher, and that’s reaching as far back as Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (and for some reason, includes Béla Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”). From 2000 to 2015, the period Follows studied, only three horror movies — “Drag Me to Hell,” “It Follows,” and “The Witch” — had a Metascore of 80 or higher.

READ MORE: ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’ Critical Roundup: Reviewers Say Horror Prequel is Much Better Than the First Film

The data is imperfect; it doesn’t include, say, Jennifer Kent’s low-budget “The Babadook,” which has an 86 Metascore and earned over $10 million worldwide. However, it does include summer hits like “Don’t Breathe,” with a worldwide haul of over $147 million (71 Metascore) and “Lights Out” ($147 million, 58 Metascore).

"It Follows"

“It Follows”

RADiUS-TWC

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter what kinds of reviews horror movies receive. Their resistance is so complete that when Follows charts out the winning titles, quality scores don’t even form a straight line. The most profitable movies have Metascores between 30 and 60. No wonder they often don’t screen for critics, or at the last possible moment; why bother? They’re not hostile to critics so much as they’re indifferent.

This is excellent news for major studios, which crank out a steady diet of scare-tactic thrillers like last weekend’s Universal release “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” which did screen for critics and got a middling Metascore of 65. It brought in over $14 million on more than 2,300 screens.

What makes horror movies immune to critical opinion? Some of it may come down to critics’ fondness for rarified and less genre-driven movies like the “Under the Shadow,” the British entry for best Foreign Language Film, which is set in Tehran and was shot in Farsi. It was released October 7 in barely over a dozen theaters (less than $50,000 box office, Metascore 84), although it will get more exposure on VOD.

 

However, the discrepancy may come down to something much less subjective: When it comes to horror movies, critics and audiences don’t want the same things. With comedies or action movies, everyone’s essentially on the same page. We want to be laugh or be thrilled. But the point at which critics get really jazzed about a horror movie seems to be the point at which many viewers check out.

Time and again, critics talk up a movie like “It Follows” or “The Witch.” And when it opens, they hear the same refrain from audiences: “They thought that was scary?”

The Witch Movie

“The Witch”

Often, they did: If you can get through “The Babadook” without cowering in your seat, perhaps you’re made of sterner stuff than I — or maybe you just don’t have children. But it also has to do with the difference between being spooked, which most people enjoy, and more profoundly terrified, which most don’t.

READ MORE: ‘The Witch’ Team Takes To IFP Week To Discuss The Film’s Hellish Beginnings

A shock-driven horror movie like “The Conjuring” falls in the spooked category. A movie like “It Follows” is more of a slow burn; it leaves you unnerved, seeing the world outside the theater in a different, less-certain way. These kinds of movies require more active viewing; they don’t force your attention with loud noise and jump scares (not that there’s anything wrong with the noble jump scare). Most of all, they don’t leave you when the lights go up.

 

In his review of “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl zeroes in on the movie’s determination to scare its audience just enough to raise their heart rates, but not so much that they’ll have trouble closing their eyes at night. Horror films, he argues, “encourage a less passive viewership” than most movies, which is why they still do well in theaters. It’s fun to be in a crowd and hear your screams mingle with others’, and it’s a lot less unsettling than watching the same thing at home.

In the last decade or so, beginning with Bryan Bertino’s 2008 “The Strangers,” horror movies have increasingly built tension not through rapid editing but with static wide shots in which a flicker of movement portends the onset of danger — a technique institutionalized through the security-cam aesthetic of the “Paranormal Activity” series. They’re movies that demand to be watched with both eyes, not glanced at in between text messages, and they reward audiences for their undivided attention.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

“Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Universal

What they don’t really do is get under your skin and stay there. That’s a quality critics treasure, but they have to be reminded (present company included) that the word “devastating” is not one with universal appeal. Not everyone prizes movies that make it feel like a bomb went off inside your head. And while everyone loves a good cry, that sentiment doesn’t extend to the bone-deep dread that a truly great horror movie instills.

It seems telling that in a month that’s usually devoted to horror movies, the studios are barely wheeling out any at all, even if you count Tyler Perry’s Madea parody among them. To quote the Halloween-ized Twitter handle of Scherstuhl’s Voice colleague Bilge Ebiri, life’s scary enough. Who needs ghosts or killers when we’ve got the election?

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