After initial loud buzz way back at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival where its screening triggered a bidding war, horror flick “You’re Next” is finally about to invade theaters nationwide. The tale of a band of masked intruders who violently disrupt a family get together, it’s a kicky treat that we finally got a chance to watch at SXSW this year (you can read our review here). While it seems like it could be a late summer hit, if recent horror hits have proven anything, it’s that it’s nearly impossible to preemptively diagnose what genre fare is going to make a very respectable amount of money at the box-office.
We decided to use this opportunity to discuss five of the biggest recent horror hits, and along for the ride we’ve included commentary from producer Jason Blum, who has shepherded the “Paranormal Activity” franchise to unstoppable financial success and has “Insidious: Chapter 2” opening next month. If anybody can talk horror, it’s him.
For those of you who need more background, Blum runs Blumhouse Productions, a production company that we had him describe for us. “All our movies are under $5 million and we design them for a wide release,” Blum said. “We don’t always get a wide release but the idea is that we go in with the director and everyone shooting for a wide release.” Some of the bigger movies in the Blumhouse canon include “Sinister,” “Insidious,” and this summer’s “The Purge” (more on that in just a minute), while his smaller stuff includes last year’s underrated Barry Levinson found-footage shocker “The Bay” and Rob Zombie‘s surreal “Lords of Salem.” While the formula for making Blumhouse movies is rigid, the variety of movies that the company has produced has been diverse, proving that if you’re not risking a whole lot of money, then the projects themselves can be even more adventurous.
Budget: $3 million
Gross: $83 million (worldwide)
What’s It About: “The Purge” is set in a vaguely futuristic society where crime has been eradicated and everyone lives in peaceful harmony. How is social order maintained? By allowing for one night, dubbed The Purge, wherein anything (including murder) is legal. An upper crust family (led by art house heartthrob Ethan Hawke and queen regent Lena Headey), are trapped in their homes during The Purge, menaced by a group of masked yuppies who are looking for a man that Hawke’s family allowed into their home for protection. The masked psychopaths make a simple request: hand over the man, or they will break into the house and murder everyone inside.
Why Did It Succeed? “The Purge” has that intriguingly hooky what-if conceit that you can actually see yourself being a part of. What would you do if the rules of law were suspended for a single evening? How would you handle things? It clearly resonated, at least for its huge opening weekend. “We were just as surprised as everybody else,” Blum admitted. “We were surprised and thrilled at the outcome.” Another fun, engaging aspect of watching “The Purge” was trying to figure out where the series could go, should it continue as a franchise, since the universe that is created in the first film is so rich and full of possibility. Well, a sequel is well underway, although Blum says that they haven’t locked down a storyline just yet. “We’re thinking about a bunch of different ideas,” he said. Blum also noted that the studio doesn’t talk about sequels until after the movie has opened and they can properly gauge the response. “We don’t make that a part of the conversation, at least as part of the original movie,” Blum said. “On higher budget things it’s irresponsible to not think about a franchise. If you’re spending $150 million, you have to make that part of the development. But if you’re spending $3 million, you don’t have to.” It will be interesting to see if success of “The Purge” takes away from or amplifies this weekend’s “You’re Next,” which has a similar home invasion conceit but without all the nifty, pseudo science-fiction stuff.
“V/H/S” and “V/H/S/2“
Budget: Less than a million each
Gross: Studios tend to keep the VOD grosses of certain titles to themselves, but a rep from Magnolia told us that both films were “strong performers” and word is that they were hugely profitable.
What’s It About: “V/H/S,” released last year, and “V/H/S/2,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before getting a summer release on VOD and in theaters, are horror anthology films along the lines of “Creepshow” that follow the same format: a bunch of mysterious VHS tapes are discovered and then played. We see those tapes, which are always some variation on the found-footage genre. The first film was fun but grew tiresome and misogynistic, punctuated by moments of brilliance, while the second film offered more variety (and the same problems with unevenness).
Why Did It Succeed? These movies, despite their interest in newfangled technology, are classic throwbacks to those horror anthologies that aren’t made anymore. The last big-budget studio horror anthology that was attempted was “Trick R Treat,” which was co-financed by Legendary and Warner Bros. and produced by Bryan Singer, but everyone was so nervous about its commercial prospects that it ended up being dumped directly to video. The “V/H/S” movie bypassed that hand wringing by having the projects delivered straight to home formats before their brief theatrical releases. “You’re talking about an entirely different business model,” Blum said, breaking down the differences between the kind of wide theatrical release “The Purge” got and something more along the lines of the “V/H/S” model (his films “The Bay” and “Lords of Salem” were released in a similar fashion). “Neither one is better than the other and on a percentage basis both can be profitable. On an overall basis, one is more profitable than the other. But there are a certain group of movies that are wide release where the marketing budget is multiple times the actual budget, and then there are the ‘V/H/S’ movies, where it’s largely driven by word of mouth, which is even more impressive.”
Budget: $20 million
Gross: $194 million (worldwide, so far)
What’s It About: Based on a supposedly true story, “The Conjuring” concerns a family in rural New England (led by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) who are terrorized nightly by phantasmagorical visitations. Eventually they enlist the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), a married team of paranormal researchers who assess the supernatural activity and offer their professional advice on how to proceed. Lots of spooky shit ensues.
Why Did It Succeed? First and foremost, it’s really, truly scary, full of palpable dread and scares that are earned, not cheated. (It got an R-rating for its scariness alone, since it’s a virtually bloodless affair, almost entirely free of any sex or profanity.) What makes this elegantly told haunted house chiller even more shocking is the fact that it was directed by James Wan, whose “Saw” helped reignite the craze of hyper-violent horror movies dubbed “torture porn” by many (although, comparatively, the first “Saw” is pretty light on that stuff). It was a subtle, atmospheric piece of entertainment that was released smack dab in the middle of a summer choked with giant blockbusters hell bent on leveling cities and ruthlessly murdering tens of thousands of people (off screen, of course). The danger in “The Conjuring” was hyper-focused, which made it even more powerful. Blum worked with Wan on both “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 2,” and so it was a thrill for him to see his frequent collaborator garner that kind of praise and commercial success. “I thought ‘The Conjuring’ was awesome,” Blum said. “I think James is unbelievably talented. He certainly does scary as well as anybody out there. I worked on him for a long time to do the sequel to ‘Insidious’ and I’m really psyched that he did that.” When we asked for a tease for “Insidious: Chapter 2,” all he said was that audiences can, “Expect answers.” Spooky answers, we’re assuming.
Budget: $15 million
Gross: $146 million (worldwide)
What’s It About: A man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his commitment-phobic girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) retrieve his nieces from an abandoned cabin in the woods, where they have been living since their father murdered their mother (and was then dispensed of himself). How the two young girls survived in the woods is a mystery, although it soon becomes apparent that they weren’t exactly alone, and a ghostly figure (dubbed “Mama” by the girls) starts visiting them in their new home.
Why Did It Succeed? Like “The Conjuring,” “Mama” was a throwback to more classical horror tropes. This wasn’t a movie with buckets of blood or sophisticated technology. It was a spooky ghost story, the kind that you’d tell around the campfire, infused with occasionally dreamy imagery and equally dreamy narrative reaches. Some may have had issue with calling this movie a “success,” given the pedigree of both studio Universal (whose Horror Classics remain a benchmark of the genre) and producer Guillermo del Toro (seen by many as a hugely important figure in the genre). But Universal hadn’t had a horror hit in a while, outside of their massively successful “Mummy” franchise (a similar attempt at reviving the classics, “Van Helsing,” failed miserably) and the last horror movie that Guillermo del Toro executive produced that was supposed to be a sensation, 2011’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” faltered at the box office, barely making back its production budget. Blum thought “Mama” was “great,” and suspects the gore-soaked spectacles like “Saw” will probably return some day soon. “Genres are cyclical to a degree, and I think the trend in horror has gotten to be more supernatural and less graphic,” Blum said. He then added: “I’m sure someone will do something new and the pendulum will swing back again.”
“Texas Chainsaw 3D“
Budget: Under $20 million
Gross: $40 million (worldwide)
What’s It About: A direct, dimensionalized sequel (weirdly) to Tobe Hooper‘s original masterpiece, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the new film imagines the events following the first film: the angry townspeople burning down the house of Leatherface and his cannibalistic clan, a young baby secreted away for decades, and what happens when that baby (now a busty young woman played by Alexandra Daddario) comes to reclaim her family estate. It’s also about the squishy 3D thrill of watching a chainsaw split a human body in two.
Why Did It Succeed? Part of the movie’s success had to do with the fact that it jettisoned much of the franchise’s mythology (including Hooper’s own “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” the two other sequels, and the two Michael Bay-produced remakes), effectively re-booting the property for the post-“Saw” audience. 3D, too, always serves grimy horror pieces like this better than virtually any other genre, since it’s able to exploit the zoom-out-into-your-lap potential of the medium without feeling hokey (since it’s already so hokey). Plus, its shockingly large haul came over the first weekend in January, which isn’t exactly a rich marketplace for new films. While not a runaway box office smash (it ended up making about the same as New Line‘s underrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning“), it still turned a healthy profit, especially given its tangle of production companies (including Millennium Films and Twisted Pictures, producers of “Saw”) that not even a chainsaw could unknot.
There are still a bunch of horror hopefuls on the horizon, October’s remake of “Carrie,” and January’s “I, Frankenstein.” Of course, there are a number of genre offerings coming from Blumhouse Productions as well, most excitingly the remake of beloved ’70s cult film “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” which will be co-produced by “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy and directed by “American Horror Story” wizard Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Since we were talking to Blum, we had to quiz him about it. “I just saw the first cut of it and it looks really cool. We don’t have a date for that movie yet but it will be sometime next year, for sure,” adding that he and Murphy are a good match because they love musicals and horror movies in equal measure. Which of these movies will break the box office remains to be seen, although with horror films the only thing that really matters is whether or not it will be shown at some kid’s slumber party in fifteen years. And that’s kind of hard to gauge.