Over the weekend, Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” topped the box office, grossing an estimated $26.1 million and becoming the latest in a string of financial success stories for horror fare this summer. It’s now on track to dominate Labor Day weekend as well. More importantly, it’s a damn scary film—and just the most recent one in a year that has seen a remarkable run of quality in the genre. Summer is just ending, and 2016 has already shaped up as the strongest year for cinematic fear in quite some time, in a number of ways.
Sequels and remakes largely took a powder.
Since the 2000’s began, it has often seemed like producers and studios weren’t interested in horror properties unless they had a number in the title or a big-screen antecedent, whether it was foreign or domestic. Even as both the “Conjuring” and “Purge” franchises were profitably extended earlier this season, however, the studios also banked on more original scary tales, highlighted by “Don’t Breathe,” “Lights Out” and “The Shallows.” Pulling effective and efficient variations on home-invasion, vengeful-spirit and killer-shark scenarios, respectively, they proved to be solid entertainments as well as money machines (and each ran under 90 minutes, a refreshing alternative to big-budget bloat). Earlier in 2016, the “spiritual sequel” “10 Cloverfield Lane” emerged as a retrofitted — though still largely unrelated — follow-up to the 2008 monster bash, and an extremely tense confinement chiller showcasing a John Goodman performance that had some talking up a potential Oscar nomination. Then there’s all the great stuff that has been coming out of the independent scene, which leads us to…
Variety is the spice of death.
There has been something for fans of many subgenres to be found in the select-theatrical/VOD arena during the first eight months of this year, all of them done well. The played-out zombie field got a big jolt of adrenaline from the knockout Korean import “Train to Busan” (which is closing in on a $2-million draw from just a handful of theaters); “The Witch” plunges headlong into period horror in ways that, love it or hate it, got people talking; “Green Room,” with its quietly blood-freezing turn by Patrick Stewart, is a first-rate survival shocker; “The Invitation” does slow-burn paranoia to a T before paying off with a terrifying final act; “Hush” finds a frighteningly fresh approach to stalker/slasher tropes; the just-released “I Am Not a Serial Killer” adroitly mixes black comedy and gory details; and “Southbound” is an anthology with an uncommonly high batting average. What else do all these disparate films have in common?
The critics raved and drooled.
Conventional wisdom has it that when horror films hit, it’s despite and not because of the reviews, whose authors tend to dismiss and look down their noses at the genre. This year, however, every one of the movies cited above received strong notices, and another Korean film, the supernatural critics’ darling “The Wailing,” can be added to that list. The thumbs up haven’t always added up to box-office success (“Green Room,” inexplicably, didn’t catch on with audiences when it expanded to semi-wide release), but it is an encouraging sign that many reviewers are able to appreciate these films now, instead of leaving their qualities to be acknowledged years after the fact—which has frequently been the case where fright films are concerned.
PG-13 stood for Pretty Gutsy.
One thing that didn’t change in 2016 was the trend of numerous wide-release horror features going out tagged as PG-13. Yet while the films frequently seemed watered down in the service of the more youth-friendly rating in previous years, neither “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “The Shallows” nor “Lights Out” feel like they were compromised to make them playable to that coveted audience. All three deliver visceral, intense moments that don’t require explicit gore to make their impact. Meanwhile, there has been plenty of R-rated fare over on the indie side: “The Conjuring 2” and “The Purge: Election Year,” whose predecessors established them as surer bets with Rs, went out with that rating — and the most R-rific movie of the whole bunch is arguably “Don’t Breathe,” released by Sony’s Screen Gems. That one goes to some grisly, literally dark and, in its final act, seriously perverse places—to the point where, not so long ago, it might possibly have been threatened with an NC-17.
Success breeds imitation.
That truism has often led to derivative, uninspired disappointments where horror flicks are concerned, but in this case, fans can hope that the profits generated by the summer’s good, original chillers (and even a mediocre one like “The Boy” from earlier this year) will inspire the powers that be at major studios to take chances on more fresh material in the fright field. The urge to cash in will certainly remain (a “Lights Out” sequel and a “Conjuring 2” spinoff are already in the works, and we may see “Train to Busan” remakes from both the U.S. and France), and the short-range forecast for original mainstream screamers isn’t the most promising: Next January is set to see the latest installments of the “Amityville,” “Underworld,” “Friday the 13th” and “Resident Evil” franchises. It may be true, as Variety posited this month, that the studios will continue to live and die on the blockbuster formula. However, this year’s figures offer cause for optimism that, in the long term, the bean counters will realize how a good scare flick that’s more than a rehash can alleviate some of the financial pain when the next would-be superhero smash underperforms.