Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (Universal) opens Friday as one of the last wide releases this summer. The weekend before the Labor Day holiday is usually considered a dead zone, but this loose reboot of the 1991 horror film has potential.
Pre-opening domestic estimates hover around $15 million, but there’s no other new wide releases and this property still retains interest decades later. Add Jordan Peele as co-producer and -writer, positive reviews (its 73 Metacritic score leads “Black Widow,” “Suicide Squad,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” even “A Quiet Place Part II”) — along with his commitment to topicality and originality — and the response could be bigger.
“Candyman” could reinforce a new reality of moviegoing: As 2021 domestic grosses close in on $2 billion, more than $400 million of that — over 20 percent — came from horror movies. In 2019 and earlier, they accounted for less than 10 percent of total annual business.
In 2021, the standout performer in the horror genre is “A Quiet Place Part II” with a $160 million domestic total, ranking third so far this year. Its 2018 predecessor grossed $188 million; for the box office to come that close under the trying circumstances of this year is an exceptional result.
A more routine horror film, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” made $65 million — only $9 million less than its franchise predecessor “Annabelle Comes Home” in 2019, and it premiered day and date on HBO Max.
Other comparative performances haven’t been as strong, like “The Forever Purge” and “Spiral” from the “Saw” franchise. However, these low-budget titles also didn’t represent significant losses. On home platforms, they appear to have done as well or better than many of their competitors.
Beyond the box office and the genre’s enduring popularity, there are three major reasons why horror movies offer a lifeline for theaters — and they’re ones that the streamers can never hope to touch.
The audience for horror films is heaviest among the young and minorities — groups that are most likely to attend theaters even during risky times. On its opening weekend, audience research for “A Quiet Place II” showed that ticket buyers were 44 percent white, 28 percent Latino, 16 percent Black, Latino and 9 percent Asian.
Second reason: While exhibitors love to preach the sanctity of the theatrical experience, it’s hard to beat the communal appeal of viewers screaming themselves witless in a dark room. The capacity to experience a first-hand adrenalized rush of fear is inevitably blunted by the familiar comforts of a home cinema.
Finally, horror movies benefit from traumatic times. The classic Universal monsters originated in the early 1930s, as the country was in the depths of the depression. The creature terrors of the 1950s paralleled fears of impending nuclear war. “The Exorcist” and similar hits of the 1970s, when evil came from within everyday humans, came with the growth of societal distrust.
With a $25 million budget, films like “Candyman” are more crucial than ever for theaters. The budget means there’s less risk in opening as a theatrical exclusive. The pathway to profit is much easier than blockbusters with nine-figure budgets.
The horror audience is as tough to satisfy as any. Reviews suggest “Candyman” takes greater risks with audience expectations; it will be self evident if that doesn’t pay off. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see “Candyman” with an opening number that’s closer to $20 million.