July 10, 2014

Why Is Horror Underperforming At The Box Office? Should I Be Scared?

The Green Inferno (2013) poster
Could this be the savior of  the horror box office in 2014?
         Horror on television has never been more popular, and what horror fan isn't happy about that?  The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Bates Motel, and scores of other genre shows are consuming cable and broadcast like creeping dread.  Horror shows are everywhere, and even more are coming.  In addition to the shows already airing, the coming year will most likely see new ones based upon the Friday The 13th and Scream franchises, as well.  I recall a day a couple of years ago when I read online that new episodes of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story were the two highest rated shows on cable the preceding week.  I never imagined I'd see the day that horror was the most popular thing on television.  I actually got a little verklempt about it.

     You see, I grew up at a time when horror shows on television were watered down and doomed to cancellation.  Unfortunately, even the handful of horror themed shows that stuck - Tales From The Crypt, Monsters, Tales From The Darkside - were of little interest to me.  They were either crippled by poor production values and censorship or, in the case of Tales From The Crypt, just too hokey and simplistic to actually be scary.  Crypt, in particular, always irked me.  Most episodes of that long running anthology were built on the same hoary framework utilized in the old EC comics the series was based upon.  It was a labored set up for a horrific punchline telegraphed far too early in the proceedings to actually be scary or surprising.  Why bother? 

Shane from The Walking Dead
Why, Shane?  Why!?!
     At least now the anthology format has largely been abandoned in favor of ongoing stories with recurring characters and complex narratives.  That sturdier dramatic framework makes it a lot easier to actually care enough about what's happening each week to return for the next.  Both The Walking Dead and American Horror Story whiff the ball almost as often as they knock it out of the park, but I'm sufficiently engaged by both to keep coming back for more. I was actually incensed when The Walking Dead killed off Shane at the end of season two, and I was little bit tickled when Lori bit the dust in season three.  I'm not always happy with the narrative choices the show makes, but I'm not indifferent, either.

     Why, then, when horror is so healthy on television, has it been failing so miserably at the box office?  Granted most wide release horror aims for the lowest common denominator, but even a slow year generally  yields at least a couple of flicks that somehow manage to be financially successful and not blow monkey nuts.  So far this year, Oculus is as close as we've gotten, and even that ended its domestic run with a relatively modest $27 million.  That's a great return on a $5 million dollar budget, but it's chicken scratch compared to the $137 million The Conjuring scared up last year.  What's even more disheartening is that I don't see anything on the horizon likely to turn the tide.

Dracula Untold (2014) poster
Why, Dracula?  Why!?!
     The Purge: Anarchy (releasing July 18th) seems like a sequel no-one really asked for to an original that, though financially successful, left many viewers underwhelmed.  Annabelle (October 3rd) seems promising, but am I the only member of the audience getting a little burnt out on all the ghost stories?  That's precisely why I couldn't care less about Jessabelle (August 29th) or Paranormal Activity 5 (October 24th).  I'm not very enthusiastic about yet another retelling of the Dracula tale, either, so Dracula Untold (October 17th) is also a pass.  I'm more interested in Eli Roth's cannibal movie The Green Inferno (September 5th) than anything else scheduled for release in the back half of 2014, and that's mostly just because I haven't seen anyone take a stab at a cannibal movie for a while.

     If it turns out I'm wrong about any of these upcoming releases I'll gladly eat crow, but things are looking pretty grim to me.  I know better than to fret prematurely about the death of the horror genre, because that particular passing has been predicted - and then failed to materialize - too many times in the past.  We will always be scared of something, and some enterprising young filmmaker will always be willing to exploit our fear in hopes of making a splash with an inexpensive first feature. Horror does go in cycles, though, and I'm convinced we're heading for a fallow season.  What do you think?


  1. Why, then, when horror is so healthy on television, has it been failing so miserably at the box office?

    Television has been, since the Sopranos, the bastion of creative freedom. Networks don't pass along notes like studios do, and the freedom (for now) exists for writers to explore. Add to that the cable channels that allow adult content, and you have all the right factors to make stories grand. The BBC has been doing this for years, and we in the states are just catching up. George Lucas did predict this swing over ten years ago when he wanted to do a cable network Star Wars show.

    As far as horror, you should recognize that the brunt of films in the genre more or less suck. Horror is hard, and so we get rehashings of tried and true subjects like Dracula and zombies. Occasionally we get something new as The Blair Witch Project was (despite it copped Cannibal Holocaust, the Last Broadcast, etc.), yet the majority of new, good stuff comes from the amateur leagues.

    In my opinion, the last well-orchestrated horror was the Exorcist. Coppola tried to make Dracula artistic, but it came out sloppy in places. No one would do a major scale version of Halloween with Annette Benning playing Mrs. Meyers. So we must accept that the genre must be what it is and nothing else.

    I grew up watching those horror shows like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and reruns of the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. I loved them because they were what Poe said a short story should be--read in one sitting, providing a clear emotion, and making an impression. Those shows did such on a television level, and, yes, the production values on some of the monsters were terrible.

    Horror, like all genres (westerns, musicals, gangster films) follows a cyclical pattern. Soon something will be profitable and the theater will be the place once again for all our monsters and slashers. For now, we must endure and wait until September/October when the studios throw some turds at us. Hopefully, like The Conjuring, we will get a gem every now and then. But we must ride this out and wait for the tide to turn.

    1. Truth be told, I almost never go out to the theater anymore. At most, theatrical releases serve as a "distant early warning system" that alerts me to movies I may - or may not - be interested in watching at home later. I suppose the current lull only caught my attention because horror movies - good, bad, or indifferent - have maintained a strong and consistent presence at the box office now for well over a decade. This is the first big hiccup we've seen for a while.

      Most of what I'm interested in seeing has for a long while derived from other avenues. Foreign made horror movies continue to dominate, as do smaller independent productions that now often "premiere" on Netflix and the other streaming services. One of the reasons I so enjoy the Movies At Dog Farm events is the opportunity to see some of these smaller films on a bigger screen. My first exposure to many of my favorites from the last ten to fifteen years has been at home, because most of the more interesting titles never see anything more than a token theatrical release at best.

      The current state of horror movie box office is of interest to me primarily because it's the canary in the coalmine. It's an indication - one of the first and biggest - of just how popular the genre is in the broad scheme of things. We're seeing a lot of concurrent cycles begin to run out of gas at the same time. Ghosts and spirits seem to have run their course for the moment, and interest in all of the demons and exorcists seems to be running out of steam, as well. That's fine. Hakuna matata, right? I'm just not seeing that bright light in the distance that seems like it will light the way for the next cycle.

      You're absolutely right about the environment for televised horror being a kind of perfect storm now, but I'd hate to see that success lead to horror vanishing from the multiplex. I'm afraid the success of horror on tv will lead to horror being ghettoized at the box office again. I remember the 90s pretty clearly, and for much of that decade horror at the box office was a vast wasteland. If a studio couldn't euphemistically refer to a horror themed production as a "thriller" then it wasn't happening.

      Thanks for the comment, Carl.

    2. Fret not. We have always had horror around. One of the first Edison films was a simple retelling of the Frankenstein Monster story. Since then, horror has been released in the theater every year. We may have to be patient and wait for the next motif to take hold. Vampires, Zombies, Ghosts, Werewolves, Demons, Slashers--they have all had their turns. Like you said something new will come along.

  2. Found footage, in my opinion, has killed the modern horror film!!!! Well, that and this recent wave of anthology films.

    Ninety minutes should be enough time to develop a story, develop interesting characters, and throw in some good dialogue and good scares. I have no good explanation why this can't happen.

    It is a sad dark time.

    1. I actually touched upon found footage in the first draft of this post and then trimmed it. I enjoyed Ty West's The Sacrament recently, but it could have been so much better if West hadn't taken the found footage route. He didn't "play by the rules" for found footage, anyway - i.e. impossible or improbable camera angles and composition, "movie style" editing, the use of a score with footage that obviously wouldn't have been scored. The premise and (some) performances were great, but I kept being pulled out of the movie by the technical incongruity.

      Thanks for commenting, Kev!

    2. Kev D.,
      I agree that the found footage films have outlived their usefulness, but some were okay entries. Blair Witch and Cloverfield did provide fresh glimpses while VHS offered some gut wrenching horror. However, the overuse of the format coupled with the repetitive ways of trying to scare audiences has worn thin. You are 100% correct with that.

      As far as the anthology films, I didn't realize there were many of them. VHS and the ABC's of Death come to mind, but Trick 'R Treat did a hell of a good job. I guess I'm a little biased because I grew up with Creepshow and Creepshow 2.

      You are absolutely correct, though, on the 90 minute allotment to build character and develop some sound scares. As an amateur screenwriter, I love that page range. In an odd analogy I find it to be like Twitter--get out what you have to say, say it as clear as possible, and do it in so much time so as to avoid excess.

      Be patient, and Horror will have a Renaissance soon!

  3. If you look back as far back as the 1940's horror (as well as other genre's) have suffered through periods like this on the big screen. Take for instance the glut of movies produced by Monogram Pictures in the 40's. A string a cheap pot-boilers that took advantage of horror stars that were down on their luck (we'll revisit that idea in a bit too). Bela Lugosi starred in a bunch of these Monogram films such as Black Dragons, Invisible Ghost and Bowery at Midnight. Those films were often used as B-pictures and today can be found in the Mill Creek 50 Movie sets. Though they may be considered minor classics, or at least historically interesting, at the time they were considered dirt cheap and nobody was giving them a second thought.

    Even if you take the whole exploitation explosion....those films were not meant to have taken on the cult status that they did. They were made fast and cheap so that Billy and Sue could go to the drive-ins and make out while a monster rampaged on the screen. It was only years later that these films became common knowledge to film buffs and horror fans.

    To that end, perhaps in another 20 years or so, people may look back at some of the films that are coming out now and will have some new found appreciation for them. It could be entirely possible that in the year 2045 a group of horror fans will be lamenting the fact that they don't make films like I, Frankenstein and Dracula, Untold anymore. (Okay, so that is probably a stretch, but you get what I mean!) That's not to say that I don't agree that we seem to be in a dry spell with not much in the way of fresh ideas. But that brings me to my next rambling....

    True we are in an age of remakes, reboots and sequels. It seems as though Hollywood has completely run out of ideas, so they're just rehashing old property and milking the few new ideas for all they're worth. This also really isn't anything new. If you look at each decade, you can see the pattern. Some are more clear than others. The 1950's was the giant bug/atomic horror era. The 1970's saw a glut of satanic films hit the theaters. The 1980's was the slasher boom....not to mention the advent of home video which gave rise to the SOV movement. The first decade of the 2000's was all about torture porn. It looks like the 10's will be known as the ghost/supernatural years.

    Also, the 1980's saw a big incline in remakes.....The Thing, The Fly, Invaders From Mars, etc. It also saw a metric shit ton of sequels.....Nightmare on Elm Street Series, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc. And of course let's not forget that 3D made a major comeback in the 80's as well!

    It's all cyclical. This trend will continue on a bit longer until new filmmakers arrive to breath fresh life into the genre once more. On the plus side, in this day and age filmmakers of any walk of life can get a film distributed. I think that some of the best ideas are coming from independent cinema lately....but it will only be a matter of time before Hollywood takes note of some of the truly gifted indie filmmakers and throws a bunch of money at them to create a new cinematic nightmare for the multiplexes. All the magazines and bloggers like us will hail the new film as a new age in horror......and then the whole damn cycle will start again.!

    1. You're undoubtedly right on the money, Matt. I'm sure the "new hotness" will show up soon enough. I'm getting such thorough and detailed comments to this post that I feel like everyone is trying to talk me down off of a ledge. lol

      A friend and I were discussing the democratization of film-making now - almost anything can find an avenue for distribution. It's wonderful that anyone with a vision and a laptop can create something and be reasonably certain they can get some eyeballs on it. The downside to this democratization sometimes is that anyone with a vision and a laptop can create something and be reasonably certain that they can get some eyeballs on it. It often makes for a lot of very sub-par content to dig through. Of course, I'm sure any reader who happens upon the Dog Farm feels the same way about horror movie blogs. lol

      So now I'm going to try to steer the discussion in another direction: what pre-existing sub-genre is due a little time in the spotlight now?

  4. It's funny that you wrote this post actually, because this is a conversation that I've found myself having a lot lately with other genre fans. On the whole, I honestly think that now is one of the best times to be a horror fan. While it may be a little dry in the theaters currently (and we've already established that will change) we have, as you pointed out, a new found wealth of horror on television, we've got horror streaming on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, Full Moon Direct, and a variety of other services. We also now live in an age of retrospective discovery. There is always some distributor somewhere releasing previously unavailable (and sometimes previously unheard of) genre films for us to devour.

    You are 100% correct when it comes to the democratization of film-making. On one side it absolutely clogs up the works with hundreds upon thousands of cheap indie titles made by starry eyed young filmmakers looking to make their mark on the work. Unfortunately, many of them are less interested in making a good horror film than they are just getting noticed.

    Okay, okay...enough of my long winded-ness. As far as pre-existing genre's, I would like to see the Monster movie make a comeback.....I'm not talking about rehashes of Dracula, Frankenstein or The Wolfman....I mean the return of in your face-gory-monster-on-the-loose-movies. And I would like to see new original monsters rampaging. I want to see the return of movies like Rawhead Rex, Pumpkinhead, CHUD, Nightbreed, etc. Of course I wouldn't mind seeing the return of old school monster flicks either.....The Monster of Piedres Blancas, The Blob, Monster on the Campus, etc.

    I think that the supernatural ghost/demon genre has been played out for now. Zombies (except for The Walking Dead) need to be retired as well. There over-saturation of zombie flicks is nearly at the level of cheap vampire flicks.

    You know I wouldn't mind seeing the return of a good slasher villain. It's been a long time since we've had someone on par with Freddy, Jason, Michael or Leatherface. I would love to see a new slasher that harkens back to the greatness of the 80's slashers.

    1. I'd love to see some straight up monster movies, too, with the caveat that the monsters be rendered primarily with practical FX. I really thought ChromeSkull in Laid To Rest had potential as an iconic new slasher villain, but the sequel was just awful. I have to presume that sequel effectively killed the franchise, as I've not heard any rumblings of another chapter. I'd also still give my left nut to see a second Behind The Mask.

  5. 100% yes to the practical effects. I did enjoy Laid to Rest quite a bit. I never got around to watching the sequel, but I did hear that it was pretty bad. I would love to see a sequel to Behind the Mask as well, and supposedly they're working on it, though I have no idea what stage they are at.

    It would be great to see a villain with a great back story and mythology fleshed out like they had in the old days. I think it would also be a nice change to lose a bit of the dark gritty look that has infested so much of horror these days and bring back a more stylized look. Maybe bring just a touch of camp back as well.


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