What’s happening in the world around us strongly influences what kind of entertainment we consume, especially when it comes to cinema. While the majority soak in multiple screenings of Frozen, we’re sitting on pins and needles for Godzilla to take our minds off every day life. Nearly everyone looks to film as escapism but, as horror fans, we search for escapism in a very different place.
With Lionsgate’s The Quiet Ones bombing at the box office and Oculus not performing as expected, people are once again running around screaming “horror is dead” like the sky is falling. It happens way too often (especially near summer), but it’s such a fallacy that it’s insulting to us who live and die by the genre.
Recently Brad reviewed Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2 and noted that McLean understood what kind of horror we want in 2014. Even if that particular film doesn’t float your boat, it displays a conscious decision to move away from what hasn’t been working. Things have changed drastically since 9/11, a time when anger, rage and fear were filling our hearts. There was a time and a place for films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jeepers Creepers, Wrong Turn, Martyrs and Saw – and it’s not now. Nobody wants to spend $8-15 and walk out of a theater feeling like they were in a boxing match. It’s interesting to see this shift not only in the work of a filmmaker (several of them have smartly changed gears), but within a franchise itself. Wolf Creek 2 is, tonally speaking, miles away from the original Wolf Creek.
Generally speaking, regular horror fans and the casually genre viewer don’t want to feel like crap when they see a movie. It’s just a fact. Sure, hardcore vets love a good gut-punch now and then, but ultimately our hearts always stick to films like Dead Alive, Evil Dead 2, Drag Me To Hell and other movies that make us feel good when we return to the well. Admit it, you’re rarely just sitting there tempted to pull Martyrs off the shelf for the 30th time.
Feel-good horror isn’t the same as a horror comedy. Let’s get that straight. The best horror films, in our opinion (though Evan loves horror comedies), are the ones that manage to play it straight and have fun with the viewer. And to land box office gold, there should be a sense of trust between the film and its audience. It may seem like a tired axiom, but you truly do need to “connect.” The Conjuring, Insidious, Mama and most of the Paranormal Activity franchise are all films that connected (as fans of the Evil Dead remake, there’s an argument to be made that it connected as well – though some wound up preferring the trailer to the actual film). They played it straight but implored the audience to give themselves over to a ride. And since they were largely successful in validating that trust, a few of them wound up being pretty damn fun.
It’s always important to ask, “is the film punishing its characters or is it punishing the audience?” There’s a distinct difference between the two. If your desire is to punish the audience, fine. That’s your right as an artist. Just be aware of the choices you are making in this regard (and their potential consequences).
Another question worth asking is, “are we boring the audience to death?” Earlier this week The Wrap published a panicked piece about the state of horror. Especially at the box office. But they’re putting the onus of failure on the genre, ignoring the fact that most of the films they cite either weren’t that great or were commercial disappointments whose downfalls are easy to pinpoint. The Quiet Ones, Oculus, The Marked Ones and Devil’s Due. It gets on our nerves when publications take jabs at our genre, predicting its downfall without understanding what the problem is.
Lets start with The Quiet Ones. It’s not a great movie. Full stop. Even the trailer couldn’t cut around the frayed edges. We would never pay to see the movie they were selling, so how can we expect an audience to pony up? Oculus? Some of us here loved it, some of us didn’t. But it’s a film with a decidedly indie aesthetic. It has no stars and it doesn’t exactly look like a good time either. It’s not actually even doing that poorly, having grossed $27 million on a reported budget of $5 million. Yes, there’s a P&A campaign to pay off, but it has a chance of going into the black eventually. Also, how much did you expect this film to make? It doesn’t have the character work, relatability or mainstream appeal that catapulted The Conjuring to a $318 million global take.
A few of us here liked Devil’s Due but audiences didn’t respond to it. Fair enough. Studio found footage shoots itself in the foot by mandating an overabundance of camera references because they can’t trust that the audience “gets it” by this point. Also, if you shove enough crap like 2012’s The Devil Inside down people’s throats, they’re going to start rejecting similar looking fare (or films marketed in the same manner). Think about it, two years ago millions upon millions of people crowded into theaters to give The Devil Inside – a godawful movie – a massive opening weekend. Then they were all given a URL instead of an ending. This is an especially egregious act of poisoning the well and an argument could me made that studio found footage horror hasn’t been doing as well since.
This extends to the failure of The Marked Ones – universally praised as being among the better Paranormal Activity films – to live up to commercial expectations. The reasoning here is so simple it’s blinding. People hated PA4. It didn’t help that they were confused as to what The Marked Ones even was. A sequel? A spin-off? But it was mainly PA4. Why even bother when the last one was awful? Franchise fatigue is a real thing even before you factor in diminishing creative returns.
It’s not horror that audiences are rejecting, it’s bad movies. Boring studio-made found footage has been run into the ground. Even if you make a good one, the target audience is so sick of being burned they’re going to avoid it. There’s no sense that any of these films are pushing the envelope, which is the most interesting part of the FF aesthetic.
There’s a ton more horror coming this year. On the studio front there’s Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil in July. There’s also The Purge 2: Anarchy and The Green Inferno hitting this summer. Annabelle comes out in October. New Line has October 3rd pegged for a surprise. On the indie front we have Starry Eyes, The Sacrament, Late Phases, Creep, The Babadook, Faults and all sorts of great films. If all of those flop, then maybe we should freak out.
A studio can spend as much as they want marketing a horror movie but, unless they establish a sense of trust with the audience, the turnout is going to be disappointing. If horror is to thrive once again (and it will), writers, directors, producers and studio execs needs to get their collective heads out of their asses and understand the people they are selling their movies to.