Much like 1985, 1981 and 1979, 2016 will be remembered as one of the all-time great years for horror. Although the finest genre films often don’t make it to most multiplexes these days, that has not been the case this year, as in 2016, the average moviegoer has been treated to one original and scary release after another, films that they actually don’t have to feel bad about spending money on. And consumers have been taking note of this higher quality output. Fede Alvarez’s magnificent Don’t Breathe was recently #1 at the box office two weeks in a row, beating out major blockbusters like Suicide Squad and Sausage Party. At the time of this writing, 2016’s wide-release horror movies have collectively grossed about $860 million worldwide.
And the year isn’t even over yet. With four months left to go, we have already seen huge hits like The Witch, The Conjuring 2, The Shallows, Lights Out and Don’t Breathe, not to mention all the movies that did not get a wide release like Hush and Southbound. For comparison, by this time last year, our mainstream horror releases were The Woman in Black 2, The Lazarus Effect, Unfriended, Poltergeist, Insidious: Chapter 3, The Gallows and Sinister 2. Yikes.
So this certainly feels like a noticeably better year than usual, both financially and critically. But to further examine that feeling, let’s take a look at these past few years’ major releases, their reviews among critics (specifically focusing on the Rotten Tomatoes score), and their box office take. We’ll consider a major release to be anything that played on at least 2,000 screens, and which therefore was common enough that the vast majority of people could very easily see it.
As of early September, eight 2016 horror movies meet this criteria. And for the first time this decade, over half of them received a “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes; The Witch, The Conjuring 2, The Shallows, Lights Out and Don’t Breathe were all rated 76 percent or above. A horror movie being so well received among critics is generally a big deal, but in 2016, it has been the norm.
Only three out of this year’s eight releases were rated “rotten,” those being The Boy, The Forest and The Purge: Election Year (which was six points away from being “fresh”). The average Rotten Tomatoes score among the eight 2016 major horror releases is 62 percent.
This is as good a hit-to-miss ratio as we’ve seen in a long, long time. In 2015, of the year’s 10 major horror releases, only four of them received “fresh” scores, and only one of them, Unfriended, was out by early September. So although we’ve already had five critically-acclaimed mainstream horror films this year, at this point in 2015, we had just one. The average Rotten Tomatoes score of a major horror release in 2015 was 41.3 percent, over 20 points lower than 2016’s currently is.
2015 was a relatively decent year, too. Believe it or not, in the entirety of 2014, only a single wide-release horror movie received a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, that being Mike Flanagan’s Oculus. The average score that year was an embarrassing 34.5 percent (though it was 39 percent in early September), and the typical moviegoer was assaulted month after month with truly awful pieces of work like Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due and Ouija.
These are the films consumers use to judge the genre, so it’s no wonder its perception among the general public is so poor. The Babadook was the greatest that year had to offer, but it had an extremely limited theatrical run, and it was only when the movie hit Netflix years later that it earned any sort of recognition from people who don’t keep up with horror news.
2013 was an okay year in terms of major releases, with Evil Dead, The Conjuring, and You’re Next hitting screens within a few months of one another. Still, cinemas were also populated by movies like Texas Chainsaw 3D and Dark Skies, the result being an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 48.7 percent, or 50 percent in early September.
With 2012, exemplary movies like The Cabin in the Woods, The Woman in Black and Sinister might make one forget how dismal the rest of the year was. In fact, 2012 brought us the two worst-reviewed wide-release horror films of this decade: The Devil Inside and Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, which received scores of six percent and five percent respectively. The average score of the year was 36.2 percent (44 percent in early September).
2011 was the last time we had anything close to as consistent a year as 2016 thanks to films like Scream 4, Insidious, Final Destination 5 and Fright Night. Yet even so, The Rite, Shark Night 3D and The Thing soured the waters and brought the average Rotten Tomatoes rating down to a 50.8 percent (50.7 percent in early September).
Finally, 2010 was home to only three wide-release horror movies that were relatively well received: The Crazies, Piranha 3D, and The Last Exorcism. Even in all three of those cases, the positive reaction was hardly rapturous, and with the rest of the year’s dreck like the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, the average score was 41.6 percent (53 percent in early September).
Looking at these past six years, there are a few key takeaways. First, even the “bad” horror films of 2016 have not been nearly as toxic as in previous years. The Forest was debatably the only truly rubbish one, with The Boy and The Purge: Election Year being uninteresting misfires at worst. In all of the other years we’ve looked at, several releases were so universally condemned as to later receive dedicated episodes on podcasts about bad movies.
Secondly, after examining the 2010s so far, it’s clear that 2016 has given us the highest number of horror movies that are enthusiastically recommended as opposed to half-heartedly recommended or given the faint praise that they don’t suck as hard expected. The Witch, The Conjuring 2, and Don’t Breathe were all celebrated as genuinely fantastic filmmaking even by those who tend not to like horror, with Lights Out and The Shallows receiving a less universal but still generally quite positive reaction. With a score of 91 percent, The Witch is the best reviewed “pure horror” release of the 2010s, only being beaten out by the horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods.
Perhaps most importantly, of 2016’s eight major releases, at least three of them are bold and original concepts that audiences have not seen before. Lights Out and Don’t Breathe caught the attention of millions with instantly intriguing premises, and The Witch dazzled by putting an artistic spin on a subgenre that has not been all that popular in recent years. Compare that to 2015; of the 10 mainstream releases, three were sequels, four were found-footage movies, and one was a remake.
The cynics among us might expect those sequels and remakes to have performed better than 2016’s original properties, but that is actually not true. While this year’s box office take has not been historic or unprecedented, it has certainly been rather impressive, suggesting that for studios, financing an audacious and unique film can be just as lucrative, if not more so, than financing another found-footage sequel or franchise reboot.
Keeping in mind that Don’t Breathe is continuing to rake in cash, as of early September, 2016’s major horror releases have grossed $861 million collectively. The entirety of 2015’s major horror releases grossed just $684 million, and if we discount movies that opened beyond this point in September, that number shrinks to $451 million. In 2014, the horror box office take was about the same as 2015, with the year’s movies bringing in $685 million, and just $326 million by early September.
The year to beat is 2013, when The Conjuring’s massive success brought the year’s total up to about $1 billion. But with Blair Witch and Rings on the way in time for the 2016 Halloween season, it is realistic to imagine that 2016 will wind up being this decade’s best year for horror, both for the studios and for fans.
Those fans have become painfully used to having to justify their passion for the genre to friends, exposing loved ones to movies that did not make it to theaters like Trick ‘r Treat and explaining that it’s these films, not the latest remake from Platinum Dunes, that represents the genre we know and love.
That defensiveness is not required in 2016, one of the only years in recent memory in which multiplexes have been populated by quality pieces of horror storytelling that, in many cases, qualify as some of the year’s best films of any genre. It has been a year for making artistic horror pictures like The Witch that shock the world by earning more money than a found-footage film might. It’s been a year for exploring new ground with the strikingly original Don’t Breathe and Lights Out, and a year where even familiar subgenres, i.e. the shark attack movie, are given interesting spins.
Maybe 2016 is an outlier. But if this trend can continue into 2017 and beyond, perhaps we will look back at this time as the dawn of a new era, when the genre stopped being viewed as the cinematic equivalent of fast food, when it started earning back its respect among audiences and critics, and when mainstream horror was made great again.