What's that, Carrie didn't scare you at all this weekend? Sorry, that's the only "scary movie" we're getting this month. Without even a new Paranormal Activity sequel to depend on, Hollywood's Halloween spirit is nil this year. What gives?
It was all good just a year ago.
By this time last year, horror was killing it at the box office. Sinister, an unusually bleak (by Hollywood's standards, that is) and inexpensively made (budget: $3 million) supernatural chiller starring Ethan Hawke and produced by Paranormal Activity and Insidious backer Jason Blum, opened on October 12, 2012, and pulled in $18 mil its first weekend, en route to a robust $48 million total domestically. One week later, Paranormal Activity 4, by no means a fan-favorite entry into the found-footage series, debuted with a $29 million three-day opening stretch, eventually maxing out at $53 mil. Honoring October's connection to all things ghosts, goblins, and monstrous, Hollywood prepped audiences for Halloween with a pair of big-deal scary movies. Whether you liked both Sinister and Paranormal Activity 4 or not, you at least had to appreciate the options big studios were offering. Because, really, there's nothing like sitting in a packed movie theater during Halloween season, in the dark, as people jump, scream, clap, yell, and animatedly react to what's on the big screen. It's a communal experience. Ready to embrace October's inherently ghoul-heavy vibe, horror fans look forward to visiting the nearest multiplex and quoting that '80s genre movie badass Tom Atkins in the wonderful 1986 horror-comedy Night of the Creeps: "Thrill me."
This year, however, it's more like, "Kill me now." The only major horror movie coming out of Hollywood this month? The underwhelming and ultimately pointless remake of Carrie, which opened this weekend to a so-so $17 million, a number that's close to Sinister's $18 mil stat yet, budget wise, in a much weaker league. Carrie, by comparison, cost $30 million to produce, and it's all up there on the screen, every outburst of CGI-fueled telekinesis and glossy rehash of damn near everything director Brian De Palma did in his far superior 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's classic novel. Under normal circumstances, Carrie's creative failures would sting, yes, but they'd be easier to manage; after all, it's not like director Kimberly Peirce's film is the first horror remake to unsuccessfully regurgitate ideas and story from a much better genre hallmark. But under those normal October circumstances, horror fans would have a second choice to help them forget about Carrie. Even another Paranormal Activity sequel would be welcome, but, alas, Carrie is all we're getting this year.
At your local multiplex, the spirit of Halloween is, sadly, dead.
What the hell happened? For starters, horror's now too big of a business for major studios to care much about October. The rules of release date scheduling have changed. All bets are off. Just look at 2013's biggest horror flicks—they're more worthy of "summer blockbuster" tags than simply being referred to as horror. First came The Purge, the slightly dystopian home-invasion film that reunited Sinister collaborators Ethan Hawke and Jason Blum, calculated a whopping $34 mil on a minuscule $3 mil budget its opening weekend, and climbed all the way to $64 million. The next month, James Wan's old-school ghost-and-demon throwback The Conjuring bodied the game with a scary-great $41 million opening and a $137 million grand total. Then, in September, Wan broke the bank again with Insidious: Chapter 2, made on a $5 million price tag and scoring $40 million worth of opening weekend ticket sales and $81 million total. Together, the three-headed beast of The Purge, The Conjuring, and Insidious: Chapter 2 represent some of the year's most profitable motion pictures, regardless of genre. Don't think that every Hollywood executive worth his or her inflated salary isn't looking at those box office grosses and plotting out next year's summer-released horror films. They're not caring about October anymore—June, July, and September are now the new Octobers. Beach balls over Jack-O-Lanterns.
It's not all about the warm weather scares, though. Earlier this year, in January, the Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama nearly doubled its $15 million budget in three days before cashing out at $72 million. Of all these 2013 horror triumphs, Mama is the most damning for future Octobers. Originally, the film was marked down for an October 2012 release, but del Toro and Universal Pictures saw the Jason-Blum-powered double whammy of Sinister and Paranormal Activity 4 on the horizon and re-calibrated their plans. Chances are, they looked at the massive success Paramount Pictures had in January 2012 with the found-footage exorcism pic The Devil Inside, a critically maligned polarizer that, despite the critics' collective scorn, upped its measly $1 million budget to a staggering $34 million opening weekend. January's appeal to studio execs trying to turn quick profits with genre movies is easy to understand. Right in the heart of awards season, when studios are working extra hard to secure nominations and package their most prestigious releases as must-see events, January is a month wide open for the little guys to sneak in and earn tons of first-weekend cash without the studios needing to do much legwork or pump excessive amounts of money into marketing or promotions. Stick a creepy, eye-grabbing poster into theaters, cut together a strong trailer and attention-catching commercials, and it's profit city.
Hence why the two coolest-looking new horror movies (though they're both found-footage and cover similar horror ground) premiered this month, but only in trailer form prior to their January 2014 release dates. There's Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a Latino-tinged spinoff set to open on January 3, giving it a two-week lead time before 20th Century Fox unleashes Devil's Due (January 17), a low-budgeter directed by two members of Radio Silence, fresh off of their participation in last year's indie found-footage horror anthology V/H/S. Made on similarly tiny budgets, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Devil's Due will no doubt attract enough moviegoers on their respective opening weekends to be considered victories, meaning January 2015 will probably feature three new studio-distributed horror movies, leaving October with fewer and fewer options.
Theoretically, either one, or both, of those movies could have been released this month, rather than waiting three extra months. When Paramount Pictures bumped Paranormal Activity 5 from its initial October 25 date (due to production delays), that prime Halloween-targeted date was anyone's for the taking. And it's not like other studios aren't sitting on potentially marketable horror movies. Case in point: The Weinstein Company, the once-dominant home for horror, thanks to the offshoot distribution company Dimension Films. Under the Weinsteins' control (i.e., collecting dusts in their vaults somewhere, held hostage) are Satanic, a college-set stalk-and-kill film starring Twilight veteran Ashley Greene, and the surreal French gem Livid, the latter having been sans any kind of release for over two years now.
Directed by buzz-earners Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, the duo behind 2007's modern-day horror classic Inside, Livid has everything an October release needs—it's set on Halloween night, features vampires and zombies (in these case, living dead ballerinas with hatchets), has serious gore, and is legitimately unsettling. Granted, it also has subtitles, but let's remain on topic here. In July 2011, the Weinstein Company acquired Livid's U.S. distribution rights after the film's strong festival run, but it was more of a chess move than one meant to treat horror fans to one of the strangest and most singular horror movies made in the last 10 years. Rather than, say, taking advantage of October 2013's dearth of theatrical horror movies and giving Livid a shot, The Weinstein Company has been developing an Americanized remake for a release date of Nevuary 34, 2000-whenever. And, please believe, if the Livid remake ever happens, don't expect it to hit theaters in October. A mid-January release seems more likely, unless they somehow entice Kristen Stewart and Michael B. Jordan to star, in which case a summer unveiling could make good sense business-wise. They could have another The Conjuring on their hands, or at least another The Purge.
It's a horror lover's pipe dream, sure, but just think for a second how cool it'd be to see inventive and artistically proficient horror films like Livid opening for Halloween. Especially when you realize how long it's been since studios took that kind of horror-minded chance in October. One look back at the October release lists for the last eight years prior to 2013 shows three common words: Saw, and Paranormal Activity. Two of the biggest horror franchises ever, the Jigsaw-led gore-fests and the found-footage haunted house films—distributed by Lions Gate Films and Paramount Pictures, respectively—owned the last eight Halloween seasons, scaring off every other studio from dropping new horror films anywhere within a four-week radius of either franchise's always bankable sequels.
Pre-October 2013, the thought of yet another October strong-armed by the next Saw or Paranormal Activity movie filled the purist of horror aficionados with minimal excitement, balanced by frustration. With so may excellent indie horror films being relegated to Video On-Demand, straight-to-DVD, or blink-and-you'll-miss-it theatrical runs on upwards of four U.S. screens, it's been tough to accept that Saw's Jigsaw and/or PA's enigmatic spirit "Toby" were to be the only fright flicks premiering at the nearby AMC, Loews, or Regal cinemas. But the—the yearning for original horror, be damned—a new Paranormal Activity sequel would have been a gift from the terror gods after having seen Carrie, best described as a darker version of She's All That randomly off-set by out-of-place telekinesis, murder, and God-fearing.
It should be noted that Hollywood hasn't completely forsaken the scares this month. Two of the year's most unnerving films are currently playing in theaters—Gravity, a 90-minute frightfest for anyone who's ever had a nightmare set in outer space, and 12 Years a Slave, a visceral look at slavery that's more disturbing than most quote-unquote horror movies. Any single moment of tension from either one of those films is scarier than anything Paranormal Activity 5 could have delivered, let alone Carrie.
It's not the same, though. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, both being amazing motion pictures, are for "them," the fancy-pants critics and cinephiles who, outside of October, when it's suddenly acceptable for everyone to jump on the horror bandwagon, scoff at the genre. They're the same people who responded to The Conjuring's widely positive reviews with backhanded compliments echoing the sentiment of, "Wow, someone finally made a horror film that's OK for us to like," as if one needs to explain why'd they give a horror movie four stars. Films like Sinister, though, or Let Me In (an October 2010 release), or Quarantine (October 2008), are for us, the horror faithful who'll praise Neil Marshall with as much verve as we'd salute Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron or 12 Years a Slave shotcaller Steve McQueen. We don't want a Carrie remake. We'd be perfectly fine with something comparable to 30 Days of Night (October 2007). But, deep down, we really want Livid.
Hell, we'd even lower the bar significantly, as long as it meant the audience experience could happen. Exiting last week's screening of Carrie, shaking my head in disappointment while mourning 2013's death of October, I found myself flashing back to late October 1999, when the House on Haunted Hill remake, starring Taye Diggs and Geoffrey Rush, came out. I was 17 at the time, in my senior year of high school. The weekend House on Haunted Hill opened, I assembled a bunch of my friends that Friday night to check it out with me, knowing that, even if the film ended up being whatever, a few of my peers would physically react in that unlit screening room.
Which most, if not all, of them did—and, yes, I jumped a few times as well. What can I say, as hokey as House on Haunted Hill is overall (i.e., co-star Chris "Corky Romano" Kattan's inexplicable presence), director William Malone wanted to scare the piss out of his audiences, and his earnestness was undeniable. And his effectiveness at doing so was there on my friends' faces, and in their emphatic reactions.
On October 29, 1999, my high school friends and I had an absolute blast. As soon as we left the theater, having been shaken up nicely by House on Haunted Hill's cheap but delightful thrills, we went back to a buddy's house and played back specific scenes to one another, laughing the night away. Acknowledging me as the group's resident horror guy, some of them even asked me to recommend some movies that could trump House on Haunted Hill's impact. It was Halloween weekend, and they were officially in the mood to treat it as such.
Maybe it shouldn't bother me so much that teenagers today will have to rely on Kimberly Peirce's Carrie to form a memory as lasting as my night figuratively inside William Malone's House on Haunted Hill, but it does. The worst part, though, is knowing that the bigwigs in Hollywood couldn't give a damn less about giving ticket-buyers the opportunity to form their own variations of that memory.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)