Why horror is keeping the magic of cinema alive

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2017 had the worst summer box office in over a decade, missing the $4 billion mark for the first time since 2006. While superheroes movies (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming) proved as reliable as ever, audiences generally seemed disinteresting in comedies (Baywatch), dramas (The Glass Castle), and sequels to long-running franchises (Tran5formers, Pirates 5, Alien: Covenant, aka the fifth Alien movie). Granted, you could argue that this is because they weren’t especially good movies, but even some of the summer’s best films (War for the Planet of the Apes) didn’t pack theaters.

This has all worked up to the worst Labor Day weekend in 17 years, according to Box office Mojo. So bad in fact that it made leeway for The Hitman’s Bodyguard to become the #1 movie in American three weeks in a row. Interestingly enough, however, the second weekend of September is pegged to be a box office highlight thanks to a little movie called It. Between the record-breaking trailer and positive early reactions, It stands out as one of the most buzz-worthy movies of 2017. Right now, the film is expected to gross between $50–60 million during its opening weekend. This would not only be the biggest opening weekend for a September release, but the biggest opening for a horror movie ever.

Don’t worry, box office. Pennywise is going to make things all better.

Looking over 2017, the horror genre has actually been an unlikely saving grace at the box office. The most profitable movie of the year so far is Get Out, which made over $250 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget. M. Night Shyamalan’s Split was also a surprise hit, making over $270 million worldwide on a $9 million budget. Annabelle: Creation has currently made over $250 million on a $15 million. Even more remarkable, these films all received rave reviews from critics, with Get Out in particular having 99% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.

What makes this so interesting is that, for the longest time, horror movies were largely viewed as one of the lesser genres. Most of them just repeated the same old slasher formula over and over again. Every once and a while, we’d get a film that looked like a game changer, such as Saw or Paranormal Activity. In the long run, though, those movies just inspired a long string of repetitive sequels and copycats. Since horror movies don’t cost much to make, they’re pretty much guaranteed to show a profit. So it’s not like they really had to push the envelopment creatively. Something funny has happened to horror lately, though: filmmakers are actually trying to evolve the genre.

The Babadook, The Cabin in the Woods, The Conjuring, It Follows, The Witch, all of these movies went above simply trying to shock the audience. They’ve experimented with clever satire, psychological turmoil, and the kind of atmosphere one typically wouldn’t associate with this genre. The same goes for the horror movies we’ve gotten this year. Get Out isn’t just a legitimately creepy movie, but a timely commentary that America needed in the wake of Blake Lives Matter. Horror movies aren’t only becoming scarier, funnier, and smarter, but more important to the survival of cinema.

All of these movies have several things in common that Hollywood should take notes on. Unlike some overpriced summer flicks like Valerian or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, they didn’t require gigantic budgets. The filmmakers were able to create a great deal with very little, relying on style and storytelling as apposed to flashy special effects. These films didn’t always have to spend a bundle on advertising either. Many of them found audiences simply through positive word of mouth.

Even films that had a ton of effort thrown into their marketing campaigns, such as It, are taking a more intriguing approach to generate hype. Director Andy Muschietti started off sharing concept sketches on his Instagram account. After that, posters featuring Pennywise started to surface online. Last March, we got a 19-second teaser for the film, which got us even more excited for the actual trailer. The filmmakers and studio have been building tension to the film’s release and not just forcing advertisements down our throats.

It’s also worth mentioning that horror movies aren’t relying on star power to sell tickets. The cast of It is primarily comprised of lesser known child actors, the biggest being Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things. It would’ve been easy for the studio to go with a household name for the role of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but instead they hired the up-and-coming Bill Skarsgård. If anything, the fact that Skarsgård isn’t the biggest star only helps the film. After all, when you’re watching a monster movie, you don’t want to see an actor playing a monster. You want to see a monster!

Get Out didn’t seek out big names like Will Smith and Emma Watson, instead casting reliable character actors like Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Keener, and Bradley Whitford. Annabelle: Creation, which is part of a popular franchise, knew that audiences were coming to see the sinister doll. So it would’ve been a waste to write a check for a big star. The closest we’ve gotten to a star vehicle as of late is Split with James McAvoy. Of course when a movie centers on a character with multiple personalities, you usually need to spend a little extra on an A-lister like McAvoy that can pull the role off. The same can be said about John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Besides, both of those movies were able to maintain low budgets even with one or two established actors.

Above all else, horror is keeping the cinema alive because it’s one of the few genres that’s getting people to see movies in theaters. In an age of streaming, many people would rather just stay home and watch a movie on Netflix, except for Christopher Nolan. The fact that we’re in a golden age of television doesn’t help the box office either. Even if a movie is amazing, it’s not necessarily enough to attract audiences. Tickets are expensive and going to the theater can be a hassle. So why not just wait until the film is streaming? You basically get the same effect watching a movie at home, right?

In some cases, sure. In other cases, watching a movie in the theater makes all the difference. If you’re going to see Dunkirk, you have to see it in IMAX. Watching it on a home entertainment system wouldn’t be nearly as engrossing. With an event picture like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, standing in line with a large group of fans is half the fun. Horror movies in particular demand to be seen at the cinemas.

The dark theater and big screen can add another level of terror to the equation, as can the audience. It was a blast watching Get Out with a packed house, listening to everyone gasp, laugh, and applaud. I’ll never forget how people reacted to the twist ending in Split. Even when I have to sit through a bad horror movie, like The Bye Bye Man or Rings, at least there’s an audience to make fun of it with me.

Personally, I can’t wait to see It this week. Not just because it looks scary as hell, but because I’m going to experience the film with an audience. No matter how the movie turns out, I know that the audience is going to have an interesting reaction. To me, that’s why going to the cinema is so magical and the horror genre is keeping that magic alive.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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