Only a couple of years ago, the horror genre seemed newly resurgent, like an undead killer digging himself out of the grave. "Fresh-faced" directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Darren Lynn Bousman, and James Wan — many of whom were dubbed "The Splat Pack" — seemed poised to bring their new takes on terror to the masses in a big way. They succeeded, briefly. But even as some of the movies continued to innovate this year — the campy retro-double feature of Grindhouse; the smart satire of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon; the oddball survival horror of The Mist — box office receipts plunged, sufficiently so that by the end of 2007, obvious horror titles were attempting to promote themselves as something else. Rachel Belofsky, president of Screamfest L.A., tried to get P2, about a young woman stalked through a parking garage, for the closing-night show of the fest, but the distributors "kept saying they weren't marketing it as a horror film," she says. "They ram a guy duct-taped to a chair into a wall repeatedly. The last time I looked, that's a horror film!"
But as studios scrambled to salvage their horror lineups and adjust expectations, a different sort of scary movie emerged. "I must say that the scariest stuff in terms of new films was encapsulated in Javier Bardem's performance in No Country for Old Men," says Lucky McKee, writer-director of the cult hit May and one of Showtime's Masters of Horror episodes. Indeed, you won't see the Coen brothers' movie advertised as horror, but what else should you call a film about a black-clad, borderline-supernatural assassin who wanders Texas blowing holes in people's heads with a compressed air gun? The Los Angeles Film Critics Association recently bestowed their Best Picture award upon There Will Be Blood, but as horror fans know, that title comes straight from the lips of Tobin Bell in Saw II. "They must have liked the line!" Bell says, before incredulously asking, "It's contending for an Oscar?"
Even Atonement, the year's big English-accented costume-drama awards-bait epic from the director of Pride and Prejudice, features a scene in which an injured soldier's head is unbandaged to reveal a massive gaping wound from which a big chunk of broken skull promptly falls. A similar scene in Saw III had audience members fainting just last year. So if moviegoers are still hungry for gore, why haven't they been flocking to the films that traffic in it primarily?
Roth, whose Hostel Part II was a disappointment compared to the first Hostel (though it made $35 million internationally on a $10 million budget), thinks the scheduling of this year's genre titles didn't help. "My whole argument was, why are we coming out in the summer?" he says. "It was June, and people were in the mood for Ocean's 13 and Pirates of the Caribbean; they were just in the mood for summer blockbusters."
Courtney Solomon, president of After Dark Films, got stuck with a July release date for Captivity, which was delayed and fared dismally after the MPAA forcibly recalled its controversial billboards and posters. "The movie was originally scheduled for May 18, which would have been the first horror movie out that summer, going head to head with Shrek 3 so we'd have been counterprogramming," he says. "There were a lot of screens available and it was perfect timing, [but] because it got suspended by the MPAA, it wasn't possible to go out anymore on that date."
Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing for Lionsgate, which released both Hostel Part II and the more successful Saw IV, thinks the wait for a Hostel sequel might have been too long for moviegoers. "One of the reasons the Saw movies do so well is because they come in rapid succession," he says, adding that Hostel Part II "could have been better served if it was released earlier."
Hostel Part II and Captivity were also not exactly critical faves, but even horror movies that were well liked by critics failed to gain traction. What happened to Grindhouse and The Mist? Easter and Thanksgiving opening dates, Roth says, noting, "Everyone's with their families. ... Why did 1408 do so well and why did The Mist not do so well? They're both supernatural horror movies [and both based on Stephen King stories]. I honestly think it's the weekend." Notable among the movies that did hit were Rob Zombie's Halloween, released at the very end of the summer blockbuster season in August; 30 Days of Night, in October; and Saw IV, on Halloween weekend.
So there's life in the genre yet, as Belofsky is quick to point out: "What happens when a romantic comedy bombs? Are there front-page articles in Variety going, 'Comedies are dead'? It just seems funny to me that a genre that makes millions of dollars for this industry is the quickest one to get panned."
Solomon, however, doesn't explain away the box office downturn as bad timing or the media's genre bias. He thinks it's time to move away from the current trend of "torture porn" — more-realistic horror about bad people who torture and kill — since we see enough of that on the news already. Hinting at his company's future, he suggests that "creature horror movies are probably something that people would be more interested in, because we haven't seen a lot of those, à la Alien, in recent times, so a fresh one like that would probably be accepted very, very well." Stay tuned — Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem opens Christmas Day at a theater near you.