Despite being the backbone of Hollywood, horror movies have never been revered in the eyes of Hollywood. Now that the genre is conquering not just the box office (thanks It) but the critical conversation too (thanks Get Out), horror is one of the last great hopes in a shrinking industry.
Hollywood has always relied on horror movies. In an industry that churns in a constant cycle of fads and trends, horror has reliably been the safest bet, with decades of box-office returns definitively proving that audiences will pay money to get the hell scared out of them.
Of course, relying on something isn’t the same as respecting it. Hollywood has long had a kind of reflective snobbishness about horror movies — a self-perpetuating cycle in which studios, largely writing horror movies off as cheap and lazy, would race to the bottom with cheap, lazy horror movies.
“When I first started out and would go on pitch meetings, there was always this kind of eye-roll that would come with pitching a horror movie when you were dealing with the studios,” says horror director Mike Flanagan, whose recent movies include Hush and Gerald’s Game. “Unless it was viewed as a cheap product that could turn a lot of profit, there wasn’t a lot of interest in making it good. It was like fast food. ‘We can make this cheap, on a grand scale, and people will consume it. It doesn’t matter if it’s empty calories.’”
Those awful studio movies still exist, as anyone who saw the Flatliners remake can tell you — but over the past decade or so, they’ve rapidly been outpaced by an explosion of fresh horror talent, championed by critics and (generally) embraced by audiences who are hungry for unapologetically adult-oriented fare.
What’s the single trend that unifies all the horror movies being released right now? The answer: they’re all so good. Horror movies, which were snobbishly dismissed for so long, are now routinely better-reviewed than your average “prestige” movie. And this year — for the first time ever — the most critically lauded movie released to date is a horror movie. For the first time, cinema’s most commercially viable genre is also its most acclaimed.
This year, for the first time ever, the most critically lauded movie released to date is a horror movie.
What spawned this horror renaissance? It starts with the talent making it. Horror is the ideal genre for an up-and-coming filmmaker to cut his or her teeth — just ask James Cameron or Steven Spielberg — and the film industry has been injected with a slew of young producers and filmmakers who are passionately committed to telling horror stories.
“It’s an even battleground with low expectations,” says director Adam Wingard, the man behind movies like You’re Next, The Guest, and Netflix’s adaptation of Death Note. “If you come in there and show that you have an eye for something different, and a point of view, you can stand out immediately.”
I took a look at the full landscape of the modern-day horror movie — and interviewed expert horror filmmakers Adam Wingard, Andy Muschietti, Karyn Kusama, and Mike Flanagan — to get a sense of where things stand right now, and where it all might be going.
1. Everything old is new again, forever
When a Hollywood studio greenlights a brand-new entry in a longstanding horror franchise, the reasoning tends to be pretty straightforward: You can lower your risk of a flop with a name people recognize. This is how we got to 11 Friday the 13th movies, 9 Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and a new Halloween next year. “Most Hollywood executives make horror movies because they make money, not because they like them, and I think most of the fans can tell that,” said producer Jason Blum in a March interview with Vulture. “When a studio makes sequels to a horror movie — not always, but most of the time — it’s very cynical and they suck.”
It’s a challenge for even the most seasoned and passionate horror director. In 2016, Adam Wingard was tapped to mount a proper continuation of The Blair Witch Project, which had its franchise potential snuffed out after an ill-considered sequel in 2000. “Something like Blair Witch, from the get-go, has a built-in expectation to it,” says Wingard. “The first film did huge business, the second film was a big disappointment. And here we were, saying, ‘Is it possible to resurrect this thing and make it work in a new context?’ It wasn’t just about trying to make a scary horror film. It was trying to work within the confines of a studio and a pre-existing brand, or name, or whatever. That added some challenges.”
Reboots and re-imaginings aren’t going anywhere — they’re an entrenched part of Hollywood’s business model. A Saw reboot comes out this week just seven years after the now-inaccurately titled The Final Chapter. But when you look at the raw numbers, a pattern emerges. Despite the common wisdom that franchise movies are a safer bet, they tend to cost more and underperform. Blair Witch grossed just $20 million domestically, Rings grossed just $27 million, and Jigsaw is tracking to open well behind many of the original horror movies released this year. Hollywood keeps making these movies — but the evidence that audiences actually want them is dodgy at best.
2. The other successful cinematic universe
And that brings us to another inescapable Hollywood trend: cinematic universes. It rarely comes up in the same sentence — maybe because it doesn’t have a catchy name like the Marvel Cinematic Universe — but the successful launch of the Conjuring-verse is far less remarked upon, and just as impressive a feat. Beginning with 2013’s The Conjuring and its 2016 sequel — a third is in development — director James Wan has overseen a series of interconnected movies that briefly introduce horror concepts later explored, in great detail, in standalone movies.
There’s Annabelle, and the prequel Annabelle: Creation, both of which were huge hits. Next year brings The Nun, and after that The Crooked Man, which could plausibly spin off multiple sequels in their own right. “James Wan — what he’s directing and producing — is really great,” says Adam Wingard. “I think he’s got a real handle on putting stuff that is on the pulse of the mainstream.”
James Wan spoke about the ever-expanding Conjuring universe in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in August. “When we were starting out, when we made the first Conjuring, we always kind of quietly, jokingly, among ourselves, felt that the world of the Warrens, and all the interesting artifacts they have in their haunted room, could have their own stories and therefore spawn movies,” he said. “We had hopes and aspirations but we never thought in our wildest dreams that we could actually go on and do it.” (Wan was unavailable for an interview for this story.)
But when you’re trying to establish a whole universe, recent Hollywood history shows there’s a steep cost for failure. Universal has spent the past few years trying to launch a series of interconnected action/horror hybrid movies, in a grand scheme dubbed the “Dark Universe,” with big-name stars like Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, and Johnny Depp all slated to star.
The Dark Universe was originally supposed to begin with 2014’s Dracula Untold, but that was written out of continuity after an indifferent reception. Universal tried again, unsuccessfully, with this summer’s flop The Mummy. Next up is supposed to be Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein — purportedly starring Angelina Jolie (though there are rumors that Gal Gadot may take over if Jolie quits). But Bride of Frankenstein has already been delayed from its announced release date of 2019, and it’s not clear when (or if) it’ll actually happen.
3. Blumhouse: Too small to fail
Of course, The Mummy cost $125 million to produce, and tens of millions more to market. “They push all of their chips onto one number,” says director Mike Flanagan, whose own slate of horror movies includes Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, and Gerald’s Game. “They pour so much risk and so much money into these huge flops. But if you just believe in the filmmakers and the audience, it’s a much safer bet.”
Flanagan is speaking from experience. He’s one of several filmmakers associated with Blumhouse, the horror-centric production studio founded by Jason Blum. “There’s a lot more freedom, creatively [at Blumhouse],” says Flanagan. “A lot more of an attitude that you’re the filmmaker. ‘Please execute your vision and we’ll find an audience for it.’ As opposed to ‘Please come in and execute our vision.’ Or ‘Please come in and make this widget, because we already know how to sell it.'”
By now, the Blumhouse model is widely recognized: budget a movie at around $5 million (ideally even less), give a talented filmmaker an unusual amount of creative freedom, and watch the box-office grosses roll in. It’s a system that bucks an era of ever-increasing Hollywood budgets — even the relatively thrifty Conjuring movies cost tens of millions to produce — and, crucially, it has led to consistent critical and commercial hits. When a movie like The Green Inferno or The Belko Experiment fails to find an audience, everyone shrugs and moves on. But when a movie like Paranormal Activity or The Purge makes a splash, the profit margins are insane. Each film is a low-risk, high-reward bet.
Even by Blumhouse’s unusually high bar, 2017 has been a banner year. M. Night Shyamalan’s Split grossed $138 million (abnormally high for Blumhouse) on a budget of $9 million. Just this month, Happy Death Day toppled Blade Runner 2049 from the top of the box office. It has already grossed more than $50 million on a $4.8 million budget, and is poised to do brisk business through Halloween.
And then there’s Get Out. Every single filmmaker I interviewed for this article specifically mentioned Get Out as a standout entry in this particularly rich time for horror. “For a first-time feature filmmaker, it’s such a grand slam,” says Mike Flanagan. “Such challenging material that could terrify any studio marketing department. But that’s where the exciting voices are coming from.”
The massive success of Get Out is proof that audiences are hungry for the kinds of stories and perspectives that larger, more risk-averse studios have willfully ignored for so long. (Of course, whether a movie like Get Out is actually “risky” is also another valid question.) “Being an African American, I have never seen my perspective in a horror film,” said writer/director Jordan Peele at a recent Q&A. “Get Out has my worst fears realized as a black man in this country — from the evil white girl who’s been lying to you, to the lacrosse stick — those things are foreign to me.” And Get Out reinforces horror’s unique ability to tackle social commentary, because the natural empathy a film’s audience feels for its protagonist forces every viewer to consider everything from his point of view. Regardless of your politics, when that police car pulls up at the end of the movie, you know exactly what it means.
But is the Blumhouse model sustainable? It’s never going to fail — that’s the whole point in keeping overhead so low. But it’s hard to get excited about the Blumhouse slate for 2018: a new Halloween movie and new installments in the Insidious and Purge franchises, which are already beginning to look like the long-in-the-tooth horror franchises Blumhouse was theoretically created to circumvent. The company’s forays into other genres have led to forgettable flops like the teen musical Jem and the Holograms, the martial arts drama Birth of the Dragon, and the comedy The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.
And the firmness of that low budget means that many Blumhouse horror movies utilize similar cost-cutting measures — like, say, confining the majority of the action to a single location — which means, for all the creative freedom, that more eccentric or effects-heavy horror productions are a harder sell. “There are things I can’t do when I’m working with $1 million, or $5 million, or even $10 million. I welcome the right $30 million,” says director Karyn Kusama, whose recent horror movies include The Invitation and a segment of the horror anthology XX.
4. The biggest horror movie in history
But while Get Out won the cultural conversation — and turned in a staggering box-office gross — it didn’t get within $400 million of It. Produced for $35 million, It is poised to become the biggest horror movie in history. It’s massive success bested even the most optimistic projections by box-office analysts by more than $50 million.
What made It such an outsized hit? It’s a question director Andy Muschietti, who will also helm the sequel, has been contemplating since the movie’s release. “This is a story that resonates a lot with the situation that society is living in right now,” he told me in September. “It talks to us about what it is to live in a culture of fear, you know? Where fear is used as a tool to divide and control and subdue. For people who didn’t know this story — and who went to the movie to see a horror movie — they went and found something else.”
But what lessons will Hollywood learn from the smash success of It? One possibility is a boom in nostalgia horror, inspired by the twin successes of It and the Stephen King-inspired Stranger Things. “I think that has a very limited lifespan,” says Adam Wingard. “I think It and Stranger Things are as far as you can really take that. The fact that I saw, the other day, that some other movie was being called part of the ‘kids on a bicycle’ genre… That’s when you know you’re in trouble. You can’t do this forever. That’s not a genre. That’s just a thing that happens in movies that you’ve seen so many times before. Everyone’s gonna get sick of it.”
Andy Muschietti, for his part, isn’t worried about a bunch of It knockoffs riding his coattails. “I’m not a fan of trends,” he says. “I’m more interested in things that break the trends.”
But even if It inspires a wave of lesser copycats, its massive success — which proves that a horror movie that costs six times your average Blumhouse feature can be more than six times as successful — will almost certainly inspire Hollywood studios to pump more money into developing and producing horror movies in the near future.
“Thanks to It, you’re going to see the studios take a lot more chances on a very specific vision,” says Mike Flanagan. “An R-rated horror film about children being eaten by a monster that lives in a sewer is not normally something that a studio would throw their weight behind. But we’ve seen the success of it, which props everyone up.”
5. Netflix: Where streaming meets screaming
Karyn Kusama’s first scary movie was the 2009 horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body. Studio expectations were high; screenwriter Diablo Cody was fresh off an Oscar win for Juno, and trailers repeatedly teased a titillating kiss between stars Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. When Jennifer’s Body turned out to be a minor box-office disappointment, Kusama didn’t direct another feature for six years. (For the record: Jennifer’s Body is underrated!)
What happened next? Last year, Kusama’s tremendously creepy low-budget thriller
The Invitation hit Netflix — after playing, to strong reviews, at a few film festivals — and promptly found an audience of tens of millions of prospective viewers. Netflix doesn’t provide specific streaming numbers, but anecdotally, The Invitation has been a sizable hit with Netflix subscribers, driven almost entirely by Netflix algorithms and word-of-mouth. “I’m sort of surprised [The Invitation] worked on Netflix, because I’m always puzzled by the lack of direction I feel when I’m trying to find a movie on Netflix,” says Kusama. “I’m always surprised when I hear the number of people who saw The Invitation just because it was available to stream. Streaming can open up a lot of doors for the genre.”
The same thing happened to Mike Flanagan, whose nail-biting home-invasion thriller Hush became a buzzy hit with horror fans after it was acquired by Netflix. “It’s pretty shocking how quickly a movie can catch fire that way,” says Flanagan. “I was nervous. I didn’t understand how it was that we were going to be able to drum up enthusiasm for the movie.
It was really surprising — by the time our first weekend was over, we looked at it and said, ‘Wow, I think more people sat down and watched this movie than ever would have seen it if we’d released it theatrically.’ I’m still getting emails and seeing tweets from people who have just tripped over Hush, saying ‘This is great, and I’m telling all my friends.’ That’s how these movies catch on. You don’t have to worry about missing the theatrical window.” Flanagan’s follow-up to Hush, Gerald’s Game, was a Netflix exclusive.
And the company is only getting started. Next year, Netflix plans to produce 80 original movies — a slate that dwarfs the number produced by any conventional Hollywood studio by dozens — and will presumably acquire many more. It’s not as complete a selection as Shudder — a horror-centric service aimed at hardcore fans — but it’s an impressive and ever-growing slate of great horror movies that might have been overlooked in a traditional theatrical release. “They want to have very specific titles that are really going to excite and galvanize certain quadrants of their audience instead of trying to moderately engage everybody. And that leads to better movies,” says Flanagan.
As long as you’re okay with watching horror alone at home and not in a theater full of screaming patrons—a concession to which every filmmaker I spoke with expressed some regret about—Netflix is poised to aggressively produce and acquire an ever-growing archive of horror exclusives.
6. The future of horror
So that’s where horror stands now. But in a particularly rich era for cinematic horror, what’s coming next? Every filmmaker I spoke with had some version of the same answer: Donald Trump.
“Horror is most effective when it’s in response to world events,” says Adam Wingard. “Now we’re in the new Trump era, but we haven’t really seen any new horror films made within it. You look at Twitter, and you see how insane it’s making people. It’s driving people crazy on either side of the fence. No one knows what to do anymore. I can only imagine that’s going to spawn some pretty amazing horror. A silver lining to a completely bad situation.”
If the theory is correct, we’re on a cusp of a massive wave of Trump-centric horror movies. “It takes three months to write a script, so I think we are going to see [Trump’s election] reflected in movies that come out in 12 to 18 months,” said Jason Blum in March.
So what will these Trump-centric horror movies actually look like? “I think it’s gonna be a very revolutionary social commentary. I don’t mean that in the obvious, Purge [way]… The Purge, their version of that is so on-the-nose. It is what it is,” says Wingard.
“I hope [horror filmmakers] address fear as a tool to control and divide,” says Andy Muschietti. “That’s a little bit of what happened on It. Making It was an interesting experience because of all the parallels between the monster and the current situation. There’s a natural tendency to respond to what’s going on.”
“When horror is about something — capital-A about — that’s when it’s really landing,” says Mike Flanagan, putting Get Out as the latest in a long line of politically, socially, and racially-conscious horror films that stretch back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “I think we’ll see really ambitious, really specific independent fare that’s going to catch on with limited releases that grow and grow.”
And despite depressing statistics about women mounting studio-backed horror movies, Karyn Kusama also anticipates a new renaissance of horror movies created by women. “So much interesting stuff right now is coming from women, and a lot of it is about the consequences of containing, denying, or repressing the monstrous in us,” Kusama says. “It’s very interesting when women have to confront the darkness, either within the outside world or within themselves.
What does it mean to not have agency over our own bodies? What does it mean to have no control over the destiny of our lives? Those kinds of questions are the basis, in my opinion, of most horror. And I think we’re at a moment where a lot of people are asking themselves those questions, and some really interesting stories are going to emerge.”
At the end of our conversation, Andy Muschietti put it most succinctly of all. “The situation is bad,” he said. “At least we’ll make movies.”