Horror has always been a popular genre; there’s something about a good horror movie, be it a psychological thriller or something much more overt, that makes audiences eager to watch. Whether it’s the anticipation, the elevated heartbeat, the relief after the scares are over, or the thrill of the jump scares, those who enjoy horror tend to do so enormously. There are those, of course, who steer well clear; who prefer their movies to come with a G or PG rating, and fluffy bunnies will win out over killer clowns each and every time. That’s perfectly fine, of course, but the general public’s appetite for all things terrifying is growing, and it’s reflected in 2017’s box office.
The release of IT was highly anticipated, sure, but few could have predicted it would score the biggest horror movie opening ever, taking $123 million domestically in its opening weekend. In fact, if you look at net profit of 2017 movies, because IT was made with a tiny budget of just $35 million, it’s already the 8th most profitable movie of this year. But IT isn’t bucking any trends, here. 2017 overall has seen a big surge in the popularity of low budget horror/ thriller movies. Get Out, written, co-produced and directed by Jordan Peele in his directorial debut, was released in February. The cast were all relative unknowns, and the whole movie was made on a budget of just $4.5 million. Because of its tiny budget, and also because of its phenomenal success, Get Out is easily the most profitable movie of 2017, and it’s hard to see that changing.
Get Out isn’t the only horror movie enjoying huge success though. In January, M.Night Shyamalan released Split, a psychological thriller-horror, starring James McAvoy as a man with 23 different personalities. The movie is a sequel to his 2000 movie, Unbreakable, but Split was never marketed as such, and its connections were not spoken about by Shyamalan until after the film’s release. Word quickly spread about Split being a great thriller, though somehow its connection to Unbreakable remained mostly under wraps. Audiences flocked to theaters, reviews were good, and Split performed extremely well. Once again it had a relatively small budget; just $9 million, meaning that against its box office takings, Split has the third biggest net profit of any movie of 2017 (with Beauty and the Beast in 1, and Get Out in 2).
Our appetite for low-budget horror doesn’t stop there, though. 47 Meters Down, and Annabelle: Creation, both make the list of most profitable movies of 2017. Other entries include the aforementioned IT, Despicable Me 3, and Beauty and the Beast. By stark contrast, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, was supposed to herald the launch of Universal’s Monster universe, and the movie was released amid much fanfare back in June. The budget was $125 million, as one would expect for a movie starring such an A-lister, but The Mummy tanked, making a loss of $95 million. This, despite the movie scoring Tom Cruise the biggest opening of his career. It seems as though, in 2017, the smaller your budget, the bigger the hit. Are movies with a cast of unknowns the way to go in the future? And where has this surge in horror movies come from?
The contrast between this year and 2016 is noticeable. Animation and blockbuster franchises reigned supreme in 2016, with Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia, and Captain America: Civil War being among the highest grossing movies. There were no horror entries in the top 10. Of the horror movies that were released in 2016, the highest grossing was The Contouring 2, which took $102 million domestically- less than IT has already taken in its opening weekend, and far short of the $175.5 million that Get Out pulled in.
Clearly, the fact that 2017 has seen the release of so many horror movies that are actually good has been primarily what’s contributed to such a surge in box office takings for the numbers, but why have audiences been flocking to these R-rated offerings? The genre has always been popular, and so when a really great horror movie pops up, it’s likely to do well. But what’s unusual with a lot of the aforementioned releases this year, is that they all have small budgets and/ or no big names attached. It’s certainly proof that you don’t need gimmicks and special effects to tell an intense, thrilling story.
One example is Split. McAvoy is a skilled actor, and under Shyamalan’s direction, he becomes a master in suspense, intrigue, and terror. All that is needed is one actor, playing multiple characters that live in his mind, and the clear horror and fear on the other three actresses faces. In Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya was given a chance to prove his worth as an actor in a breakout role that has already propelled him on to even greater things; he will appear in Marvel’s Black Panther early next year. In IT, Bill Skarsgard gets a chance to bring his own twist to the infamous Pennywise, while the young cast members who form The Losers Club also get their chance to shine… Could it be, then, that by taking a chance on relative unknowns, and pushing them to use their acting skills rather than being reliant on CGI, results in a better, stronger, more captivating performance? Certainly fans of live theater would agree with this thinking, and while CGI and animation certainly have their place in cinema (Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are 2 of the biggest movie of this year), these tricks and special effects are nothing without strong leading performances.
Another factor that could well be a contribution to horror’s success this year is the mood of the nation. Without getting political, on a global scale, 2016 and most of 2017 haven’t been great years. As a nation, we are disillusioned with a lot right now. Europe is in the same situation. As a world, we are not in a great place, and when the mood of the nation turns somber, people need escapism. It’s always been this way; during the world wars, for example, poetry and music were a crutch of support and escape for many. Horror offers pure escapism; it’s impossible to concentrate on anything else, be it on a personal or global scale, and if you already like the genre, you’re more likely to embrace a movie that is offering the scares, jumps and thrills that you enjoy.
There’s also the big screen treatment to factor in, too, and this is where horror really counts. The movie theater is an experience, yes, but ultimately whether you watch Despicable Me 3 in the theater or at home is not going to make a difference to your viewing experience. With horror movies, the big screen matters. The theater is darker, for a start, the anticipation higher. The scares are bigger, the color bolder, the sound louder and more vivid. It’s an immersive experience and one which lingers long after the lights have come up and you’re on your way home.
We can analyze and theorize, but if pushed to give a defining reason why these movies are so successful, it has to come down to the script, direction, and casting. Get Out, IT, Split, Annabelle: The Creation, and 47 Meters Down, work on a small budget because the direction is tight, and the acting is top rate. The director credits the audience with enough intelligence that not everything is spelled out. We are left to our own devices to imagine more, and the imagination is a very powerful tool indeed.
On the other side is The Mummy, where so much money, special effects, stunts and CGI is thrown at a movie that it seemingly forgot it might need a good script and direction as well. It is proof that while all of those tricks have their place, unless they are used to add to and enhance the movie, then an audience just won’t be interested. Horror might not be for everyone, but done right, and done well, as many movies this year have already demonstrated, it becomes a very powerful genre indeed.