As Universal revives its scare-slate of monster films — The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, etc — studio production schedules increasingly look like archaeological digs. It’s all about turning back the clock, with Hollywood again hooked on horror. Alien: Covenant sits atop box office charts this week, and Get Out is the year’s biggest sleeper at $200 million. And horror announcements now come in clumps: Sony wants to make a spate of Dark Tower films based on Stephen King novels (billed as fantasy-Western-horror), and Universal just branded as Dark Universe the franchise for its monster movies to star Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem and others.
Veterans of the horror genre are skeptical about these glitzy announcements. “When the budgets go up, the fright level goes down,” observes Irwin Yablans, whose Halloween, produced 40 years ago, generated hundreds of millions in revenue. “In the horror genre, It’s all about saying ‘boo,’ and you have to keep it that simple.’” Jason Blum, who turns out a busy schedule of modestly budgeted genre films, reminds us that he produced Jordan Peele’s Get Out for under $6 million and it’s become an international hit.
Because of their modest cost, horror films often open the gates for ambitious young producers. At Cannes this week, two American producers still in their early 2os are wheeling and dealing with buyers from overseas markets for their slate of 11 genre films — more about them later.
Debates abound over what truly defines the horror genre. Monster classics like Dracula and Frankenstein inspired the work of young filmmakers who went on to create a vastly more sophisticated brand of horror — witness The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs. On the other end of the scale, some filmmakers took the genre into various dark subgenres such as “cinema tartare”: In Raw, a vegetarian girl turns into a disturbing meat eater (yes, she eats people), as does the cast of Meat Grinder, whose recipe for noodle soup will ruin the appetites of some filmgoers.
But does horror have to be gross? The old-time horror filmmakers like Yablans were inspired by relatively innocent radio scare shows such as Inner Sanctum and Lights Out. “Kids like me would sit by their radios and scream on cue,” he recalls. “It was instinctual. That’s why horror is easier to make than comedy.” The horror audience traditionally has tilted toward females, who enjoy scare-fests as date movies – fear always inspires a good cuddle.
Star casting traditionally has been irrelevant in the horror genre, but Universal believes big names will enhance box office and justify pumped-up budgets. Hence the studio has a lot riding on next month’s The Mummy, which co-stars Cruise and Crowe. Other big bets: Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. The studio even has invested in a logo for its Dark Universe initiative and paid Danny Elfman to come up with a franchise theme. Distribution veterans will watch with fascination to see how Universal’s classic characters fare against Warner Bros’ glitzy slate of superheroes, some of whom also were buried for many years.
On the other end of the scale are the two young producers plying their low-budget wares in Cannes. Starting from scratch, J.D. Lifshitz and Raphael Margules have produced and distributed 11 films with titles like Dementia and Uncaged but believe that the millennial audience has changing taste in horror, hooking up with new themes involving social media – like girls meeting scary dates on Tinder.
“The horror genre is benefiting from new themes and new platforms and is building an international audience,” says Lifshitz, age 24, whose conpany has completed new funding and distribution deals in Singapore and Hong Kong. A key, however, is cost control. “In controlling budgets, we don’t let our egos get in the way,” he explains. “While nine of every 10 conventional movies lose money, horror doesn’t work that way. Not the way we make them.”
While Lifshitz and Margules enjoy promoting their product, they are press-shy because they are orthodox Jews and scrupulous about religious practices. “My mother would believe horror pictures are close to porn,” Lifshitz explains. “So as far as our parents are concerned, we are out in Hollywood making family pictures.” And their “family pictures” are doing brisk business in Cannes.