In the ramp-up to Halloween, horror movies have won five weekends since September began, holding their own between the blockbuster contrails of “Top Gun: Maverick” and next month’s big release, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
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To be sure, the studio behemoths still rule. This year the Hollywood box office is full of top action and adventure franchises, as well as capes and cartoons. Look a little under those floorboards, though, and a different picture emerges: For original movies, the most commercially reliable and epidemic-sustaining genre in the U.S. market is the horror movie.
Factor in all the horror titles — including some beloved franchises and one feature adapted from a short film — and the genre has slashed its way to nine domestic weekend wins so far in 2022. And the promising “The Menu” (Anya Taylor-starring Joy and Ralph Fiennes) and “Bones and All” (Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet) are due next month.
It’s been such a year for horror movies that even Marvel superhero movies like Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” offered a nod to the “Evil Dead” director’s mastery of the form.
Horror has always been a staple of Hollywood, and every so often, the genre has a breakout year, like in 2017, when “It,” “Get Out,” “Split,” “Annabelle: Creation,” “Alien: Covenant” each earned $250 worldwide. Earns over a million. Yet there is a confluence of special factors surrounding the run of horror hits this year.
In both cases, the nostalgic comfort of familiar slasher franchises helped attract moviegoers. One of 2022’s opening weekend winners was “Scream” (which went on to earn $140 million worldwide), featuring the return of Courteney Cox, and one of the most recent box-office champs was “Halloween Ends” ($84 million and counting), highlighting the return of Jamie Lee Curtis.
Yet much of the current surge in popularity is driven by original stories — such as Jordan Peele’s “Nope” ($170 million-plus worldwide) and Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” ($42.3 million) — weekend winners.
Writer-director Ti West has recently scored two strong word-of-mouth hits, “Pearl” and “X,” both starring Mia Goth. Genre fans have also especially embraced “The Black Phone,” “The Invitation,” “X” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” and recent release “Terrifier 2” is gaining ground.
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“As a horror fan, I feel very blessed — there’s something I want to see in the theater every week,” says Meg Hafdahl, a podcaster/screenwriter whose horror novels include “Her Dark Inheritance” and who co-wrote “Science.” of” book series.
Hafdahl thinks that horror has become a “perfect genre” for audiences who have returned from missing the communal experience at the start of the pandemic. There’s a “palpable tension in the theater,” as well as a shared “tension and sadness,” she says by phone from Rochester, Minn. .”
Rob Salkowitz, author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture,” says the early stages of Pandemic itself felt like something out of a horror movie or a ’70s apocalyptic thriller like “The Andromeda Strain” or “The Omega Man.” Part of the horror appeal in film, he says, is that in the face of the story’s deadly threats, there is a “familiarity with the formula.”
Whether it’s Jason or Chulhu, at least a horror killer follows the rules of the genre, Salkowitz said by phone from Washington state. “It’s a reassuring aspect to a horror movie that it’s going to be resolved, even if you’re pissed off.”
Industry observers also note that success metrics often vary with jump-scares and psychological horror cinema. Tentpole movies with bloated budgets and dramas packed with stars are expected to have big opening weekends, while smaller horror films are given more time to find box-office success, says William Earl, editor of Variety.com, which specializes in horror. Coverage. “A superhero movie that doesn’t open in nine figures can be a mistake,” he says, while a film like “Terrifier 2” flies low but steady.
Horror experts also emphasize that given these financially secure projects, studios are willing to take a chance on less proven filmmakers and lesser-known actors, promoting a growing diversity of voices.
“People are making horror movies that weren’t allowed to make horror movies before,” Hafdahl says. She also thinks that Hollywood is fully appreciating the breadth and nastiness of the form: “Studios don’t underestimate the horror audience—we appreciate good, well-drawn characters.”
And with a wave of horror films enjoying the term “must see in theaters,” the genre is conquering new converts. “It’s such a large and varied genre that there’s something for everyone,” Hafdahl says, whether it’s a slow-burn psychological thriller or hardcore gore.
The author adds: “I love that people are experiencing horror again and in a community space – not just at home with our big TVs.”