It seems like lately only the shittiest horror movies (“The Gallows”, “The Visit”, “Ouija”, “The Lazarus Effect”) get theatrical releases, while the good horror films are relegated to Video-On-Demand (VOD) and maybe a token theatrical release in NYC and LA. This is the opposite of how it used to be. When I was growing up the good horror films got theatrical releases, and the bad ones went direct-to-video or even direct-to-HBO or other to cable networks.
The conditions of the horror genre are such that a horror film can often be made very cheaply. You don’t need stars because, well, the genre is the star. Big budget special effects are often antithetical to what makes a good horror film, so a lack of money can often inspire more creativity and a better film. Also, the genre has a built in audience, so that these films, regardless of quality, almost always turn a profit. This is why we got a glut of horror films in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, the film industry had changed. Studios don’t want mid-level hits any more. A film that cost $5 million or less to make and grosses $30-$40 million used to be pretty standard; a not very risky investment that turns a healthy, though not spectacular, return on that investment. Nowadays, studios are only interested in films that will make the most money from the most people. You see tons of big budget franchise films, to the point that superhero fatigue is finally settling in. You see expensive animated family films that make millions more in toys and product tie-ins than they do in box office receipts. Low budget films and mid-budget films are often times not worth the cost to a studio for prints and advertising because it won’t move the needle on their quarterly profits which, as corporations, they are focused on for their shareholders. A $100 million film that grosses $600 million, is rated PG-13, and appeals to men, women, young, and old is a safer business move than an R-rated horror film that appeals primarily, nowadays, to people older than 30.
If you see a mid-level priced film, and it’s horror, chances are it is PG-13 because, well, the R rating cuts off a large chunk of the teenaged movie-going audience. PG-13 means more money. Also, the teen audience doesn’t really want to be ‘”scared” or “disturbed”. They want to be startled. They want a safe, easy, lazy jump scare. Gore, tension, and suspense are not want they’re paying for. They want a quiet moment, followed by a semi-unexpected loud moment, followed by a giggly release. They’re fucking philistines. When an R-rated horror film DOES get a theatrical release, it is often a neutered piece of dreck that may have some points in its category (this year’s “Unfriended”), but ultimately makes money by ratcheting up the jump scares and appealing mainly to younger audiences who don’t know the first thing about what makes a good horror film (“Sinister 2”, “The Gallows”).
So where are the good horror films going? Are they simply not being made? Of course not. The problem is, if they are made, they are more likely to be forgotten now than they were before. In the old days, which I’ll call anything before 2005 or so, a good, non-studio horror film was made independently, entered into film festivals, and maybe picked up by a studio and released in theaters. The theatrical release may or may not have done well, but it served as an advertisement for the later video/DVD release. The under 17s who couldn’t get someone to take them to the film or sneak in themselves would see it, as would people on the fence about shelling money to see a horror film in theaters (most horror films are not good, and I say that as a huge fan of the genre) and the film would gain its fanbase and its place in the collective knowledge of horror fandom. Now, thanks to a combination of studios not wanting to release indie horror movies in wide or semi-wide theatrical engagements for money reasons (aside from this week’s “The Green Inferno”, you might have to go back to “You’re Next” for a similar wide theatrical release of an indie horror movie, if we’re discounting Blumhouse films like “The Lords of Salem” and “The Gift”), and the bottom falling out of the home video market as more people pile onto to streaming versus physical media, horror distributors tend to smaller companies that buy horror films cheaply and, not having the muscle to put indie films in major chain theaters the way, say, Lionsgate had to put “Saw” and “Hostel” in theaters in the early 2000s, put the films in a few token theaters and then stream them through cable and internet VOD services. This usually allows that small horror film to make a reasonable profit without the costs of making a bunch of digital prints and shipping them across the country, and doesn’t require the large marketing campaign that a theatrical release entails, with posters and standees and TV commercials and the like.
There are a few problems I see with this problem of good, intelligent, well-made, indie horror movies largely only existing for the VOD market. The first is a practical one. The moment a film is released VOD, it ends up on the torrent sites. If your film is available VOD, it’s available for free illegally on the internet. Horror fans tend to skew young and tech savvy, and eventually the number of fans willing to download a film for free illegally will outnumber the amount of fans willing to pay to download or stream it legally. The profit margins will drop out of this very fast, and as a result fewer horror films will find distribution because there will be no money in it. Second, the stigma of VOD exists because it has inherited the stigma of direct-to-video. As soon as VHS and Betamax hit stores, we had a two tiered system of films that went beyond the A-movie and B-movie double feature marquees of old. Direct-to-video was for films of a lower quality that weren’t good enough, quality-wise, to get theatrical releases. Sure, this wasn’t always true, but it was true more often than not. VOD does not operate the same way, and neither does the theatrical film system. Remember, films used to stick around in theaters for months, and they wouldn’t hit home video until 6 months after their theatrical release, and they wouldn’t be available to buy for a YEAR after theatrical release. Now, a film might be in theaters 4 weeks if it’s lucky and it’s on Blu-Ray and OnDemand within 2-3 months. If a film isn’t a big thing that appeals to a large audience, the film is barely in theaters anyway. So, if a film is aiming at a smaller, niche audience, why bother with a week or two anyway? VOD is not for lower quality films anymore, it’s for films that may often be of high quality, but appeal to a smaller audience. Horror fans, TRUE horror fans, are a niche audience.
Here’s the thing. It used to be the true fans that dictated which horror films were successful. They came out opening weekend, they told their fence-riding horror fans which ones were good even for non-horror-junkies, and the film was in theaters long enough to let a fanbase discover it. Remember “Scream”? It opened in December of 1996 to pitiful results, but it stuck around in theaters until almost April of 1997 and grossed over $100 million dollars. Horror films weren’t necessarily making $100 totals at the box office, but their success used to follow a similar fashion: hardcores come out, word of mouth spreads, monetary success comes after many weeks in theaters, and popularity explodes months later on video. Now? It’s the plebeians who decide which horror films get theatrical releases, because they are a larger group, which means they’re worth more money. We’re getting a “Ouija 2” because of these people. So the theatrical release-as-higher-quality metric no longer exists.
The other major problem with VOD is that if a good horror film, or a REALLY good horror film, or a GREAT horror film happens to be released through this medium, it’s more likely to be forgotten. Most film critics don’t review VOD releases, and entertainment reporters don’t write articles about them, except maybe a blurb when it’s still on the festival circuit. Unless you happen to read a horror-specific news website like a Bloody-Disgusting, you’re unlikely to hear about these films at all, much less actually watch one, unless you’re bored at 3AM scrolling through a list of new VOD releases. I mean, look at me: I am a hardcore horror nerd with a degree in Film Studies, and I barely know what new horror films have been released VOD in the past few months. If someone with my level of love of horror hasn’t heard of most of these films, what chance is there that a casual fan will? If films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Hellraiser” were made today, they would be dumped on VOD and forgotten about. Right now there’s a good chance that a great horror film, one that deserves to be a part of the cultural zeitgeist and to be studied in film classes and passed on through generations of horror films, has been forgotten. That saddens me to no end.
This year a great horror film was released. It was called “It Follows”. This film was originally supposed to only be released on VOD and forgotten, but it got great reviews on the festival circuit and did good numbers in a very small number of theaters, and had a last minute semi-wide theatrical run. True horror fans, and film critics, loved it. You know who didn’t love it? The morons who think “The Gallows” is a good movie. The people who think “Sinister” was a good example of the horror genre. Today’s horror fans have worse taste because they’re so used to be exposed to crap that when they’re exposed to a great horror film, they confuse it for crap because they don’t know what great horror is. These are the types of people who have HEARD OF all of the great horror films, going back maybe as far as “The Exorcist”, but have ACTUALLY SEEN relatively few of them. To them, a “classic” horror film might be some of the PG-13 garbage that flooded theaters in the late 90s and early 2000s like the American “Grudge” and “Ring” remakes, and by growing up with crap as their childhood nostalgia, crap has become their benchmark for good. Sure, the 80s had a lot of crappy slasher films, but it was also the decade of Carpenter’s “The Thing”, Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and others. That generation, and the one immediately following it, knew the good, the mediocre, and the bad. The current crop of horror “fans” know only jump scares or gore as two categories of horror films.
I am sad that good horror films, from this point on, will likely be forgotten or not made at all. It’s a travesty that for a great horror film to “earn” a wide theatrical release, it needs to defy all odds to get universal critical acclaim and made massive amounts of limited release money like “It Follows”, but garbage gets a free pass as long as it’s either PG-13 or Jason Blum decided to produce it (not a particular slight on Blum, who has produced a number of good horror films as well as garbage). I am sad that the economics of the film industry have changed to the point that indie films of any genre can barely escape the pull of the black hole that is Video OnDemand. I am sad people flock to crap, and that at some point soon it won’t even be their choice, because the only films that can get a theatrical release ARE crap.
The horror genre is dying, and the existence of all other good films may follow in its wake. But don’t worry. “Fast & Furious 10”, “Minions vs Frozen” and “The Avengers & Justice League vs Jurassic World” will be coming to a theater near you.