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Hollywood horror films suffer box office anemia

Studios are left bleeding because audiences find that the chill is gone.

June 09, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz and Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

The body count is piling up in Hollywood, but unfortunately not all the cadavers are on screen.

Call it a market correction. Call it a slump. Call it audience fatigue with a subpar rash of crazed killers, wanton vampires and jiggling coeds, but horror, one of Hollywood's enduring staples, is tanking.

Consider the numbers. Last year, the studios released 23 horror movies. This year the tally will be 42, nearly double, and too often the take at the box office has been anemic, leaving studios and distributors with lots of red ink gushing through the bottom line.

Remember "The Reaping," which featured double-Oscar winner Hilary Swank as a professor tormented by the return of the Bible's 10 plagues? The film landed in theaters in April, at an official cost of $40 million, though studio sources say it was closer to $65 million. Thus far it has captured only $25 million in U.S. ticket sales. Then there is the slew of clones and sequels with such titles as "The Hitcher," "Dead Silence," "The Hills Have Eyes II," and "28 Weeks Later." At the box office, they've all underperformed, none topping $30 million. "Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror" was a real runt of the litter, earning just $25,900.

Even "gorno" -- the torture-porn-horror flicks that power the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises -- has moved from merely alienating those consumers who hate the marketing to snuffing out its target audience. The reason? Gore burnout. Case in point: "Hostel: Part II," which opened Friday. It is already showing signs that it will make significantly less than the $19 million than its predecessor nabbed last year in its opening weekend.

So has the horror bubble burst?

Those who traffic in mayhem insist not, though almost everyone admits that this year's crowded market, filled with horror retreads, has left splatter fans unimpressed.

"There became a glut of so many horror movies, and I think the audience is oversaturated," says Dimension Co-Chairman Bob Weinstein, who launched the horror film craze with the satiric slasher flick "Scream." "Sometimes the industry has the habit of making the same movies over and over again."

Moreover, topping the last thrill is intrinsically hard. "There's nothing you can do to a human being on screen that is taboo anymore," says Oscar-winning writer-producer Akiva Goldsman. "Over and over again, people are breaking the boundaries of the body, hurting people, chopping people up, ravaging people.... For things to be truly scary, we're going to have to find new boundaries to tread on."

Undeniably, horror, one of cinema's most enduring genres, is having a spiritual crisis. Once the playground of such iconic directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, the genre has gone way down-market. Not that it's mattered much to the businesspeople who run Hollywood. Ever since 1996, when "Scream" snagged $100 million at the box office, the town's love affair with horror has been reignited. The films cost little to make and historically have delivered big returns. In recent years, whole divisions of major studios -- Dimension, Rogue Pictures and Fox Atomic, to name a few -- have been staked on horror's vitality.

For smaller studios, horror can be the IV that keeps their hearts beating. "It costs less to make a good horror film because you don't have big visual effects budgets or the $20-million stars," says Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films at the independent company Lions Gate.

And expectations are more modest. As Joel Silver, who heads Dark Castle Entertainment, a genre label, characterizes the horror business: "We're only looking for doubles and triples. We don't need home runs."

In the post-"Scream" horror world, the target audience is primarily young girls -- or what some producers call the "cuddle" market, teenagers who want excuses to squeal and clutch each other in the dark. That demographic generally holds true even for the torture films offered by the "Saw" and "Hostel" series.

Still, the spate of cheapie thrills -- knockoffs of such hits as "The Ring" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" -- have made this audience cynical. "The Grudge," released in 2004, is the last horror film to break $100 million at the domestic box office. Horror has been faring even worse in the international market, which for typical studio films constitutes 60% of box office grosses.

"American audiences have a much more historical connection with horror. That's not the case with foreign audiences," says producer Paul Brooks, who runs independent financier Gold Circle Films, adding that horror films in the foreign market are "hitting a brick wall."

One of the exceptions is the "Saw" franchise, which has continued to grow because of its strength overseas.

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