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Is 'Insidious: Chapter 2' making good on 'Blair Witch's' promise?

September 16, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • A shot from James Wan's "Insidious: Chapter 2."
A shot from James Wan's "Insidious: Chapter 2." (FilmDistrict )

Revolutions never start when you think they will. In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” took the film world by storm, becoming one of the hottest horror movies of all time. It was supposed to start a new wave of low-budget productions in the genre that would be similarly compelling and popular.

That didn’t happen, of course. Over the decade that followed, the film world endured a wave of copycat torture-porn movies and the last-gasp redos of a previous generation of hits a la “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Yet 14 years later, the revolution is officially in full swing. Movies firmly in the handmade tradition of “Blair Witch” — “The Conjuring,” “Mama” and this weekend’s “Insidious Chapter 2” — are getting made and even becoming hits to rival that phenomenon.

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Over their long history, horror releases have rarely broken the $100-million mark (Among the few to do it: "Blair Witch”) And since the tentpole era began in the 1990s, they've rarely been able to go toe-to-toe with the big-budget openings.

Yet over the past few months both pieces of wisdom have been stood on their heads. “The Conjuring” became a bona fide sensation, grossing a whopping $135 million and upending better-funded rivals including “Turbo,” “Red 2” and “R.I.P.D.” on a crowded summer weekend. And with “Insidious: Chapter2" opening to more than $41 million, the film world will likely have another $100-million release. The last time at least two horror movies cracked $100 million in the same year? 1999.

Horror has had plenty of boom and bust periods since 1973, when “The Exorcist” first landed and created the modern genre. But the current moment ranks right up there with the most fertile.

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The half dozen or so horror films released this year — they also include “Mama” and the “Evil Dead” remake — are going to collectively approach half a billion dollars in box office. And even the “Paranormal Activity” series, though losing steam, has had a great run over the past few years. (You can read a rundown of many of these movies from my colleague Jessica Gelt here.)

Why is it happening? Some of it may be a backlash to the clanging noise of the big-budget action movies. For all its commercialism, horror is a more intimate genre, not just in budget but in how it’s experienced.

Some of it also has to do with the high-concept nature of horror, which makes it easier to market in today's noisy environment, particularly through social media.

But maybe the biggest reason is demographic. Parents of a teenager today could well have been in their 20s or early 30s when “Blair Witch” came out, right in the sweet spot of that movie. Many of these parents may come out to see the new wave themselves, or at least have showed their teen children “Blair Witch,” priming the pump.

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And that’s to say nothing of the filmmakers behind these movies, many of whom were at a formative age when “Blair Witch” happened (“Conjuring” and “Insidious” director James Wan was 22 when it came out; “Evil Dead’s” Fede Alvarez was 21).

History has yet to write the final verdict on this new crop. Some, like “The Conjuring,” seem destined to endure. Others, like the new “Insidious,” have been given a rougher ride by critics and even some fans. And like many genres, they could lose the handmade quality as more money gets involved — look at how the slasher genre was overfished in the 1980s. But for now the wave led by movies like "Conjuring" and "Insidious: Chapter 2" are a force to be reckoned with--popular, fresh, Blair Witch-ian.


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