07:35 PM CDT on Saturday, May 7, 2005
By CHRIS VOGNAR / The Dallas Morning News
Aspiring filmmakers Brad Fuller and Michael Bay met as undergraduates at Wesleyan University. After college, Mr. Bay found quick success directing blockbusters for superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, while Mr. Fuller struggled along on the independent route. But Mr. Bay had an idea for his old friend: Form a production company with another Bay buddy, Andrew Form, and concentrate on making horror movies.
Bingo. Platinum Dunes Productions scored monster returns with the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which cost $9.5 million to make and scared up more than $80 million in domestic grosses (and gross-outs). The company scored another hit with last month's remake of The Amityville Horror, which won its opening weekend at the box office with $23.5 million. And none of these figures factor in the increasingly lucrative DVD market.
What do these films have in common? Both capitalized on brand names of older horror movies, as does House of Wax, which opened Friday. Both were roundly dismissed by the critics. And both catered to an audience of horror buffs who generally don't care what those ink-stained wretches think in the first place.
"For us, it was a very difficult decision to even screen Amityville in advance, because it's not a critics movie," says Mr. Fuller. "I don't know if the audience that these movies are appealing to will make their decisions based on what critics say."
This critic-proof quality is just one reason why fast, cheap, retread horror movies have become the safest bet in Hollywood. They have low production costs (horror films don't need expensive name actors). They have a built-in audience of dedicated fans who trust Fangoria magazine more than The New York Times or Newsweek. And they have the marketing hooks that come with instant name recognition.
The recent track record would make even Leatherface smile. Last year's Dawn of the Dead remake has chomped up $59 million to date. Freddy vs. Jason, which cashed in on the never-dead '80s franchises Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, earned an $82 million purse. Alien vs. Predator, another franchise twofer that wasn't screened in advance for critics, checked in at $80 million.
"It's a dedicated audience, without question," says Ron Schwartz, executive vice president of home entertainment sales for Lions Gate, which has distributed such recent horror titles as Riding the Bullet , Alone in the Dark and Saw. "You get a whole culture from Fangoria and Comicon .com, and this culture tracks the films from their inception and really pays close attention to them."
Mr. Schwartz remembers the low expectations when Lions Gate picked up Rob Zombie's 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses. "We didn't even think it would see the light of day," he says. "But there were Web sites, and there were petitions to get the film released. And they turned out to see it in droves."
When the decomposition was through, Corpses earned almost $13 million domestically, nearly twice what it cost to make. Lions Gate is now getting behind the new Rob Zombie production, The Devil's Rejects , which is scheduled for a July opening.
Mr. Schwartz says horror fans fit snugly into the coveted 18-to-34 demographic, although he admits younger teens find their way into the films, which are typically rated R. ("Can I say that Saw hasn't been seen by kids under 18? Of course it has," he says.) You might think the horror retreads would have trouble gaining traction with younger viewers who weren't around for the originals, but this hasn't been the case.
"The brand name has been important to us in the past, and it will become more important as we go forward," says Mr. Fuller. "As more and more people are making more and more movies, you're going to have to do something to let people know what you've got. When people hear the name Amityville Horror, they know exactly what they're going to see."
What they see is generally faster and bloodier than horror films of previous generations. "Audiences have come to expect a faster pace and a more in-your-face presentation," says Mr. Fuller. "It's hard to find movies for kids that have a slow build. I don't know how The Exorcist would play in today's market."
Funny he should mention that one. The 1973 satanic possession blockbuster spawned a 2004 prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning. This prequel, directed by Renny Harlin, cost $80 million to make and $25 million to market. It grossed $41 million domestically.
But wait. There's more, as there always is in today's horror market. Mr. Harlin shot his gory prequel only after Warner Bros. fired Paul Schrader, who had already shot his own prequel. Now, in an unprecedented move, the studio is releasing Mr. Schrader's slower, less bloody version, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (catchy title, no?), on May 20.
In case you're keeping score, that's a second prequel, by a second director, of a horror film originally released 32 years ago. There was also the re-cut Exorcist: The Version You Haven't Seen Before, released in 2000. It seems as if Satan is never far behind us.
The horror retread cycle isn't limited to old domestic titles. Recent Asian horror films including The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water have given Hollywood even more excuses for avoiding originality.
"The horror product coming out of Asia challenges audiences," says Bob Myerson, executive vice president of Tartan Films, which specializes in distributing Asian films in the United States. "Their plots are more sophisticated and therefore the payoff is more intense. American studios, in their constant search for new product, have taken notice."
American studios, like most successful companies, take notice of anything that brings in profit. Today's horror movies may not be the smartest knives in the drawer, and they usually don't please the critics. But as long as blood red and money green keep mixing, you can expect the scary fare to keep flowing.