Horror — the much-derided, scruffy cousin of drama, the ill-bred sibling of comedy, the uncomfortable neighbor of pornography — officially owns 2016.
It has been a year of big-budget busts at the multiplex as gigantanormous pics such as “Ghostbusters,” “Ben-Hur,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” barely broke even — if that. The epic disaster “Ben-Hur” cost $100 million to make and has returned an embarrassing $26 million.
Things are different on the side of the demons.
“Don’t Breathe,” the brilliant sophomore effort by Fede Alvarez (“Evil Dead”) cost a mere $9.9 million and returned $75 million in domestic receipts to become the 25th best-grossing film of the year. Two other horror films are now in the Top 25 for the year — “The Purge: Election Year” (No. 23, grossing $79 million) and “The Conjuring 2” (No. 19, bringing in $102 million).
This year, even a horror flick that underperforms can tank better than a star-studded romcom, as the found-footage-sequel “Blair Witch” proved, besting one of the year’s most-anticipated romcoms, “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” on opening weekend.
With Halloween just around the corner, one of 2016’s most-anticipated bloodcurdlers is still to come — the old-fashioned séance sequel “Ouija: Origin of Evil” (Oct. 21) from one of horror’s top new auteurs, Mike Flanagan (“Hush,” “Before I Wake”).
And so far we’ve been talking just about the money side of the Hollywood equation. Creatively, it’s also been a banner year for the genre, with a crop of entries that are more sophisticated, smarter and more beautiful (as it were) than ever.
In addition to the immensely inventive “Don’t Breathe,” the horror highlights include Robert Eggers’ remarkable, literate, historic chiller “The Witch,” the claustrophobic paranoia poem “10 Cloverfield Lane” and the unbelievably raw social satire “The Invitation.”
There’s also filmmaker Danny Perez’s seriously gross freakout, “Antibirth,” with a stunning turn by Natasha Lyonne as a stoner who becomes pregnant with an alien baby.
Back to the basics
What’s driving the hordes toward the blood and the dread, and away from the chariot racers and misunderstood diarists? This year’s best screamfests have captured viewers’ imagination by going back to basics.
Both the home-invasion cautionary tale “Don’t Breathe” and the supernatural thriller “Lights Out” plunge the viewer into that most elemental, visceral cause of fear: darkness.
“Don’t Breathe” traps three young burglars inside the home of a vicious, blind war veteran (Stephen Lang). It’s set almost entirely in the vet’s claustrophobic, labyrinthine — and pitch-black — house. The impressively cast “Lights Out,” which stars Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer, is about a murderous female creature — she has long dark hair, claws and eyes that burn like fire — that exists in darkness, feeding on darkness itself.
Psychologically, it doesn’t get more basic than “10 Cloverfield Lane,” which generates intense anxiety and paranoia by staging a confrontation among three people locked in an underground bunker. It also boasts terrific performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr., proving that horror is no longer the exclusive domain of no-name teenage thesps.
Indeed, more and more horror films are using acclaimed actors, including Ethan Hawke and James Ransone (“Sinister”), Radha Mitchell and Rupert Graves (“Sacrifice”) and Elle Fanning (“The Neon Demon”). Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall bring class to the recent surrogate pregnancy shocker “When the Bough Breaks,” about a young woman (Jaz Sinclair) who goes all “Fatal Attraction” on a couple after agreeing to bear their child.
A superb cast — Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, and Franka Potente — also powered “The Conjuring 2” to its great big box office haul.
“The Conjuring” franchise is the glaring exception to the less-is-more rule: Directed by James Wan, of the “Saw” films, it takes a page from Marvel’s superhero flicks. This year’s entry was the second in a projected series of films and spinoffs set in an elaborate mythical world populated by ghost hunters, mediums, ghosts and demons.
Two who lead the way
Today’s horror renaissance likely wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the work of two men on either side of the continent.
New York auteur Larry Fessenden (“The Last Winter,” “Wendigo”) has helped prepare a generation of genre filmmakers through his radically democratic production collective Glass Eye Pix, where directors contribute to one another’s films by pitching in as cinematographers, editors and even actors.
The group has been cited as an influence by “Blair Witch” director Adam Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett. One of their previous collaborations was the smart slasher “You’re Next,” which featured a cameo by Fessenden.
Meanwhile, producer Jason Blum has kept the indie spirit alive in his corner of Hollywood. Few people have done more for the proliferation of high-concept, high-impact, low-budget genre fare.
Blum’s career took off when he saw the promise of newbie writer/director Oren Peli’s little $15,000 found-footage demon story “Paranormal Activity.” Released in 2007, it went on to make $108 million domestically and spawned five sequels.
Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions, has been responsible for some of the decade’s biggest horror franchises, including “Insidious,” “The Purge,” “Sinister” and “The Conjuring.” In January, Blumhouse will likely ride the Amityville name to cultural and box-office acclaim with “Amityville: The Awakening.”
A modern-day Roger Corman, Blum allows talented filmmakers to realize their vision — within a modest budget. It’s the kind of freedom that would be all but impossible for directors who are put in charge of $150 million blockbusters and expected to conform to the input of a mass of nervous producers and execs.
Blum’s films can go head to head with blockbusters because they also have studio backing. In 2014, Blumhouse signed a 10-year first-look deal with Universal Pictures.
But with success comes danger: Wide distribution and box office success can lead to the proliferation of sequels and franchises, of bloated films that have lost their edge.
You know, like those summer blockbusters no one wanted to watch.