South Florida’s first horror film festival kicks off Thursday — which might seem like peculiar timing, since the Hollywood horror film is essentially dead.
The movie industry’s obsession with blockbusters and franchises has resulted in the disappearance of the mid-budget studio film, particularly scary ones. The total number of horror pictures with a budget greater than $20 million released this year thus far: one (Poltergeist, a $35 million remake of the 1982 Steven Spielberg-Tobe Hooper classic).
Meanwhile, on TV, horror shows are thriving, garnering huge audiences (The Walking Dead, American Horror Story) or devoted cult followings (Hannibal, The Strain, Penny Dreadful), with several more series in the works (Scream Queens, the latest by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, premiered this week).
But don’t bury the horror film just yet. Although studios may not be making many scary movies, they are still releasing low-budget, independently made features that merit serious discussion. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, the terrifying tale of a mother and son terrorized by an evil entity, and Under the Skin, which starred Scarlett Johansson as a peculiar young woman who picks up random men in her car, landed on many critics’ top 10 lists in 2014. It Follows, about a group of teens playing tag with a sexually transmitted demon, and Goodnight Mommy, about twin boys who start having suspicions about their mother, will rack up similar accolades this year.
At the box office, horror films may not be grossing Avengers-sized numbers, but they are selling enough tickets to justify their low production costs. Director M. Night Shyamalan put up the $5 million budget of The Visit, the story of two siblings who spend a week with their odd grandparents. The film has currently grossed $45 million (and counting). Insidious Chapter 3, the third installment in the franchise about undead spirits, cost $10 and earned $109 million worldwide. Unfriended, about a killer stalking a group of friends via an online chat room, cost a measly $1 million and racked up almost $63 million. In the summer of 2013, the frightening haunted-house thriller The Conjuring, which cost $10 million and was rated R primarily for its overall intensity, generated a mammoth $318 million (filmmaker James Wan recently passed on a lucrative offer to direct Furious 8 in order to make a Conjuring sequel, which is currently filming).
▪ Tales of Halloween, an omnibus of short films set on All Hallows’ Eve, directed by 11 filmmakers, including Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV, The Barrens), Neil Marshall (The Descent, Game of Thrones) and Lucky McKee (May, The Woman);
▪ The Diabolical, starring Ali Larter (Final Destination, TV’s Heroes) as a woman who fights back against the violent spirit that is haunting her;
▪ Howl, a rollicking monster movie about a group of passengers on a derailed train besieged by a pack of werewolves;
▪ Bone Tomahawk, a western/horror hybrid written and directed by Miami native S. Craig Zahler, about a group of cowboys (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins) waging war on cannibals.
Popcorn Frights was the brainchild of Marc Ferman, who has been hosting monthly screenings of cult classics and new movies since 2012 at various venues around Miami, and Igor Shteyrenberg, the director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. The pair crossed paths at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and discovered a mutual love of the fun, gory horror pictures at which most film snobs scoff.
“Marc approached me with the idea of a horror festival for South Florida,” Shteyrenberg says. “He knew the kinds of crowds who attended his retro screenings. But there’s only so much you can do with looking back. Why not look at the present and bring in movies that would never otherwise play in our community?
“This is a passion project,” Shteyrenberg adds. “We’re not making a buck out of this. We hope it’ll be one of those experiences that brings people together to share something they love: horror films. They’re not just something you go see for the blood and gore. They’re a revisionist art form that speaks about our culture and fears. I really value that approach when it’s done well. This year we are showing four fun movies that explore the aesthetics of the genre.”
Place a heavy emphasis on “fun.” Horror is the most cyclical of all movie genres: It has always been a manifestation of the cultural and political plights of the films’ respective eras, from the Depression to the Cold War, Vietnam to Iraq. One of the things that distinguishes the current boom of horror films from the previous one — which consisted of grim remakes (Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street) and graphic “torture porn” flicks (Hostel, The Human Centipede) — is that the new wave tends to veer away from gritty realism and embrace the monstrous fantasy elements of the genre. These pictures try to show you a good time even as they try to scare you.
“When you do a film where real people are suffering, you feel a great responsibility to not make something exploitative,” says Paul Hyett, the makeup/special-effects artist who directed Howl. “This movie was designed to be a cool, enjoyable romp about a bunch of characters trapped in a contained location, under threat from an outside horror. It’s a staple I used to love when I was watching these types of movies growing up, so the retro feel of that really appealed to me. We’re not trying to reinvent anything. [Howl] is just a fun, nostalgic nod to the old classics.”
Shift to the supernatural
Axelle Carolyn, who produced Tales of Halloween and directed one of its segments (the movie will premiere via video-on-demand on Oct. 16), also sees a shift in the horror film genre away from reality.
“This supernatural trend has been going on since the success of Paranormal Activity and Insidious,” she says. “I’m really happy about that, as it is where my personal tastes lie. Most of the segments in Tales of Halloween deal with the supernatural in one way or another. We’ve got ghosts, demons, witches, killer pumpkins — the supernatural covers such a variety of tones, ideas and monsters that it’s not surprising this wave has lasted so long already. There’s a whole range of ideas and emotions you can convey through the supernatural. It’s a fantastic way to express yourself.”
Even filmmakers who have built their careers on the sort of gruesome carnage that tests the viewer’s limits are thinking about the genre differently. Director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) says his latest film The Green Inferno, the story of a group of college-age eco-activists who encounter a tribe of hungry cannibals in the jungles of the Amazon, is his “mic drop” from the explicit-gore arena.
“After this movie, there’s nowhere to go,” Roth says of the movie, which was shot in 2013 and stretches the boundaries of the R-rating with its nauseating, can-you-believe-this violence. “You have to reinvent yourself and do something different. My next movie [Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves and opening Oct. 9] is a thriller inspired by Peter Traynor’s Death Game and Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction. It’s really like a chess match. But there’s only one drop in blood in the entire movie.”
Creativity on a shoestring
Although the occasional studio production still sneaks out (Guillermo del Toro’s horror-fantasy Crimson Peak arrives Oct. 16 from Universal Pictures), horror films will remain, at least for now, low-budget endeavors. But those limitations may be one of the reasons for the genre’s current success.
“Our theory is that the lower the budgets, the more the filmmaker gets to focus on story and characters and scares,” says producer Jason Blum, whose company Blumhouse Productions has released a series of cheap but hugely profitable genre pictures (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Purge, The Gift). “A micro-budget results in more creatively risky movies. While they don’t always work, they at least represent a filmmaker’s vision, and they can still appeal to wide audiences.”
Drew Goddard, who directed The Cabin in the Woods (and co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon), agrees that horror doesn’t need to be expensive to be good.
“When we were making Cabin, Joss and I fought really hard to keep the budget down, because in a weird way horror does its best when it’s on the fringes — when you can feel the rough edges of the movie,” Goddard says. “There’s something about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre where the low-budget quality made it more terrifying. I thought It Follows was spectacular, and it really illustrated what I love about the genre, which is that it isn’t going anywhere. We’re always going to seek out this kind of entertainment where we scare ourselves.”
If you go
The Popcorn Frights Film Festival runs Thursday through Oct. 4 at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St., Miami. Tickets are $12 per screening. Festival badges good for all shows are $45. For more information, visit www.popcornfrights.com or call 305-571-9970.