Horror in film and TV enjoying a big year

Once regarded as a niche genre with limited commercial appeal, horror is enjoying an unprecedented boom this year, scaring up big box-office bucks and top television ratings.

Films such as The Conjuring, Mama and The Purge are among the most profitable this year, which has seen more top-grossing horror films than ever before.

This is according to The Hollywood Reporter, which says the genre has never seen such broad, cross-demographic appeal. In the high-stakes movie business, scary movies with modest budgets are shaming loss-making behemoths such as this year's US$215-million (S$266-million) action caper The Lone Ranger.

Together, The Conjuring, Mama and The Purge cost just US$38 million to produce but earned more than US$500 million worldwide.

Horror has also had a banner year on TV, where loyal fans turned zombie series The Walking Dead and the witchcraft-themed American Horror Story: Coven into ratings powerhouses with their season premieres this month.

The Walking Dead grabbed more than 16 million viewers in the United States, making it the most popular cable TV show of all time, while Coven attracted 5.5 million viewers, the best showing yet for the American Horror Story franchise.

And whereas well-known actors would once have avoided the genre, some unexpected names are now popping up in the credits.

Among them are Ethan Hawke, in the gory home-invasion thriller The Purge; Jessica Chastain in the ghost story Mama; Julianne Moore in the current remake of the teenage revenge fantasy Carrie; and Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Coven on television.

For Jason Blum, the producer behind many of this year's celluloid screamfests, the trend is all about the bottom line.

He tells Life! that the beauty of horror is it tends to be cheap to make and easy to market or franchise, compared to, say, a character-driven drama or even a flashy action thriller.

In addition, it has proven to have broad demographic appeal, even with groups - such as women and the elderly - not usually thought of as horror fans.

That is how his company Blumhouse managed to spend less than US$27 million to produce eight horror hits, including Paranormal Activity (2007), Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring, that collectively earned more than US$1.1 billion globally over the last five years.

While promoting The Purge, which was produced for US$3 million and made US$87 million, Blum told Life! this was all down to his model of micro-budget film-making. Horror lends itself especially well to this approach because stories "can be made relatively inexpensively, with not too many locations, not too many speaking parts", and then easily marketed to a broad audience.

It is, he says, "something that the head of marketing at a studio would read and say, 'wow, if you get this 90 per cent right, I know what the trailer is, I know what the poster is'.

"If you use those parameters, most of the time you're going to wind up making a horror movie."

As for audience appeal, that has been well- documented in recent years, with horror of all stripes - from zombies and vampires to ghosts and serial killers - enjoying a pop-cultural resurgence accompanied by an increasing tolerance for violence and gore on screen.

But whereas it used to be the preserve of geeks and fanboys, the genre attracts more a diverse and broad-based demographic now.

In the United States, horror movies are especially popular with women and Hispanics, groups that much of mainstream Hollywood fare does not really cater for.

Women made up 51 per cent of the US moviegoing audience last year but the opening-weekend audience for The Purge was 61 per cent female.

Analysts note that young women, in particular, can make or break such movies and were a key factor in making The Conjuring (whose audience was 53 per cent female) and The Purge (56 per cent) sleeper hits.

Horror also does well among Hispanics, who in Nielsen's American Moviegoing report last year, ranked it as their fourth favourite genre (it placed eighth among non-Hispanic viewers).

Age, too, has proven to be no barrier to enjoying a good scare on screen.

Ms Sharon Tal Yguado of Fox International Channels, which distributes The Walking Dead overseas, told The Hollywood Reporter that "we know that 70-year-olds are watching it and 10-year-olds are watching it".

In addition, the series airs in 133 countries, thus appearing, like a lot of horror, to translate well into different languages and cultures.

This makes it easier to export such properties to foreign markets, which are growing increasingly important for Hollywood. The expanding demand for the genre in key territories including Latin America, Russia, Britain and France is only fuelling the trend.

In the United States, meanwhile, the appetite for it is now so enthusiastic that most major Hollywood studios are investing in low-budget films, and have started to release horror titles all year round, not just in the traditional Halloween month of October.

What is the incentive, though, for well-known drama actors and directors to be involved in such projects, especially when the budget is small and horror still carries a bit of a B-movie stigma?

According to The New York Times, Blum's tactic is to reach out to top directors by offering them final say in the editing of the film, which studios are often reluctant to relinquish.

For casting, he finds recognised but not quite A-list names such as Hawke and Rose Byrne, and persuades them to work for little or no pay in exchange for a stake in backend profits.

This is how Hawke, a major film star in the 1990s (Gattaca, 1997, and Reality Bites, 1994), came to be paid almost nothing for The Purge, but received an estimated US$2 million of the film's earnings or double his usual salary.

Byrne, who appeared in the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids, had a similar arrangement for her role in the haunting tale Insidious (2010) and this year's sequel Insidious: Chapter 2, which made US$128 million worldwide.

For top-tier actors, the thrill may just lie in getting to do something different.

Chastain, who was nominated for an Oscar for last year's military thriller Zero Dark Thirty, has said she agreed to Mama so as to avoid being typecast for playing "devoted wives and mothers" , as she did in the 2011 arthouse drama Tree Of Life.

Nevertheless, this left-field choice did raise eyebrows as an unusual move for a serious dramatic performer.

Actress Vera Farmiga, who played a clairvoyant in The Conjuring, admits she was initially "concerned at having signed on to a horror film, knowing that the genre is quite often not taken seriously".

Patrick Wilson, who played her husband, agrees there have been "a lot of horror movies that are just about the gag and aren't very actor-friendly".

But he says there are bad comedies and dramas equally guilty of this, just as there have been some excellent horror films.

"When you talk about the great horror movies, it's usually movies that have a strong acting base and great actors", he says, pointing to classic films including The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Shining (1980) or Poltergeist (1982), which he adds were "all strong, character-based movies".

"As long as horror movies are like that, then they're great, then they work."

He is referring to a period many see as the golden age of horror cinema, where directors such as Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby) and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) elevated the genre to new heights.

Kimberly Peirce, whose remake of one of those classic films, Brian De Palma's 1976 film Carrie, is now showing in Singapore, says: "Those directors really made movies that were their own. Those films were intimate, they had great relationships, great characters, great actors."

Still, while many of those movies enjoyed critical success, notably The Exorcist, the first horror flick to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this year's crop of releases has been cheered for rather more commercial reasons.

There is, perhaps, another explanation for moviegoers' renewed interest in horror. It is a genre well-suited to communal viewing, which is increasingly rare in the video-on-demand age.

Peirce says: "Think about it, we love going to horror films, we love getting scared and seeing if that movie can scare us, seeing if it can scare the person next to us and our friends. It's a wonderful, fun genre."

Wilson adds: "The thing about horror movies is that very few people will talk about their favourite one and say they saw it on their computer or by themselves in the middle of the day.

"It's about the experience of going to the theatre, hearing the sound, being there at night… that's part of it."

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