The first week of January has been an auspicious time for horror movies. Industry types would say it’s the lack of fresh box-office competition, though it’s also always seemed just as likely that the aftermath of the holidays are ripe for a good slasher picture. Two years ago on the same weekend “The Devil Inside” scored an eye-popping $33 million, blowing away expectations. Last year “Texas Chainsaw 3D” — a sequel to a lesser horror property than some of its '80s counterparts — managed a $22-million opening despite being just the third movie in the series over the last 15 years.
That should have made this year’s “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” a spinoff of a far more successful recent franchise, a slam dunk. Yet the film disappointed, coming in with just $18.3 million and a weekend loss to long-toothed holdover “Frozen.” The horror picture — which retained the franchise’s found-footage conceit but moved the demographics from largely suburban whites to urban Latinos,the theme from haunted house to demonic possession and the characters from the signature Katie Featherston to new protagonists — fell well short of the high $20-million range many had predicted.
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Some of this, of course, could be simply the dimming of a long-running franchise and its sequels — 2012’s “Paranormal 4” took in just about half of the first movie’s haul of $107 million. But the true culprit may be that the new movie wasn’t really a sequel in the first place but a spinoff. And spinoffs are the trickiest brew.
Occupying the middle ground between sequel and reboot, they hope to capitalize on the best of both worlds but often end up with the worst of them. The spinoff doesn't tend to draft off elements known or popular enough to build an audience from the previous movie — yet it’s many times still perceived as enough of a sequel that it doesn't o feel original. There’s a reason some of the more notorious branded movies in recent memory are spinoffs: “Catwoman,” “X-Men: Origins,” “The Scorpion King.” (!) It’s the rare movie that can find its footing with semi-known elements.
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(Also interesting in all this, incidentally, is how studio Paramount targeted Latino audiences with the film. The demographic has been a reliable one for horror. But did a heavy focus in that direction give it the best possible shot or just make people feel like it was demographics, not concept, that led the way?)
The good news for execs is they can get back on track with another Katie-centric “Paranormal,” the fifth installment, which — though it presumably will push the story in new directions a la previous “Paranormal” films — goes back to the franchise’s Halloween date and more familiar creative territory. There are some hot writers attached. Presumably they know that when it comes to horror franchises, audiences want the new — but not too new.