Moviegoers, beware. A host of masked, murderous slashers, demented fiends and demonic forces are about to converge on the multiplex, but it's not your immortal soul they're after. It's your hard-earned dollars.
Horror films are dominating the release schedule in 2009 -- almost certainly, event movies like "Watchmen" and "Terminator Salvation" will outgross their spookier kin, but not a month will go by without at least one film designed to terrify audiences making its way into theaters. January already has seen the release of "The Unborn" and "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," and this week the psychological thriller "The Uninvited" will attempt to scare up box-office receipts.
Next month, the hockey-mask-sporting Jason Voorhees will return to menace teens in the remake of "Friday the 13th"; in March, newcomer Dennis Iliadis will unveil his version of the horror classic "The Last House on the Left"; in May, "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi returns to the genre that launched his career with "Drag Me to Hell."
And there's more: "Juno" scribe Diablo Cody has penned the horror comedy "Jennifer's Body," Rob Zombie resurrects villain Michael Myers for "H2: Halloween 2," the "Final Destination" franchise is employing 3-D for its latest installment and, in October, Lionsgate's "Saw" series is set to return for a sixth go-round. Before the end of the year, Benicio Del Toro will confront his inner monster in "The Wolf Man."
If horror films reflect the anxieties of a culture, then it makes perfect sense that so many nefarious characters are emerging from the darkness: The collapse of the housing market, the menacing approach of a potential economic depression, an ongoing war and international unrest -- they're the stuff of nightmares.
And yet, sitting in dark theaters watching unspeakable acts on screen, we find release -- or at least distraction from the real threats we face.
"Horror is the genre that makes you feel something, like comedy makes you laugh," said Andrew Form, a partner in Michael Bay's company Platinum Dunes, which produced the new "Friday the 13th." "It elicits an immediate response. You sit down in the seat and you just know that your hand's probably going to be over your eyes and you're going to be waiting for those jumps. For 90 minutes, you're guaranteed to feel something."
Which explains why the genre has managed such an enduring presence, even though it rarely earns much in the way of critical acclaim. Since the glory days of the Universal monster movies starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, horror cinema always has operated on a cyclical rhythm with various types of films falling in and out of favor. In the last dozen years, there have been nearly as many trends.
In 1996, director Wes Craven's "Scream" adopted a postmodern "ironic" approach to the genre, dispatching the crop of wheezing serial killers that had been in vogue before. Then came the supernatural thrillers inspired by Asian ghost stories, the so-called torture porn period and a batch of "reimaginings" of and sequels to various horror classics and cult gems, with the occasional original project (usually from a country other than the U.S.) generating rapturous chatter (recent examples: Spain's "The Orphanage" and Sweden's "Let the Right One In").
Every one of these mini-trends is represented among the crop of upcoming releases, indicating not just a willingness on the part of Hollywood to invest in the genre -- which needs neither A-list actors nor expensive special effects nor marketing budgets to do well, a plus in these dour economic times -- but also a furious hodgepodge of creative energy. That fervor is likely to grow only more frenzied now that improved 3-D technology has been thrown into the mix.
"I think all the studios know that horror sells," Zombie, 44, said by phone last week, as he was preparing to head to Georgia to shoot "H2." "It's a genre that never gets any respect or any love, but it's always a safe bet."
'Inheritance of violence'
Director Craven, 69, has spent most of his decades-long career terrifying audiences with films that tend to be about ideas much larger and more profound than simply who in a group of characters in peril will live to see the sequel -- not surprising, really, given his former life as a humanities professor. Sitting at the head of the dining room table in his midcentury modern Hollywood Hills home on a recent Thursday morning, sunlight streaming through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, the genial, soft-spoken writer-director said his next film, "25/8," about a young man who discovers that he is the son of a serial killer who had unconsciously committed his crimes, is a very personal project.
"That just intrigued me," Craven said, "both the idea of doing things that you're not aware of -- which I think is a lot of the history of the United States, that hidden history -- and then just the inheritance of violence from one generation to the next, whether we're doomed to repeat it, how deeply are we implicated."
Craven was one of a class of directors to emerge during the late 1960s and early 1970s whose films grappled with such topics as racism, the dissolution of the family and the legacy of violence from the Vietnam War. Along with those of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, his movies were gritty and ugly but incredibly compelling. Almost overnight, rural America became a place where extreme violence could seem quite at home.
While the movies of that era -- Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," Craven's "The Last House on the Left" and his 1977 follow-up, "The Hills Have Eyes," and John Carpenter's "Halloween" -- are the frequent subjects of study in film school programs, they gave way in the years that followed to less thematically weighty fare, typically fatuous and gory morality tales featuring masked or disfigured murderers stalking nubile teens in some remote locale.
Although "25/8" won't be released until the fall, Craven's influence on contemporary horror is both obvious and immediate. His former editor Patrick Lussier made his directorial debut with "My Bloody Valentine 3-D," and in March, Rogue Pictures will open Iliadis' remake of "Last House on the Left," a brutal fable that explores the capacity for savage behavior among civilized people.
Before working with Iliadis, a Greek director known for his 2004 feature "Hardcore," Craven recruited France's Alexandre Aja to remake "The Hills Have Eyes." One of a younger clan of filmmakers raised on those movies from the '70s, Aja, 30, made his debut with 2003's "High Tension," a revisionist take on the slasher film that the Village Voice described as "gratifyingly gory, doggedly intellectual." He turned Craven's story of a suburban family besieged by mutant cannibals in the desert into a powerful commentary on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. (His most recent film, "Mirrors," tackled haunted house tropes.)
Aja says he and his contemporaries -- he name checks Eli Roth and musician-writer-director Zombie -- set out in the earlier part of the decade to wrest horror back from its campier, PG-13-rated tangents, or "to reinvent the grammar of the genre."
"We all came with the idea of bringing back the horror, just scaring the audience as much as we can," Aja said, speaking by phone last week. "Making movies that are not meant to be funny but make you as an audience member leave the movie as an experience. I think we managed to revive that intensity of the genre as it was at its most powerful in the '70s. We managed to make them more violent but also more suspenseful or scary."
They also managed to strike an interesting balance. As movies such as "Saw" and "Hostel" took horror back to its transgressive roots, the genre gained a different kind of mainstream profile and, seemingly, a new level of acceptability at the studio level.
"When we got into this seven, eight years ago, there were nowhere near the amount of horror films that there are today," said Brad Fuller, also Platinum Dunes partner and "Friday the 13th" producer. "I think when a studio president is looking at a slate of films, instead of just one or two films, they have to spread out the risk. Making a movie for $20 million that at least has the potential to make its production budget back in the opening weekend is a worthwhile business, just as making 'Batman' or 'Iron Man' is also."
Just as with those tent-pole titles, though, having a character or concept with built-in audience familiarity can make a project more palatable to cost-conscious executives -- and some ticket buyers. "Why you see so many sequels and remakes," Zombie said, "people don't have a lot of money to waste. . . . If it's a remake, they go, 'Oh, we basically already know what it is, that's cool.' Or if it's a sequel, they go, 'Oh, I saw the first one, I get it.'
"Horror, even when it is a new product, it's still a safe bet," he added. "Someone goes, 'Oh, what's that about?' You go, 'It's a horror movie.' That's a good enough explanation most of the time. But with other movies, you have to go, 'What's 'The Reader' about?' Or 'Revolutionary Road.' You really have got to tell people, they don't just show up. I love those movies, they're wonderful movies, but they're not an easy sell."
Wanted: fresh ideas
Familiarity, of course, can breed contempt. Although he's directed three of the "Saw" films, Darren Lynn Bousman, 30, says he's frustrated by the lack of fresh ideas. His 2008 horror musical "Repo! The Genetic Opera" received some blistering reviews when it was released in November and grossed less than $200,000 during its initial run. But the movie -- set in a future in which people are addicted to plastic surgery but run the risk of losing their designer organs when they can no longer pay for them -- is unlike anything released in recent memory.
This month, Bousman's opted to take his show on the road, driving cross-country to screen "Repo!" for sellout crowds who are turning up in costume (think "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") to show their love for its cult aesthetic. Bousman insists that the capacity audiences prove there is a hunger for original ideas.
"The reason I made 'Repo!' [is] if you look at horror films right now, the majority of them are sequels and remakes and reimaginings," he said. "I wanted to see something original. Whether you love 'Repo!' or hate 'Repo!' it's not like anything else out there. The hope would be that we'd see some more original content."
The challenge now, most of the filmmakers say, is to keep the level of quality high and to keep pushing boundaries. Aja is excited about the possibilities afforded by advances in technology, which he'll be employing for his next project, "Piranha 3-D."
"The genre is a very hard genre because people get used to the tricks you're putting on the screen to scare them," he said. "I have the feeling that the only way to reinvent horror today [is 3-D]. When you're making a horror movie, you're trying to get people into the movie. You're not trying to have them watching a story but having them live the story along with the characters. The best tool to create that immersion is 3-D."
Craven isn't convinced that 3-D will change the face of horror just yet -- though he did describe "My Bloody Valentine" as "goofy" and "fun." He does believe that filmmakers will continue to deliver challenging movies, some more cerebral than others, that will mirror our collective fears. "I've been doing it a long time and I constantly get people telling me, 'You gave me nightmares for a year. Thank you,' " Craven said. "I can't even figure it out except to make up theories that we need to have this stuff exorcised."