From ‘Annabelle’ to Chucky: How horror became summer’s hot ticket
Why so scary, summer? From creepy dolls to water-borne predators to more mysterious and murderous frights, horror is heading to multiplexes in a big way this season.
No longer relegated to the Halloween timing of a fall opening — although those slots remain golden — horror has crept into the summer season thanks to an undeniable resurgence in popularity and the proven profitability of hits like “It: Chapter One,” the burgeoning cinematic oeuvre of Jordan Peele and anything remotely related to “The Conjuring.”
It’s a good time to be a fan of horror movies — and this summer, studios are hoping it’s a good time to release them too.
It was most certainly not always this way, even though the granddaddy of creature horror, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” ushered in the era of the blockbuster with a June opening 44 years ago. And summer remains the most costly season for movie openings, says genre producer Jason Blum.
But when horror movies score big all over the release calendar, as they’ve been doing in recent years, what formerly seemed like a risk looks increasingly enticing.
“Because horror movies were often thought of as ‘singles’ and ‘doubles’ it was the common wisdom that it wasn’t worth the [marketing and distribution costs],” says Blum, whose hits include “Halloween,” “Get Out” and “Glass” — all of which crossed $100 million domestically.
“When these movies can do over a couple hundred million dollars worldwide,” he says, “the summer becomes a much more attractive place to have them land.”
While his Blumhouse Productions has been careful about summer releases, its “Purge” films have all opened successfully in the summer, the last two proving competitive over the lucrative July 4 frame.
Still, Blumhouse will launch just one theatrical film this season: Octavia Spencer vehicle “Ma” (May 31), a hard-R thriller with gory moments. (The Oscar-winning actress stars in a surprising turn that Blum compares to Kathy Bates’ in “Misery.”) Its next two horror releases are slated for September and December.
“The best release date for a horror movie ever would be a Friday the 13th in September,” Blum says, laughing. “That would be the dream horror movie release date — you’d have to make a really bad movie for it not to open on that day.”
“I talk about [release date strategy] as three-dimensional chess,” says Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein, who has overseen the dating of the “Conjuring” franchise — including its “Annabelle” spinoffs and last year’s smash “The Nun” — as James Wan’s Atomic Monster shingle has churned out horror hit after hit for the studio.
The next installment — sequel “Annabelle Comes Home” (June 28) — moves even closer into the heart of the summer. The creepy doll mini-franchise initially launched in October, before an August date did robust business for the second “Annabelle” film. (The original “Conjuring” and its sequel became global blockbusters when they were released in July and June.)
“If you make a good movie, you put in some scares and it really works for that targeted audience, they’re faithful and they come back,” said Goldstein, “and they come back early.”
Unlike other genres, horror is inherently conducive to the shared theatrical experience, he noted. And while genre audiences today tend to skew young and female, those gaps are evening out.
“There are certain R-rated movies that really cross over and get a younger audience, like ‘It,’” he said. “‘It seemed to defy the rating because parents thought that was a movie they could experience together with their kids.”
Leading the wave of killer doll movies is Orion/MGM’s “Child’s Play” reboot (June 21), which gives Chucky a face-lift, a new back story, a new Andy to terrorize and a new voice (Mark Hamill).
According to producer Seth Grahame-Smith and partner David Katzenberg (who are also producers on “It”), “Child’s Play” went into production “unusually fast” less than a year ago in order to make its June release date. Is summertime the right time for horror?
“I don’t think there’s a bad time to open a horror movie anymore,” Grahame-Smith said. “I don’t think horror ever went away, but it’s certainly more mainstream than it’s been any time in my career. And as such, I feel like horror is now a year-round genre.”
In a cheeky release date stunt, “Child’s Play” will hit theaters the same day as another film about a kid named Andy and the toy he no longer wants to play with: Disney/Pixar’s “Toy Story 4.”
“It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in a release strategy and I love it,” said Grahame-Smith. “We’re embracing it! Obviously ‘Toy Story 4’ will make a lot more money than we will on the weekend, but we will be, I think, a great alternative.”
Earning its R rating with substantial gore, Sony Screen Gems’ “Brightburn” (May 24) kicks off the summer of scares with a hybrid twist on the superhero genre produced by James Gunn.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman play Tori and Kyle Breyer, loving parents who discover the young boy they adopted when his spaceship crash-landed on their farm is developing superpowers. The bad news: He’s probably a sociopath, a dark turn that should attract fans of both superhero movies and horror to its evil Superman origin story.
One of the season’s more left-field offerings arrives with Ari Aster’s aptly titled “Midsommar” (July 3), starring Florence Pugh as a woman vacationing with friends in a remote Swedish village where suspicious shenanigans ensue.
Distributor A24 (which will also release the haunted dress tale “In Fabric” in August) looks to draw the holiday art-horror crowd to “Midsommar” with the film’s millennial “Wicker Man” vibe in hopes of replicating the summer success of Aster’s 2018 breakout, “Hereditary.”
Additional scream-worthy titles set to hit screens over the next four months include “Crawl” (July 12), with Kaya Scodelario as a woman stalked by alligators during a Category 5 hurricane, and the sequels “Brahms: The Boy II” (July 26) and “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” (Aug. 16). .
Streaming outlets will get in on the genre action as well, including two anticipated film festival titles: director Issa Lopez’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid” has been waiting two years for release, and genre streamer Shudder will debut the Mexican horror fable — about a 10-year-old orphaned girl granted magical wishes — in late summer.
Netflix will unveil frequent “Girls” director Richard Shepard’s classical music world thriller “The Perfection,” starring Allison Williams and Logan Browning, on May 24.
Before the season truly ends with the September release of horror sequel “It: Chapter 2,” another spook-story classic makes it to the big screen with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” (Aug. 9), adapted from Alvin Schwartz’s collection of short stories that gave generations of kids absolute nightmares.
Opening an “intense” PG-13 horror flick during a frame positioned to attract out-of-school kids and grownups who still have a strong emotional connection to the books alike makes sense, says producer Sean Daniel.
Summer “is where the audience is,” he said. “Horror is so popular — and it’s really one of the great reasons to gather in a movie theater. What better time than summer for doing that?”
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.