When Jordan Peele won a best original screenplay Oscar for Get Out this year, it sent a message to everyone in Hollywood: Prestige horror is back. The film, which was the debut feature-directing gig for the comedian best known for the sketch comedy series Key & Peele, was one of the most profitable films of 2017, grossing $255 million worldwide on a budget of $4.5 million. Anointing it with an Oscar made it even more of a phenomenon that other filmmakers have become eager to replicate.
Over the years, a handful of commercially successful horror films have gone on to win the highest honor in Hollywoodland: Silence of the Lambs took home a Best Picture and Best Actor award for Jodie Foster; The Sixth Sense won for adapted screenplay; and, of course there was The Exorcist, which was nominated for multiple Oscars and won two back in 1974. But for the most part, the genre has been largely defined by schlocky slasher films like Happy Death Day and The First Purge, which came out over the July Fourth weekend and has grossed a healthy $31 million on an estimated budget of $13 million.
Get Out, which places a brutal critique of American race relations in a horror setting, is not an anomaly. In its wake, there has been a succession of horror films that haven’t just appealed to critics, they’ve made them swoon. Films like A Quiet Place, It, and the recently released Hereditary all have Rotten Tomato scores in the mid 80’s to high 90’s, which is virtually unheard of for the genre. Even a well-received film like 2002’s The Ring, starring Naomi Watts, barely cracked 70%.
Thanks to their low budgets, horror films are generally profitable, which has long made them a Hollywood staple. Now, at a time when Hollywood is more desperate than ever to find risk-averse ways to reach audiences who are more comfortable kicking back at home with YouTube or Netflix, horror is becoming even more important to studios’ bottom lines. Another plus: spooky movies tend to do well overseas, where scares transcend language and culture. It, the adaptation of the Stephen King novel that became the most profitable horror film of all time when it grossed $700 million worldwide last year, made more money abroad than domestically.
In a world where major studios are making fewer movies to focus increasingly on IP-driven franchises that are more about brand names and established characters (Marvel, DC Comics, Han Solo, Superman) than the actors who play them, horror has become a new artistic haven for talent. Meanwhile, for studios, the films are filling out the void being left by mid-budget dramas, where directors and stars have historically made their mark and picked up awards. As Ben Fritz points out in his book about the current state of the film industry, The Big Picture, 1988’s Rain Man would never have been made today.
“Horror is suddenly kind of walking out of a ghetto,” says Jason Blum, who for the past decade has been leading the latest horror craze through his Blumhouse Productions, which produced Get Out. “A lot of people who would never have thought of slumming it in the horror genre are talking to us about projects. Alexander Payne is one. Joe Wright came to us saying he wanted to do a scary movie. It’s kind of amazing.”
Horror films are cheap because they’re generally shot in a single location with few, if any, major stars. Their budgets hover around $5 million, as opposed to the $150 million-plus price tag of massive tentpole movies and even the mid-budget dramas, which cost about $30 million and up. As one studio executive points out, “It’s hard to make a romantic drama in a house.” Horror’s low cost has made them more accessible to first-time directors looking to break through the noise. One of James Cameron’s first films was 1981’s Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. And Peter Jackson’s early work includes Bad Taste, a movie about aliens that “chase human flesh for their intergalactic fast-food chain,” according to IMDB, and Dead Alive, which he made a year before he directed his breakout (non-horror) film, Heavenly Creatures.
So while this is not a new phenomenon, Blum has made it the basis of his business model: Blumhouse is built on the premise that if a director makes a movie very, very cheaply, he (they are generally all he’s) can do pretty much whatever he wants. Not every film is a Get Out, but the odds of success are higher when filmmakers are able to see their vision through, unfettered by studio notes and concerns from marketing. Blumhouse also doesn’t release films theatrically if they don’t test well in early screenings.
“If you’re making Get Out for $10 million, the studio would say, ‘What? This white couple is killing black guys? No fucking way,” says the studio executive (who was not involved with the film). “If you do it for $5 million, then it’s, ‘Well, it could work and strike a chord.'”
But if a horror movie was always an easy way to get a ‘yes’ from a studio, today it’s also a way for filmmakers to make an artistic statement—not just because they want to, but because they need to. “With everything going with IP and the studios, as an indie filmmaker, you have to be able to stand apart and create a brand for yourself,” says Lars Knudsen, who produced Ari Aster’s Hereditary as well as 2015’s The Witch, another cerebral horror film written and directed by Robert Eggers. “You have to be ‘a Robert Eggers movie’ or ‘an Ari Aster movie’ in order to carve out a career for yourself so you don’t get lost.”
“I produced Beginners, which I’m really proud of,” Knudsen says, referring to Mike Mills’ 2010 indie starring Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent, and Christopher Plummer. “It was a drama, but it topped out at $5, $6 million domestically. Then you do a movie like The Witch on the same budget and it does $25 million in the U.S. And it allows Rob to do almost anything he wants. Same thing with Ari now. Hereditary is en route to make $35 to $40 million domestically and it’s opening internationally. It means that we’re already in prep on Ari’s next movie. Both those movies were completely auteur movies that were made the way they wanted to make them. They wrote the scripts and directed them. They were extremely personal movies.”
Indeed, this new breed of artful horror is much more about the film itself, and the person who made it, than its franchise-ability. As Knudsen says, “You’ll never see a Witch 2.”
Perhaps. But Hollywood can’t help itself, and there will be an upcoming film “set in the Get Out world,” according to Blum. Naturally, It 2, which has added Jessica Chastain to its cast, is currently filming.
Part of what studios can’t resist is what horror films can do overseas. Given that international box office has become more significant to studios’ bottom lines than domestic grosses, studios are keen to bet on films that have a track-record of performing well abroad—horror is chief among them, particularly in markets like Japan and South Korea. China, though the world’s second-largest film market, is a mixed bag due to restrictions on violence and even ghosts (which go against the Communist Party’s secular principles), which means some horror films are not even released there.
“What makes horror attractive is there is international value,” says the studio executive. “You know that a horror film will do at least the same internationally as it does domestically, if not more.”
While John Krasinski, the actor best known for playing lovesick Jim Halpert on The Office, was working on the upcoming TV series Jack Ryan, he was given a spec script by producer Andrew Form of Platinum Dunes, the production company he runs with Michael Bay and Brad Fuller. Written by two unknown writers, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, A Quiet Place was a mere 67 pages with virtually no dialogue. The story was about a family trying to stay alive in a world overtaken by alien creatures who attack whenever they hear any movement. It was one of those holy shit! scripts that any aspiring director jumps at. And Krasinski did.
“It wasn’t even 67 real pages,” Form says. “There were maps and drawings in it. We gave it to John and he rewrote it and made it his own.”
Form says the main appeal for Krasinksi, who ended up directing the film and starring in it alongside his wife Emily Blunt, was that A Quiet Place wasn’t your typical fright fest. “He always wanted it to be a scary movie, but it’s a family drama. So he approached it that way, and then, of course, the tension and the scares come along with it.”
“When we were making the Texas Chainsaw remake and some of those other films back when we started, it was really about scare and horror. Now it’s: How do we make a movie where you really care about this family and these characters and really fall in love with them and root for them? Oh, and what happens around them? There are these creatures, but the movie is really about this family. You don’t start with the creatures. That’s a shift that’s definitely happened for us.”
A Quiet Place grossed over $329 million at the global box office, adding another notch to Krasinski’s belt: successful director.
At talent agencies, the recent spate of artful horror films is having an impact. “In staff meetings, major stars are saying that they’re interested in directing a horror film or starring in a horror film,” says WME agent Roger Green.
When a film like Hereditary or A Quiet Place comes out, Green says, “Filmmakers sit and think, Wow, if these auteur filmmakers are able to get this sort of response, I guess horror isn’t just a fun-and-games type movie that teenagers go and see. There’s a real art to it. To make that sort of elevated film, you have to be a real auteur filmmaker and have your own voice.”
To wit: Octavia Spencer and Juliette Lewis are starring in Ma, an upcoming Blumhouse film that’s directed by The Help director Tate Taylor. And Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper is doing a supernatural horror film called Antlers for Fox Searchlight, which is currently searching for an A-list actress. Amy Adams, meanwhile, is currently leading the cast of HBO’s dark murder mystery series Sharp Objects, yet another Blumhouse production.
Stars can also reap higher financial rewards on small horror films because most are set up so that cast members receive a smaller fee upfront but a bigger piece of back-end grosses. If the film is successful, the star pockets more money. One source estimated that on A Quiet Place, Krasinski and Blunt made “six to eight times more than they would have being the lead of a tentpole film.”
All of these factors driving horror’s latest craze went into overdrive when Peele won his Oscar. “There were a couple of horror movies that really opened the door,” Form says. “But then Get Out blew the door wide open. It was like, wait, you can go to the Oscars and the Golden Globes and all that, too? And make a genre film? Suddenly, I think, a lot of people are really interested in the genre, both in front of the camera and behind the camera.”
Now the only issue is: Will there be too many horror films?
Blum thinks so. “I’ve lived through a couple cycles of this,” he says. “What will happen is, post Get Out, there’ll be too many horror movies made, and what happens is the market can’t sustain a horror movie every other week. It just can’t handle it. So they’ll start not to work again. Then people will start making less of them. It’s just cyclical.”