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Summer of Horror Films: Overkill or Necessary Escape?

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Summer of Horror Films: Overkill or Necessary Escape?

This summer, movie fans are finally able to return to theaters, with a selection to satisfy everyone’s taste buds. And with that comes a flurry of horror films, both in theaters and on streaming platforms — 10, to be exact. Is that overkill after such a horrifying year?

Experts say horror flicks are exactly what people will need this summer (May-July), after a year of negative COVID-19 related headlines, being stuck at home, and heavy political moments.

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“I think people want an escape. They want to step outside of their homes and commune with like-minded ‘weirdos,’” Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of the upcoming “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” told TheWrap. “I recently attended a movie in a proper theater. It was cathartic.  For those 90 minutes, I forgot all the insane trauma we all just endured. For those 90 minutes, I was transported.  Movies are more than just movies right now. They are a much needed reminder that things are turning around!”

Michael Chaves, the director of the upcoming “Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” agreed, and is says he is looking forward to watching many horror movies in theaters this summer.

“This has been a year of real horror, and I think some would argue we are done, that we just want to laugh. But in a way, horror movies are great in allowing us to understand and compartmentalize our fears, where we can experience it and have that thrill and the lights come on and we can walk away from it,” Chaves said.

ComScore Senior Analyst Paul Dergarabedian said that horror films are consistently the most popular of all movie genres, and that will continue through this summer.

“Despite their inherently dark nature, horror films provide a perfect escape from reality and in the confines of the movie theater offer one of the premiere communal theatrical experiences that only sitting with a bunch of strangers in the dark can provide,” he told TheWrap.

Matt Leslie, a horror fan and writer of 2018’s “Summer of 84” and the upcoming horror film “The Knocking,” agrees that it provides escapism for people but also understands if people avoid horror films this summer, so shortly after the traumas of the pandemic.

“I could see on the macro level a weakening effect and desire to see horror films just because the year we’ve had, but on the other side, horror is a way to dive into a world that’s worse than this one — it could go either way. I’m excited to see what happens,” he told TheWrap.

Horror films stand to provide reprieve for consumers, as well as for studios and production companies that have also been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Horror films have always been profitable, and as TheWrap has previously reported, scary movies sell tickets more reliably than almost any other genre — big-budget superhero movies included. Not only that, the revenue margins — and profits — of horror movies are higher since production (and marketing) costs are typically much, much lower.

“Just like horror icons, horror flicks in theaters never say die. The reason this summer has a plethora of chill pills is the same reason distributors continue to return to the genre since the beginning of film — thrifty thrills and quick cash,” Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said. “Horror films are often the best bet for production companies as the overhead is low and the potential windfall is high. And since horror flicks usually aren’t star driven, the production costs can be used for the stuff genre fans crave… gallons of blood, VFX and really cool villains.”

Take the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which is known for lower budgets and big payouts. The first film, for example, was shot for $15,000, and made a whopping $193 million worldwide at the box office. In 2004, “Saw” was shot for $1.2 million and grossed $100 million worldwide, becoming one of the most successful horror films since “Scream” (1996). And let’s not forget about the “Conjuring” films, which have collectively grossed $1.9 billion against a combined budget of $139.5 million, becoming the second highest-grossing horror franchise ever behind “Godzilla.”

This summer, gore fans can head to the movies for films like “Spiral,”John Krasinski’s highly-anticipated “A Quiet Place Part II,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “The Forever Purge,” “Escape Room 2,” “Crack House of the Dead” and the indie horror flicks “Ghost Master” and “The Djinn” (also on VOD). Horror lovers can also watch films like “Woman in the Window,” starring Amy Adams, and Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” on Netflix.

Bousman explained that the pandemic derailed the releases of horror films that were set to come out last year and are now competing with new movies that were born during the pandemic.

“We are now seeing the light at the end of a very dark tunnel and ,with that, the stockpile of unreleased cinema,” he said. “On top of all the unreleased films, you have new films that were born out of the fear, paranoia, and frustration of the last 18 months.”

Horror films pivoting to summer release dates as opposed to just opening in October isn’t a new thing. In 2019, films like “Ma,” “Child’s Play,” “Annabelle: Creation,” “Midsommar” and “Crawl” all opened in the summer months. Not only are the release dates around Halloween completely saturated, but distributors early on saw a possibility to provide counter-programming for summer blockbusters and big potential cash flow. While more genre films have started to open in the summer months, 2021 is a new behemoth, partly due to many films shifting release dates due to theater closures all of last year.

But horror movies weren’t completely absent last year. Even though theaters were closed, distributors turned to drive-ins and on-demand platforms.

“As we saw with IFC’s slate last summer, horror movies practically saved Hollywood,” Bock added. “Drive-ins were packed in 2020, and most of the successful films were playing low-budget horror flicks… Horror fans crave chills and thrills, especially in the summer and that’s not going to change anytime soon.”

IFC Films, Saban Films and RLJE Entertainment, for example, thrived during the pandemic. IFC monetized the release of the horror film “The Rental” by offering drive-in screenings, as well as video on demand (VOD), which resulted in $420,871 in box office over its opening weekend, while also becoming the top-rented film on Apple TV and iTunes. It became the second film to ever top VOD charts and the box office in the same weekend, joining “Trolls World Tour.” Similarly, Saban Films found success in August with “The Silencing,” which grossed $100,000 since its debut.

Bock added: “Horror films have been showing considerable legs since the pandemic began. Cheap thrillers and horror flicks are nearly pandemic proof.”

Bousman noted a recent study conducted by the University of Chicago, which said that horror lovers were “more resilient during the COVID pandemic BECAUSE of their love of horror.”

“In a way, they watched, learned and then modeled their behavior to adapt,” he said. “These movies act like crash courses to the viewer. It puts them in position to confront horrific images and themes, in turn making them wrap their head around concepts and ideas many who steer clear of horror never will.”

Leslie, an avid member of the horror community on Twitter, said he’s only seen appetite for horror increase.

“I’ll never forget the most packed theater experience I had was when I saw ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ I was sitting in the staircase because it was so packed,” he said. “The idea of being in a theater watching a horror film, it’s amazing and it’s why I love making films.”

Beatrice Verhoeven