Horror is perhaps film’s oldest genre and a fairly reliable one in terms of always being something audiences are interested in. Yes, I know we’ve had dry spells, but there are various reasons behind those dry spells, most of them being conventional wisdom blocking potentially great horror movies.
The problem has never been that movie audiences don’t want horror, it’s that they want good horror. New concepts, new ideas, new characters, new methods of filmmaking, really anything truly novel and decently marketed, is almost always likely to attract hordes of people to horror movie premieres.
Rehashing the same ideas over and over, as is common within the genre, often causes general audiences to get jaded and in fairly rapid fashion.
To be clear, there are at least two audiences the horror filmmaker must consider pushing their movie to.
The first is the general movie-going public. The second is horror fans. Horror fans, often enough, love a horror film for the exact reason general audiences hate a film.
Casual movie audiences can be turned off by excessive gore, horror fans often crave more and more. The average movie-goer may complain that the acting in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood was bad, whereas the horror veteran may love the campy acting… and the sleeping bag scene. Seriously, everyone loves the sleeping bag scene in part seven. And yes, it’s on YouTube.
The dilemma, of course, is that if a horror film caters too much to general audiences, it runs the risk of being generic, safe and… well, not scary. Absolutely no one wants to see an unremarkable horror film. Even non-horror fans would probably have to concede that there’s no point in watching a horror movie if there’s nothing horrifying about it.
Conversely, if the movie caters too much to horror fans, the general movie-going public may walk away either shaking their head from missing the “tonal atmospheric” quality of the film as with movies like It Follows, or they may walk away emotionally traumatized, as was the case with Hereditary. To be fair, though, I’m a seasoned horror fan, and I walked away from Hereditary traumatized, and I don’t mind admitting it.
Generally speaking, the movie A Quiet Place seemed to land pretty well, right on the border of universal appeasement. Horror fans mostly enjoyed it, movie audiences liked it, and it’s a box office success. Full disclosure, I thought it was good, but was a little underwhelmed.
Another recent example would be Stephen King’s It.
It did veer a little closer into horror-fandom, at least on the surface, but that’s because it could. For one, it had serious name-recognition and for another, it also capitalized on the recent success of Stanger Things in more ways than one, drawing in a ton of audience members who might otherwise be repulsed by the movie. More disclosure, I didn’t have any problems with filmmakers doing so, I thought it was quite smart, actually. Also, I really enjoyed the movie.
Then you’ve got A24 Films.
A24 is a bold, fantastic film company putting out some of the best horror titles in years. That said, their movies definitely tend to be more appreciated by dedicated fans of the horror genre, than by general audiences. What sets A24 apart from independent horror film studios aiming at horror fans, is that A24 doesn’t act like a niche, indie arthouse movie studio. A24 treats their movies like a 21st Century Fox blockbuster and goes all in on attracting smart audiences that don’t need their hands held.
A24 is bringing obscure, extreme, and arthouse-style horror to the mainstream and it’s kind of beautiful.
They’re not the only ones making great moves, I’ll have more to say about Shudder later, but for now, A24 is the example I’m using.
Conventional wisdom would say their films will only alienate general audiences, and to its credit, conventional wisdom hasn’t been entirely wrong. Hereditary only has a 59 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the overall consensus in the horror community is that Hereditary is fantastic. Furthermore, critics loved it, as it currently sits at an 89 percent fresh rating among critics.
Ten years ago, general audiences would likely have never seen something like The Witch in multiplex theaters. Today audiences are walking away confused and even angry, but still having seen the movie.
I myself recall seeing The Witch in a crowded theater. I loved it. Solid 9/10, but at the time, I couldn’t understand why it had a wide release. Most people leaving the theater were confused and angry by the movie and while I disagreed, I understood.
And online, The Witch has a similar story to Hereditary. Not-so-great audience score, great critical reviews, horror audiences generally loved it. Casual movie fans just don’t like artsy, atmospheric, cerebral horror films.
But guess what? A24 doesn’t care.
They’re less interested in what the average movie-goer thinks and more interested in producing new and innovative films. They don’t just do horror either, A24 has produced films across all kinds of genres, including the Oscar-nominated Lady Bird. A24 produces and promote the kinds of films they want to make, general audience opinion aside.
Why don’t they care about audience opinion? I can’t speak for the geniuses behind A24, but I’m betting it’s because they don’t have to.
Going back to Hereditary and The Witch, they may have confused and upset a number of audience members, but they also made huge profits. The Witch had a production budget of around $4 million and made $25 million at the domestic box office. Hereditary is said to have had a production budget of around $10 million and pulled in a domestic box office total of more than $43 million.
Those films may not be pulling It numbers of over $325 million, but they’re also not taking on nearly the amount of financial risk for production. Word of mouth also does plenty of A24’s promotional work for them, which means promotional costs are lower. Plus, when you make original horror, you don’t have to worry about acquiring distribution rights to properties.
At the end of the day, they’re turning massive profits, and they’re doing so by making great, artistically relevant horror films. And for that matter, great, artistically relevant films in general, horror aside.
Moreover, while box office success is still a huge factor in a film’s success, A24, Netflix, Showtime, Shudder, and plenty of other companies are taking more experimental risks, and showing the world that a film’s financial success is determined by much more than an opening weekend at the box office. Money can be made after the Sunday following a film’s release. Expect horror to continue thriving in various forms for the foreseeable future.
But then, there is another possibility. One where I ask myself, “Is it possible that A24 is slowly turning general movie-going audiences into hardened, dedicated horror fans?”