The Horror Movie Renaissance: How Hollywood Made Scares Great Again

With the critical—and no doubt commercial—success of Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, and the upcoming Blair Witch, the studios have finally gotten their spooky groove back.

What a time to be alive, perched in a darkened theater, white-knuckling a box of popcorn and squirming in our seats. Seldom does a cinematic year come along in which cinephiles can cheer for a legitimately great studio horror release, but this year, in the span of two months, we get three—and that’s a bloody miracle by mainstream movie standards.

Between New Line Cinema’s July hit Lights Out, Screen Gems’ Don’t Breathe, and Lionsgate’s Blair Witch, the studios in the spooky business have rare unicorns in their stables this season: horror movies that earn critical kudos as they rake in the dough (as Don’t Breathe is angling to do this weekend and Blair Witch will likely do next month, with only Bridget Jones’ Baby and Snowden to compete against.)

The mainstream horror movie is, sadly, the last place anyone who’s ever seen a mainstream horror movie would credibly look for critical acclaim--not that horrorhounds wouldn’t love to see an impeccably crafted four-quadrant slasher sweep the Oscars. This time last year, for example, studio scarers were mostly terrible, oppressively unoriginal, poorly reviewed, and more than likely of the remake/reboot/sequel variety.

I’d already forgotten that 20th Century Fox put out a Poltergeist remake just last year; it opened in the early days of summer and shot right to No. 4 at the box office. But even that unsuccessful remake was a critical darling compared to The Gallows (16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and Sinister 2 (13 percent). The best-reviewed horror titles of last summer, meanwhile, were threequel Insidious Chapter 3 (58 percent) and M. Night Shyamalan’s modestly-budgeted thriller The Visit (64 percent)—and neither of them held a candle to the frights and delights of 2015’s best indie and arthouse titles like Goodnight Mommy, Spring, What We Do In The Shadows, and It Follows.

But really, most years are dominated by mediocre-yet-lucrative studio horror flicks and only made bearable by the esoteric indie and foreign gems that make being a genre fan worth the trouble. So far, 2016’s best genre movies have come off the festival circuit or have been imports from afar: Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, delicious period fable The Witch, Korean zombie pic Train to Busan, Iranian ghost flick Under the Shadow. Which is why, with September looming and October just around the corner, it’s worth noting that critics are uncharacteristically going bonkers for big horror.

In a generally disappointing summer season so far for movies—in particular, for big budget blockbusters churned out at Warner Bros.—last month’s Lights Out was the first indication that stale clichés done fresh can shake audiences out of the box office doldrums. Directed by Swedish newcomer David F. Sandberg, who drew WB/New Line Cinema’s attention with a short he’d made with a similar premise, and produced by horror wunderkind James Wan, the PG-13 flick exploits one simple yet effective trick: Turning a light switch on, and then off. And then on again. And then off. And then… well, you get the picture.

Teresa Palmer carries the bulk of the plot as an angsty young lady who begins to believe in the boogeywoman her younger brother sees whenever the lights go out, while a plotline involving their mentally ill mother gives the movie a thin dramatic angle to play between obvious scares. But Lights Out doesn’t succeed on human drama so much as it does on the strength of effectively staged spooky bits and a gimmick that really needs no plot. Hovering at 76 percent, it’s Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes—icing on the cake and encouragement to studio execs, one hopes, that even conventionally written horror benefits from solid execution.

Building entire movies around simple and/or dumb concepts is what Hollywood does best. When they’re pulled off well they serve as visceral roller coaster rides for an eager movie-going public. And when that public buys a shit ton of tickets because said movies made them feel more alive than the latest superhero movie(s) did, those flicks can become franchises—which is what happened to Sandberg and the PG-13 Lights Out when New Line saw their $5 million budget more than quintupled domestically in its first week. It has now taken in $111 million and counting worldwide—and the previously unknown Sandberg is inked to direct the sequel.

While Lights Out has a villain who can only be glimpsed in the shadows, this weekend’s Don’t Breathe has one who uses his own blindness to his advantage. That’s the simple trick of this home invasion thriller from Fede Alvarez, who made his feature debut in 2013 by remaking the horror classic Evil Dead and smartly chose an original idea for his next movie. In it, three young good-looking thieves (well, it is still a mainstream studio movie) break into a vet’s home to steal his savings, only to find themselves trapped and forced to fend off a killing machine of a would-be victim. Its centerpiece scene takes place entirely in a pitch-black basement, where the criminals become sitting ducks for their blind tormentor.

Don’t Breathe masterfully exploits the sensory anxieties of its characters and applies a more brutal hand to its gory moments, satisfying a certain degree of bloodlust in the average horror lover. It is savage and meticulous in its crafting. The way its characters slowly realize how in over their heads they are recalls the bewildered siege shenanigans of the doomed punks in Green Room. And like Lights Out, it taps into the visceral tension of losing one’s most important sense at the movies by toying with what we can see onscreen, and what we cannot. At 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it might end up one of the better reviewed movies of the year period, and despite its teen-unfriendly R rating should earn a huge return against its reported $10 million budget.

There’s a bit of that subconscious desire to surrender our sensory devices to the story in Blair Witch, the cleverly conceived second sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Yes, it’s a found footage movie about people lost in the woods. The simplicity of that premise is deceptively clever, because it allows its gifted director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) the freedom to conjure anxiety-inducing panic from first-person POVs cameras, staring into dark and murky forestscapes at night and using the oldest tricks in the book: limited perspective, loud sounds, and unbearable tensions that erupt in jump-scares. In this mythology, too, the element of vision and perception comes into play; everyone knows no one can look the titular Blair Witch in the face and live to tell. Her victims’ undoing is their curiosity—the inability to look away from almost certain horror.

Filmed on the sly in secret and unveiled in a huge reveal just last month, Blair Witch is sitting pretty with an early 100 percent Tomatometer. (Wingard, who’s currently directing a live action Death Note movie for Netflix, has even more indie cred under his belt than Alvarez and Sandberg—although all three reflect a studio willingness to hire up-and-coming helmers onto potentially enormous box office hits.) That bodes well for the surprise spooker, which is neither remake nor reboot but a good old-fashioned threequel and opens Sept. 16 in wide release, with no one to fight at the box office but Bridget Jones and Oliver Stone.

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So while it might be a terrible year so far for loving movies, it’s also an unusually rewarding time to love horror at the multiplex—and not just the arthouse. For all the cheap remakes and easy sequels Hollywood studios will inevitably keep churning out, this month offers a glimmer of hope that mainstream genre can transcend its usual tacky terribleness and take the occasional stab, or perhaps even three, at greatness.