Film Fund-amentals: The Horror, the Horror

As the weekend success of the new Friday the 13th has demonstrated, you seemingly can’t go wrong with a horror film. Well, sort of.

Despite its $45.2 million dollar take at the box office, the film will redoubtably drop like a rock from here on out. That is the destiny of any modern horror movie. The audience for these films is actually pretty marginal and the potential is normally depleted after the first few days. Yet there is a method to the madness — as long as it follows some basic rules:

  • Keep the budget as tight as possible to $15 million dollars (even closer to $10 million would be best). Nobody goes to these movies for plush production values, so forget about it. The new Friday the 13th strictly adhered to this rule. With a budget of $20 million dollars, My Bloody Valentine in 3-D broke this fundamental law and went belly up faster than a horny teenager at Camp Crystal Lake. Granted, the budget difference is marginal. But everything in this genre is about narrow margins.
  • Stick to the known brands. There are nearly two dozen more horror films coming down the pipeline, most of which are remakes of movies from the 1980s. Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are the genre’s version of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. The original My Bloody Valentine wasn’t even close to being an RC Cola. Name brand recognition is supreme.
  • Forget 3-D. Nobody goes to these flicks for the technical gimmicks. They go to these movies to see young people (and the occasional oldster bit player) get massacred in an R-rated but gory manner. It’s all about sexual anxiety and taboo violations. Everything else is immaterial.
  • Don’t worry about the opening weekend. The first-run life span of a horror film is roughly three weeks. The real money is then made with the DVD release, which will normally double (at a minimum) whatever was made at the box office. That is why My Bloody Valentine in 3-D will still make a profit despite its lackluster performance (barely $48 million first-run). Much like the porno trade, more people prefer to watch extreme violence in the privacy of their homes.
  • Last but not least, don’t get too hung up on cinematic value. Most of these movies are incredibly stupid and artistically dead, but most attempts to expand beyond this (e.g. Wolfen and Mimic) have commercially failed. Most successes have struck to the basic formula that was neatly broken down and spoofed by Wes Craven in the Scream series (a must-see study guide to the genre).

Of the many horror films coming out this year, only one might succeed in breaking the artistic dead end of the form. I doubt if Zone of the Dead will travel far in first-run. But a Serbian horror film that promises to be a mix of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13 (the original, not the crappy remake) located within the aftermath of the recent Balkan Wars promises to be the first major cult movie of the twenty-first century. Too bad the midnight movie circuit is basically a zone of the dead.

— Dennis Toth