Horror Show; Scary Movies Are Multiplying Faster Than Ever, and Getting Increasingly Sadistic. Why Are Audiences So Hungry for Blood? Pull Up a Chair. Just Be Careful Which One
Byline: Devin Gordon
Once the credits roll and the theater empties, movie marketers go to the same place as the rest of us: the bathroom. Only they go to eavesdrop. "That's where you hear the good s--t," says Tim Palen, co-president of marketing for Lions Gate Films. Four years ago, after a test screening of a nasty little horror movie called "Cabin Fever," Palen was lingering in the men's room when he heard two pals dissecting the film. "I liked it," one said. "I just wish it was bloodier. " Palen made a mental note: gore is good. He played up the carnage in his ad campaign, and "Cabin Fever," about a flesh-eating virus that chews through a group of friends, earned 15 times its budget and put first-time director Eli Roth on the map. When Roth finished his next film, about a pair of sex-starved American backpackers in Europe who wind up in a torture chamber, Palen didn't blink. "Hostel," starring no one you've heard of and featuring some of the most brutal violence in any mainstream film, debuted atop the box office in January and made nearly $50 million. A sequel is planned for early 2007. "We're now a big believer in blood," says Palen.
In a risk-averse town like Hollywood, the high church of horror has become the one sure bet. Since last fall, seven horror movies have topped the box office. Lions Gate's "Saw" franchise, the genre's current kingpin, has rung up $250 million worldwide; a third film is planned for Halloween. Three more creepfests are scheduled for the next month, starting with Universal's "Slither" this Friday. Even Disney has gotten into the act with the PG-13 flick "Stay Alive," which, alas, is not about the systematic slaughter of disco fans. "In 1990, I had to pull my hair out just to find a movie to put on the cover," says Fangoria magazine editor Tony Timpone. "There were only three or four major horror releases a year. Now there's three or four a month. We're like pigs in slop."
Every decade or so, horror gets hot in Hollywood. This latest shockwave, though, is larger--and much more grotesque. You could sew together a whole new person from all the severed body parts in the "Saw" movies, "Hostel" and Fox Searchlight's remake of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes." It's not jokey violence, either. "Filmmakers now have the ability to put viewers directly into the shoes of the victims going through these horrible things, in an almost documentary way," says Bob Weinstein, whose "Scream" franchise for Dimension Films launched the last horror fad in 1996. Some critics--smart ones like New York Magazine's David Edelstein, not just nervous Nellies--argue that the trend verges on "torture porn." Even people within the industry are torn. "It's not the violence that bothers me so much as the tone. A George Romero movie was so political and funny and subversive," says Picturehouse Films president Bob Berney, who marketed "The Passion of the Christ." "To me, these newer movies are purely sadistic." Then again, he adds, "I remember my parents saying stuff like this, and I ignored it. They wouldn't let me see 'A Clockwork Orange,' and I went 25 times."
No one's stacking "Saw 2" alongside Stanley Kubrick, but it is true that such films tend to look smarter with the passage of time. It's practically a clichA[c] that you can tease out a generation's subconscious fears just by watching its horror movies (sidebar). Craven, the man who created Freddy Krueger, says horror movies are "boot camp for the young psyche." (Sixty-five percent of the audience for "Hostel" was younger than 25, which is par for the genre. …