Ah, can you smell it? Smashed pumpkin is in the air and fake cobwebs are adorning once-respectable walls. It is the time of tricks, treats, and the occasional childhood-scarring nightmare. It is mid-October, and we are now merely weeks away from my second favorite “holiday,” Halloween! No other season, save that antithetical one in December that shall not be named, invites more unabashed revelry or better themed-movies. This week alone, we get Carrie! And then, there’s…a second screening of Carrie? Like a surprise bucket of pig’s blood to the eye, I stand in the heart of the witching hour, only to find out that I might as well be on Bewitched. Hollywood: Where are the horror movies?! In a surprising cultural shift, it feels like October 2013 is less 31 Days of Halloween and more 31 Days of “grindhouse” malaise. Indeed, the only other theatrical contender is the cheapie ‘70s throwback schlock All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, and you can read my thoughts on that “film” here. Even then, that project is a shelved hatchet job that was shot in 2006. So again, what gives? The answer, sadly, is that we may have brought this on ourselves. Increasingly, the Hollywood system has swung wildly between two types of films over the last decade: The big, (usually) dopey summer tent pole blockbuster and the barebones “micro-budgeted” quickie cash-in. Another way of putting it, high-concept pictures that remain the only types audiences reliably show up for. The latter of these has proven to be a great boon for horror movies. Indeed, it really changed the paradigm of what was getting greenlit when Paranormal Activity contentiously became the most profitable movie of all time in 2009. When you can make a horror movie for $15,000 and then earn $22 million in the first weekend (that’s a return of profit by about 434,000 percent) why invest into those middle budgeted $30 million projects? While this was obviously bad news for the already hurting speciality branches of studios, it should have been good news for horror fanatics, right? As it turned out, it is and it isn’t. On the simple Hollywood system level, it has thrown open the floodgates. Rumor has it that Paramount Pictures executives are only interested in films these days if they have either Transformers or Paranormal Activity in the title, but it is also flooding the market with a very specific kind of horror movie. At the head of this new wave of horror is Blumhouse Productions, helmed by Jason Blum. The impressive producer, who got his start at Miramax, has reinvented the horror genre into his microbudgeted parameters, which he detailed to me in an interview we had several months ago. Personally, I admire what Blumhouse has been able to do, specifically with luring quality talent in front of and behind the camera to make these small-budgeted and highly profitable juggernauts. All of Blumhouse’s best films—Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, Sinister—star truly talented performers like Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Barbara Hershey, etc. Indeed, he already has Jennifer Lopez, Rosario Dawson and Aaron Eckhart signed for multiple horror/thriller films that will also play in 2014. This is not even mentioning his taking a chance on once-and-future horror master James Wan with Insidious, which helped facilitate Wan getting the chance to make (again with Patrick Wilson) this year’s The Conjuring at Warner Brothers; for my money, that’s the best scary movie in the last four years.
Unfortunately, this again shows the biggest problem of what has happened to mainstream horror. In a genre that has always been follow the leader with every passing trend and fad, the leader right now is primarily having the biggest success off the annual Paranormal Activity machine. In other words, digital night-vision cameras, aimed at walls on tape so grainy that you don’t even have to hide the wires that slam the doors shut, have become the modus operandi for many a horror studio. And also, it has become the singular staple of Halloween. Curiously, the last 10 years or so has seen conventional Hollywood wisdom bow the month of October to the reigning franchise du jour at any given moment. This began in 2004 with James Wan’s fabulously suspenseful and shocking splatter terror, Saw. Wan left after the first film, but Lionsgate churned out a Saw sequel every October until 2010. Lionsgate partially stopped because it is currently distancing itself from its horror movie roots, not unlike New Line stepping away from Freddy after the 1980s, but also because the Saw series had been squeezed dry of every possible gross-out torture porn cliché it had patented and oversaturated the market with in only a few years. By the time Saw IV taglined its teaser with, “If It’s Halloween, It Must Be Saw,” even the marketing had become aware of the joke. Yet, the franchise limped on for another three installments! By the time that series had been squeezed dry, another had risen from the Beyond to take its spot: Paranormal Activity. Much like the original Saw, Paranormal Activity was a terrifically low-budget creepfest with a nifty idea, even if it was a knock-off of the much more amateurish The Blair Witch Project. However, when Blumhouse and Paramount saw Paranormal Activity’s grosses, it was clear that Halloween now belonged to them.
This has led all horror producers to back off the month of October in favor of greener pastures in need of a red coating. Indeed, horror is more profitable than ever…in less festive times. Both of Wan’s haunted house pictures this year, The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2, opened to over $40 million in their first three days at the U.S. box office (a first for any director). Meanwhile, TriStar and Ghost House Pictures’ Evil Dead remake cleared nearly $100 million in April, a month where it was competing against Tom Cruise sci-fi movies and action figure explosion spectacles. And with The Conjuring being the exception, both proved the other truism in Hollywood: Horror remakes and sequels print money. Meanwhile, October, once the month for a plethora of horror diversity, has become a barren wasteland save for the most franchised, and defanged horror ritual of that zeitgeist moment. For the last four Halloweens, Paranormal Activity has possessed the month like a beast, growling off any attempted exorcists. The Weinstein Company didn’t even bother releasing its Halloween remakes during the month of its bloody namesake! Instead, the studio settled for very logical weekend selections in July and August for the Rob Zombie re-dos. Unfortunately, this studio pecking order, besides creating repetitive “me-too” films that ultimately do little more than serve as fodder for the next Scary Movie spoof, has created a chink in the armor: What if the 900-pound horror gorilla bails on the date? Because nowadays, even Blumhouse and Paramount no longer care too much about the Halloween landscape. Despite having Paranormal Activity 5 slated for October 25, 2013, someone at Paramount Pictures changed their mind. Firstly, the intended fifth film has been retitled Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, and shall have a decidedly “Latino” themed focus as a spin-off (whatever that means). Further, in July, it was pushed back to a January 3, 2014 release date, while Paranormal Activity 5 is scheduled for October 2014! In short, October, a month left clear and free for Paranormal Activity to dominate, almost went completely horror-less in terms of wide release prospects.
That is except for Carrie. Like its always hopelessly out-of-step protagonist, Carrie has been left holding the bag for Halloween 2013 as the only major horror release of the month. Or rather, Carrie has been voted Queen, when all she wanted to do was come to the party! Originally slated for prom season on March 15, MGM and Screen Gems decided in January that their remake of high school torture would play better at Halloween, and they made the rare choice to stand up to the fashionable franchise of the moment in October. Strangely, the picture has center stage to itself now. I’m sure that producers are ecstatic about this turn of events, but I cannot help but feel cheated that the chance for Halloween to again become the season of horror competition has slipped away. I have not seen Kimberly Peirce’s remake of the Brian De Palma masterpiece—yes, it’s technically another adaptation of the Stephen King novel…but we all really know it’s a remake—but great, mediocre or indifferent, at best it can merely set the precedent that horror remakes may return to Halloween, unless of course that the new, new Paranormal Activity 5 is up for the challenge. And in itself, Carrie is not even really a horror tale; it’s the ultimate high school tragedy. Even judging from the trailer (that gives the whole plot away), marketers assume you know the story, thereby making the tension stem from the predestined end rather than an unforeseeable conclusion. A play of doomed souls. This is in keeping with King’s book, where the only major element that De Palma left out was that it begins AFTER the carnage. Characters look back on the “event” that already happened at *the* prom, resulting in a whole town’s destruction (a rampage that budget constraints left out of the 1976 version) before the narrative jumps to tortured Carrie White’s life. And this approach makes sense, as I can safely say that everyone my age knew the ending of Carrie from pop culture osmosis long before they ever sat down to watch that film. Never mind the iPad generation.
But no matter the story structure, Carrie is the bitterest of Cinderella tales with hints of Greek pathos and the Bard; King merely added the telekinesis. I do not think anyone is meant to truly fear or hate Carrie. We are meant to sympathize with a character who is so beaten down by her home life and her peers that the prospect of being asked to prom is horrifying. Imagine, any guy showing interest in her must be treated with abject dread. And just as happiness seems within reach, and an escape from her mother is palpable, it is struck away in the cruelest, most humiliating of ways. For that mistake, everyone must die: The meanest mean girl, the kindest teacher, and even the unloving mother and her suicidal daughter. No one is forgiven. How can it get more Shakespearian than that? If Chloe Moretz, Julianne Moore, and the rest do their jobs right, we should wallow in misery (not least of all because De Plama’s hypnotic camera movements and “Hitchcockian” strings, compliments of Pino Donaggio, will be absent). But where can horror junkies turn for a more viscerally scary experience? Strangely, like so many genres these days, the answer lies in television. Sure, many independent horror films are getting VOD releases (be sure to check out Escape From Tomorrow!), but by and large, if one wants a culturally communal experience in their terror, the golden age of drama via cable networks has got you covered. Perhaps movie studios should stop to wonder beyond the zombies why The Walking Dead is the most popular show on television (even bigger than Sunday Night Football!). It may not be a personal favorite of mine thanks to its listless melodrama, but there is no denying that it has struck a chord with viewers of all ages, most especially in that demographic sweet spot of 18-49. My guess is that plenty of teens younger than 18 are also finding ways to enjoy AMC’s monster hit. When movie theaters are increasingly becoming the realm of superheroes year round (say hi to Thor in a couple of weeks), it has been left to the more ambitious television producers to tackle subjects like gangsters, period drama and even brain consuming zombies.
Meanwhile, the best freak show of any year is back in town for its annual nastiness-carnivale with American Horror Story: Coven premiering in fabulously bitchy fashion. Literally—the name of the first episode is “Bitchcraft.” This season it is about the witches of Salem, and judging by the premiere’s cold open, it is meaner than ever. Just watch Kathy Bates, playing real-life 19th century New Orleans serial killer Madame Delphine LaLaurie, turn a slave into a Minotaur when she sows a bull’s head to his skull, and then claim you are not entertained with repulsion. As Ryan Murphy’s last bastion of wicked storytelling schizophrenia, American Horror Story is a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched together horror tropes and clichés that Murphy and co-writer Brad Falchuk shake like a crimson-tinted martini. They also use musical cues from classic horror movies like Psycho, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and even Carrie. Yep, watch Season 2’s premiere again.