Horror movies are more of a money making genre than most people understand. It’s always thought of as a niche thing. Most of the people you talk to will say that the genre just isn’t for them. Few people admit to loving horror in public. But when a new horror feature comes out, if it’s marketed well enough and generates enough buzz, everybody goes to see it.
They don’t always make the box office returns of, say, The Avengers. But given the amount they’re made for and the comparative amount they gain back, horror films can sometimes strike it big. And everytime a horror movie does well at the box office, it’s a win for the entire genre. Even when you don’t necessarily like whatever it is that comes out, it’s worth supporting because it means more and more horror films will have an easier time getting made.
Many of the features we’ll be looking at proved that, essentially, by spawning a whole slew of imitators, rip-offs and sequels, which is in a way its own sort of love letter.
Freddy vs. Jason
I’ll never forget the hype for this movie. It was insane. It was what every young horror fan wanted and what every old horror fan couldn’t stop making fun of, but people still turned out in droves to see it. The crossover worked. Even if people have problems with the film overall, each scene between the two monsters is gold and the two worlds are blended together in a fairly seamless way. Whether it was a gimmick or not, it worked, striking the best numbers for both franchises at the time.
Friday the 13th was built on box office success. It was made cheaply and quickly, only really put together because Sean Cunningham felt he needed to make a horror piece to keep the lights on because they always made their money back. Nobody expected it to be the massive success that it was. One of the first independent films to gain an immediate nationwide release, Friday the 13th was a colossal hit.
For a long time, Halloween was the highest grossing independent film of all time. It didn’t make any money in its first two weeks of release, so everyone kind of moved on, assuming it had been a dud. But after those first few weeks, word of mouth had generated and it started making money. And then it kept making money. All of a sudden, Halloween had turned from a presumed flop into a huge box office success.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
By the late 1980s, Freddy Krueger was king. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was the highest grossing horror of the year in which it was released, and Dream Warriors made much more than that two years later. Freddy was reinvented and reinvigorated in that third film and I think it’s largely because of the success of Part 3 that The Dream Master was so successful a year later. It’s still the highest grossing solo Elm Street feature.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project dominated the summer of 1999, which is insane to think about, when you look at the big picture. After the huge blockbuster successes of Men in Black and Armageddon, it was this little horror picture made for nothing that was the most talked about film of the year at the end of that decade. It had one of the best marketing campaigns of all time. Everyone loved it the first time they saw it based on how well it was advertised. Not that it didn’t have its own merits, but there was a lot of hype that affected how people felt in the moment. It was a huge success that changed the game.
Only one movie did what Blair Witch Project did even better, and that’s Paranormal Activity. It didn’t have the huge advertising budget of Blair Witch, instead generating buzz and getting a national release after it had already screened at festivals. Regardless of what people think about the quality of either film, Paranormal Activity received a huge box office return, relying primarily on word of mouth, rather than spending the insane amount that Blair Witch did on advertising.
Horror, comedy, kids movie… Gremlins had it all. And films that have that combination normally don’t do great at the box office. I don’t think anyone expected Gremlins to do as well as it did because it was such a gamble. It was a risky move that had the potential to be as alienating as it was fun. Luckily, it worked, giving us one of the best creature features of the ‘80s, as well as one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
There can be no discussion of blockbuster horror movies without Jaws. Jaws invented the blockbuster as we know it. Much of the business model we’ve had in place for the past forty years comes directly from this film. It was the first summer blockbuster and is still what every big summer event picture should strive to be. It has action and scares, but it’s also just an incredibly well made motion picture at the same time. That gets lost a bit these days, but if we follow the template this feature set—without, mind you, ever remaking it—then maybe we’ll start to see original summertime epics again.