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Cruel, cruel summer

About a week ago I was interviewed for a Korean documentary covering Hollywood’s fright machine, the films spinning out of its well-oiled gears and America’s fascination with fear. “In Korea, because we don’t have Halloween, people love to see horror movies in the summer, why do you think that is?” inquired the interviewer-slash-translator. I tap-danced through an answer – after all, I’m not Korean and I don’t exactly know what the movie-going climate is like out there – but my jabbering did come around to the U.S.’s chilly reception to blood warm summertime shockers.

Now, I’ve waited to write this edition until the box office numbers came in for 1408 because, as predicted, the results were unpredictable. A $20 million gross. In contrast to Hostel: Part II‘s $8 million take that’s a fairly optimistic upswing for horror this summer. A beacon of light in an overcast year.

Eli Roth’s sequel fell in line with a history of genre offerings released during the summer that failed to make a dent in the big blockbuster climate. Why didn’t it do well?, people have approached me and asked, consternation on their face as if horror’s very future hinged on the film’s success. Why didn’t it do well?, anonymous figures gossip on message boards forgetting two years ago The Devil’s Rejects opened in late July to a $7 million opening weekend. And a month earlier, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead to $10 million. Last year, The Descent. $8 million. Sure, 2006 also spit out an Omen remake which scared up $16 million, but that rode in on a devilish gimmick (check that release date, detective: 6.6.06) and an unconventional release date – it opened on a Tuesday. Is it the nature of the material that is a detriment to these summertime genre outcasts? The rating? Piracy? Or do audiences prefer to share their scares outside of that four-month window of sizzling budgetary excess, high concept thrills and blinding star power?

Piracy, I rule out. I haven’t met a grown adult who has “downloaded” a film off of the ‘net. And if they have – tisk, tisk, grow up and stop being such a cheap bastard. Teens and downloading are another story. But I’m highly suspicious whenever someone steps forward claiming a widespread leaking of a film has “hurt” horror. So in the grand scheme of limp horror releases over the last few years, let’s put “piracy” in a little box and shelve it for now.

Ratings are a more powerful factor that I don’t dismiss entirely. Yet I don’t put much credence in its contribution to the demise of the genre. Audiences will see what they want to see. If a film geared towards the R rated, mature bunch doesn’t attract its crowd, does it mean the “legacy of the R horror film is dying?” Puh-lease. No way. It’s likely because the film didn’t look good enough to its intended demographic. Or, they’re tired of seeing the same thing over and over, like someone’s digits being handed to them in a gory bouquet (see my rant on torture flicks).

Let’s take a step back and assess this year’s R rated horror releases. Let’s start from the top: Primeval, The Hitcher, Hannibal Rising, The Abandoned, Dead Silence, Grindhouse, The Reaping, The Hills Have Eyes 2, Vacancy, Wind Chill, Mr. Brooks.

I’m sorry. Hold on a sec. Excuse me? With the exception of three titles from the aforementioned litter, that’s a pitiful display of R rated horror we got there. No wonder why no one came out to see them. You want me to bemoan their performance? Sorry, pal. You’re not gonna get it. It befuddles me when a PG-13 teenie bopper film rocks the box office just as much as the next person. But it’s even worse when the doomsayers – who don’t even go out to support R rated horror – immediately crawl out of the woodwork. Expect more PG-13 horror!, they cry. R rated horror is DOOOOMED! Well, if you’re going to stand on your soapbox, how about screaming: Make better R rated movies, folks. ‘Cause it’s not quantity that’s killing the hardcore horror film, it’s lack of creativity.

Once you do that, choose a release date that best suits the material. Summer is terrible. In fact, until this weekend it has been deleterious. If you are a studio and it’s absolutely necessary to toss your low-budget horror movie into the shark tank for reasons of either “intentional dumping” or for competition’s sake, then make sure your product is presenting something so unique audiences will have no choice but to turn their attention away from the giant robots swinging their iron fists at one another. Don’t give us a sequel to a film that would be better off in the winter or fall. Mark your familiar territory and stick to it. Hostel: Part II may have stood a better chance during its initial early January release.

Sony knows the score. They’ve consistently positioned their genre material in slots that have proven themselves over time. Underworld came out in September of ’03. It made big bucks. In 2004, Sony returned with Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Again in September. More cash money. This year? Guess what…Resident Evil: Extinction (September 21st) and 30 Days of Night (October 10th). Then you’ve got When a Stranger Calls and The Messengers, in ’06 and this year, respectively. Early February releases and both moderate achievements.

Rob Zombie said it best when he was asked to reflect on The Devil’s Rejects‘ anemic box office. He theorized audiences didn’t want to see bleak entertainment during the summer. I somewhat agree. There’s something to be said about horror movies during the holidays. Halloween, that is. And the healthy time for a rollout usually begins around Labor Day, when school is back in session and stores are flooded with decorations and costumes. Would 1408 have done better in October? Maybe. Then again, as this weekend has shown, it certainly found its place, which may negate this verbal seepage I’m setting down.

The rating helped (R rated horror is DOOOOMED!), the Stephen King name lent some cred and the story is a throwback to haunted house flicks which would seem to suggest that audiences are indeed looking for something fresh. The true test comes when Captivity, Skinwalkers and I Know Who Killed Me arrive in the coming months. Personally, I think Rogue Pictures did the right thing to move The Strangers out of the summer, ditto goes for Magnolia Pictures’ The Signal.

There’s no true rhyme or reason as to why some horror offerings float, others flop and others do middling business. But I think it’s easier to step back and look at all of the variables that might piece a rough explanation together. It’s better than draping a sign over my shoulders and marching down the street with a bell in my hand and yelling, “The end is near!” like a crazy person. Because it’s not. Horror business, as it has done for decades, ebbs and flows. Summer just so happens to be a time of recession. Don’t be scared, audiences will be back in consistent force soon enough. And if it’s R rated horror you want. Go support it then, for better or worse.

Source: Ryan Rotten