Whether it was big studio releases or smaller indies, the horror genre thrived this year.
Though Disney has taken most of the box-office headlines in 2016 as it nears an industry record of $7 billion earned worldwide in the year, the scrappier horror genre made close to $600 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo. Not only did several titles find near-universal critical praise, like “The Witch” and “Green Room,” others like “The Conjuring 2” and “Don’t Breathe” hit No. 1 on their opening weekends.
In an era when the conventional thinking is that impossible-to-miss blockbusters are the only things to motivate audiences to get to movie theaters, horror consistently still brings in the crowds. Partly for its unique stories, but also because people still love to go to the movies to be scared.
“I think horror in particular is one genre that people really feel like it’s worth going out and seeing with a big group,” Jason Blum, head of the successful horror production company Blumhouse Productions, told Business Insider. “In some ways horror is not falling off the way other theatrical genres are where we are watching them more in different places other than movie theaters.”
And the big demo leading the charge? Women. Though the trend has been building in the last decade as horror films have cast female leads often in empowering roles, “Lights Out” producer Lawrence Grey saw an increase this year.
“It used to be 50 percent of ticket sales were female. Now it’s ticking to 60 and above,” Grey told Business Insider earlier this year.
But there’s also the hunger for original stories. Throughout the year, horror movies have been giving moviegoers something different from Marvel superheros and lovable Pixar characters. That ingenuity has ranged from the more ridiculous, like Blake Lively as a surfer matching wits with a great white shark in “The Shallows,” to the macabre “The Witch,” in which a 1630s New England family falls victim to the sinister unknown.
“I do imagine part of why we’re getting these great horrors – going back to ‘Let the Right One In’ and ‘The Babadook’ and ‘It Follows’ – I imagine other filmmakers are thinking like me,” “The Witch” director Robert Eggers said. “I want to make something good and personal, but it needs to be in a genre to get made right now.”
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That’s what led director Nicolas Pesce to use horror to make his feature debut “The Eyes of My Mother” (opening in theaters on Friday). Looking at a lonely woman consumed by her homicidal desires, Pesce gives the movie a terrifying setting by shooting it in black-and-white and showing a whole lot of gore.
“I loved movies like ‘Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Psycho’ so that to me is what horror movies are, this Gothic noir,” Pesce said. “But at the core of it, they are all a character study of a dark person and these movies use the horror set pieces to emphasize whatever actual drama is going on.”
But director Karyn Kusama, who made the terrifying dinner-party movie “The Invitation” this year, also believes the success of horror today comes from what’s going on in the world.
“I’m not going to lie, I think we live in horrifying times,” she said. “And horror offers us a window into those states of vulnerability that a lot of other genres can’t or won’t. Horror movies are stepping in some cultural way to a role that I think is desperately needed in pop culture, which is access to our emotional lives and fears.”
Though horror is doing as well as ever, Jason Blum feels the last thing he and his colleagues in the genre can do is be complacent.
“I think the movie business is guilty of looking in the rearview mirror, looking at past successes for future decisions,” Blum said. “What I try to not do myself, and I remind everyone at my company, when horror movies have a little run of success, you have to stop the impulse to try and copy what’s worked and encourage the instinct of trying new things.”