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How the horror movie slayed Hollywood forever

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Look over the spring’s big movie releases, and you’ll find just a few genres, the few that still reliably make a lot of money at the box office.

You’ll find superheroes (“Captain Marvel,” “Shazam!” “Avengers: Endgame”). You’ll find family-friendly animation (“Wonder Park,” “Uglydolls”). You'll find live-action remakes of Disney classics (“Dumbo,” “Aladdin”).

And you'll find another genre — a better and more interesting, audacious, malleable, consistent and cost-efficient genre — that unkillable cultural entity: the horror movie.

Next week, Jordan Peele follows his Oscar-winning hit “Get Out” with another slice of satirical horror: the Blumhouse-produced “Us.” In April, we’ll get a remake of the Stephen King adaptation “Pet Sematary.” The following month, the superhero horror movie “Brightburn" asks and answers the question: Like, what if Clark Kent were an evil little boy?

Looking further ahead, horror devotees will find a “Child’s Play” reboot (June), an “Annabelle” sequel (July) and the deranged-looking “Midsommar” (August), the sophomore feature of the "Hereditary" director.

As other genres have all but vanished in the franchise era — remember when Hollywood made dramas? — horror has only grown stronger.

Of the 10 highest-grossing horror movies of all time, five have been released in the past two years: “Split,” “Halloween” (2018), “Get Out,” “A Quiet Place” and 2017’s “It” (the No. 1 top-grossing horror movie ever, domestic and worldwide).

In fact, 2017 was the best year in horror history, with the genre crossing the $1 billion mark at the domestic box office for the first time and accounting for nearly 10 percent of all tickets sold.

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A scene from "Halloween," the 2018 sequel that made $253 million and had one of the best October opening weekends ever.

But the real story about horror has always been and will continue to be its return on investment. Those five aforementioned movies cost a combined $75 million to produce (about half the production budget of “Captain Marvel”); together they grossed more than $1.8 billion. That’s about a 2,400-percent return on investment.

Because horror movies cost so little to make, production companies like A24 and Blumhouse are willing to take chances and give adventurous filmmakers free rein (so long as they can keep within their tight budget). Through this process, we’ve actually been given some honest-to-God good, serious, challenging art.

Sure, garbage abounds in this genre like any other, but the sheer volume of product that the horror movie moves ensures that we’re going to get at least some great titles each year. Some make a lot of money. Some win Oscars: “Get Out,” “Black Swan.” Others become instant cult classics: “Hereditary,” “Mandy.”

Tl;dr version? We're in the middle of a horror-movie golden age.

Here’s how we got here.

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"The Silence of the Lambs" is (so far) the only horror movie to win best picture. It did so at a time when horror was in decline.

The Dark Ages

The first half of the ’90s were a great time for movies, just not horror movies, which were in the midst of a downturn.

Following the genre’s boom (launched in the '70s by the likes of Wes Craven, John Carpenter and others), horror had grown moribund. By the early ’90s, the key franchises — “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” — had run their course, and Hollywood was pivoting toward more family-friendly entertainment. PG-rated comedies with a spooky vibe (“Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins”) had already begun to overshadow actual horror movies at the box office.

There were other factors in horror’s long hiatus: On the heels of the wild success of “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct,” studios had found a new toy to play with: the sex thriller. On some level, that genre's heyday accounts for horror’s weak showing at the time, with those thrillers filling the void for dark, dangerous entertainment. Likewise, the rise of the home video market ensured that a lot of scary movies were bypassing the theater altogether on their way to VHS.

Weirdly enough, it was in the middle of the genre's decline that a horror movie won the Oscar for best picture for the first and (so far) only time: 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs.” Beyond that, the ’90s looked to horror’s past, giving us baroque period pieces like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Interview With the Vampire.”

Horror needed a reboot.

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In 1996, "Scream" saved the genre from itself. Horror's salvation? Snarky metacommentary.  

The reboot

And “Scream” was just the film to do it. With its winking self-awareness, Wes Craven’s 1996 sleeper hit pointed a way forward for the genre. It became the first slasher movie to cross $100 million at the box office, not only launching its own franchise but kickstarting the horror heyday that carries on today. "Scream" was followed in quick succession by “Scream 2,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Halloween H20” and “The Faculty” (all films written by Kevin Williamson, that quintessential auteur of the mid- to late-’90s).

The number of horror movies spiked and has continued its steady rise ever since. Nine were released in 1996; last year, more than 30 were.

Horror’s big year

But it was 1999, not 1996, that became one of the most pivotal years in horror-movie history.

First that summer gave us “The Blair Witch Project,” an out-of-nowhere cultural phenomenon that created a new horror genre (found-footage) and set a new benchmark for how profitable a movie could be. It made $249 million on a $60,000 budget, a 415,000-percent return on investment — it's the second-most-profitable film of all time; No. 1 is also a horror movie: “Paranormal Activity.”

(Note: I know that “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Man Bites Dog” preceded “Blair Witch” in innovating the found-footage genre, but “Blair Witch” was a movie that people actually saw. Don't @ me.)

One month later, the summer of ’99 saw the release of “The Sixth Sense,” a mainstream smash the likes of which the genre hadn’t seen since the days of “The Exorcist" and "Jaws." The film not only made $673 million (making it the second-highest-grossing horror movie after “It”); it also scored universal acclaim and six Oscar nominations, including best picture.

When it came to the genre’s possibilities, “Scream” cracked open the door; “Sixth Sense” and “Blair Witch” blew it off its hinges.

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"The Blair Witch Project" launched the found-footage horror genre and became one of the most profitable movies of all time.

The ’00s

The next decade was a bona fide horror boom, with multiple subgenres jostling for supremacy. Each of the following proved lucrative:

The respectable supernatural thriller starring movie stars: “What Lies Beneath,” “The Others”

Sequels and spinoffs: “Scream 3,” “Hannibal,” “Freddy vs. Jason”

Zombies: “28 Days Later,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Shaun of the Dead”

Remakes of classics: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Amityville Horror,” “The Fog,” “House of Wax,” “The Omen,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Last House on the Left”

Remakes of Asian horror: “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” “Pulse,” “Mirrors,” “Shutter,” “The Uninvited”

Satan: “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The House of the Devil,” “Drag Me to Hell”

Torture porn: Arguably the most significant of the ’00s subgenres. A thousand cultural critics cited the popularity of these extremely unpleasant films as a reflection of our troubled times. Grisly movies like “Saw,” “Hostel,” “High Tension” and “Wolf Creek” spoke to a post-9/11 world. The “Saw” films, for better or worse, remain the defining horror franchise of that decade.

Found-footage: Oddly enough, “The Blair Witch Project” didn’t launch a ton of imitators right away, at least in theaters. It took several years for the burgeoning genre to gestate. By the late ’00s, when prosumer video technology had become more nimble, we were finally getting fresh found-footage movies like “REC,” “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine.” By the 2010s, the genre evolved further, taking on the Internet with innovative films like “Unfriended” and “Searching.”

But, of course, there’s only one found-footage franchise that grabbed horror fans by the throat.

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“Paranormal Activity” cost $15,000 to make and grossed $193 million, making it the most profitable movie of all time.

Blumhouse begins

“Paranormal Activity” cost $15,000 to make and grossed $193 million, making it the most profitable movie of all time. Its next three sequels were each the top-grossing horror movies of their respective years.

“Paranormal Activity” was the first success for Blumhouse Productions, and overnight it became the company's business model: produce a genre film at a low price, earn back one hell of an ROI at the box office.

This formula has yielded multiple Blumhouse franchises, including the "Purge,” “Insidious,” “Sinister,” “Ouija” and “Happy Death Day” movies. Over the past decade, the company has fostered the development of some of the most talented horror directors working — James Wan (“Insidious”) and Mike Flanagan (“Hush,” “Oculus”), for instance. In the past few years, Blumhouse has won Oscars for making “Get Out” and “BlacKkKlansman,” and produced three of the highest-grossing horror movies ever: “Get Out,” “Halloween” (2018) and “Split.”

Is every Blumhouse movie good? Of course not. But some of them are great, and they all make money. Now every other savvy horror-movie-maker has adopted the Blumhouse model.

The box-office smashes

Studios have taken Blumhouse’s lead (give talented people a little money to make good scary movies), and audiences have responded. The number of movies and level of fandom right now feels unprecedented.

New Line’s “The Conjuring” franchise (which includes the spinoffs “Annabelle” and “The Nun”) is horror’s answer to Marvel, a spooky shared cinematic universe that’s already become the genre’s top-grossing series.

Everyone underestimated the insane success of “Get Out” ($255 million), “A Quiet Place” ($335 million) and most especially “It,” which earned almost $700 million. But no one will be surprised by the coming successes of “Us,” “Pet Sematary” and “It: Chapter 2." Horror has fully arrived.

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A still from Jordan Peele's "Us." 

One last thing

Of course, this golden age doesn’t just entail box-office returns. The past 10 years have given us some of the most audacious and artful films in the genre’s history. Where so many genres are stagnating, horror — because of its low cost, low risk and creative freedom — is experimenting, taking risks, pushing the medium forward.

The tastemakers of the uber-cool distributor A24 have given us a steady stream of phenomenal films in “Under the Skin,” “The Witch,” “Green Room” and “Hereditary.” That John Carpenter/’80s thing is alive and thriving in “The House of the Devil,” “The Guest” and “It Follows” (the best horror film since 2000). “Cabin in the Woods” out-“Scream”-ed “Scream” in self-referential metacommentary. Meanwhile, “Mother!,” “Kill List” and the “Suspiria” remake are as unsettling and visionary as horror movies get.

And Nic Cage’s “Mandy”? A gift unto the world.

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