“The quality of any creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge.”
Ask fans of horror films how they feel about the current state of the genre, and you’re almost guaranteed to get a bunch of different answers. One group will point to the recent string of powerful Indie horror movies that have been released and conclude that it has never been a better time to get scared at the movie theatre, especially with the recent release of The VVitch. Another group may point to the existence of middling Hollywood horror with generic names like The Boy or The Forest and say that there is little of value out there from the big studios. You may even get some incredibly frustrated people who are fed up with manipulative garbage leaning on jump-scares and thin concepts (Ouija, anyone?). So, what the hell is happening out there? This fragmentation is the result of particular market forces which have dictated that films in the horror genre do not need to be of good quality to be wildly successful. As a result, the impetus towards quality comes from the aesthetic pride of the creators. Lacking that, studios are completely comfortable with churning out garbage for financial gain.
In this piece, I will analyze a number of recent horror films with respect to two simple metrics. The first is an attempted measure of a film’s critical reception: Rotten Tomatoes scores give a percentage of critics who enjoyed the film (in practice, this means they give it higher than a 6/10) and similarly Metacritic scores offer a view of the average score critics gave the film. I’ve written a more extensive piece on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores where I kind of shat on them for reducing a film to a number as a proxy of true critique. Here, these numbers will be used in conjunction with other factors, so hopefully I don’t flirt with such laziness in my analysis. I’ve also chosen to stick to reviews from critics because I believe that fans of the horror genre are particularly passionate, and are more likely to look upon them with favor. The other metric I will use is financial. Obviously, just because one movie makes more money than another doesn’t mean that it is inherently better. There are a number of factors which can lead to a film doing well at the box office, the most evident of which is marketing (which I will touch upon briefly), so I do not offer these financial metrics as a proxy for success. Instead, I merely present them as an indication of how many people supported these movies in theatres.
Applying these metrics, three groups immediately jump out: films with overwhelmingly positive RT and MC scores, those with horribly low ones, and those which fall right in the middle somewhere. Perhaps you would expect that the films with the more favorable reviews could also boast the best financial returns – but you’d be wrong. This is the crucial observation: how well your movie is received critically does not seem to correlate with how much money it makes.
This is often the case anyway, but it seems to be especially prevalent in the realm of horror. To show this more clearly, take a look at the following table, which will be referenced often:
First, let’s look at some horror films which are universally acclaimed. As you can see from the table, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Babadook, and It Follows are all well-esteemed by the critical community (and most sites which allow the public to express their opinion as well). These films have similar feels as far as production values are concerned, as they are all small, independent horror films with peculiar aesthetics. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a stark, black-and-white Iranian vampire film that oozes style, which I reviewed here. I also reviewed The Babadook and It Follows, so check those out for a more in-depth opinion about these great films.
As you can see from the table, these films possess absurd RT and MC scores. A Girl was given a positive review by 96 of the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews from Metacritic average out to 8.1/10, and you can add my glowing recommendation to those reviews. Watching this film is different than almost anything else out there in the horror genre right now, and it certainly should be seen by more people. Despite having a budget of only $560K, the film failed to earn back its investment, making it the lone film in this piece which cannot be considered a financial success. This is troubling, as a film of this caliber should not be left by the wayside.
It Follows is equally impressive and also did reasonably well at the box office. Again 96% of the Rotten Tomatoes critics enjoyed the movie, and the Metacritic folk gave it an average score of 8.3/10. The supernatural horror concept of this film is subtle and allegorical, which lends the film an air of social commentary to go along with the abject scariness that it does so well. There’s a great score and some fascinating camera work here, and even the no-name actors do a wonderful job throughout the film. Simply put, this is another wonderful entry to the genre. It even made $18M worldwide on a budget of only $2M, for a nine-fold return on investment (RoI), ignoring any marketing budget, of course. Though our first awesome horror flick failed to find its audience, perhaps the foreign language scared a lot of people away. It Follows was sufficiently approachable and unique to attract viewers, which is definitely a good sign.
Finally, The Babadook is the last highly-rated horror film that we will look at with these metrics, and it is the most impressive of them all. With 98% of Rotten Tomatoes critics praising the film, and an average score of 8.6/10, The Babadook can boast the highest rating of all horror flicks in this analysis, and that is certainly difficult to argue with. I know that I would give the slight edge to this film, as I found it the most affecting, spooky, and well-constructed from a story standpoint. Furthermore, there is some great stop-motion animation work and character design, all of which adds to the aesthetic of the film. The Australian film is something of a masterpiece of the supernatural horror genre, and does it in a honest, jump-scare free way. It feels more like slow constriction from some unseen omnipresent python than your standard ghost story, and if you’re too scared to actually finish it, then I wouldn’t hold it against you. An as Australian film, the global earnings were probably lower than would be expected for a wide release, but it still managed to make $6.65M on a $2M budget, good enough for a three-fold RoI. Much like with It Follows, this gives us hope that the horror genre is in a good place. Sort of.
This table collects a few representative films that all have Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores that point to the films being slightly above average. So, these certainly aren’t abject failures, but they won’t blow you away like those from our previous group. The films I have collected in this category are The Conjuring, Oculus, and Unfriended (yeah, seriously). These, I think, are popular impression of what horror films look like (especially those produced and released by bigger studios). They do a few things right, miss the mark occasionally, but overall provide a good amount of scares. I have not reviewed these films previously on Plot and Theme, so I am going to movie through them a little quicker than the Indies from the previous category.
The Conjuring has the best case for inclusion in that previous category, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 86%. The Metacritic score provides a crucial component here, though, as The Conjuring only averages a 6.8/10 there. This is one of those clear instances where it is important not to rely solely on RT, as the full story here is that The Conjuring has racked up a number of reviews that just barely grade out as “positive” for RT, inflating that number much higher than its numerical grade. Regardless, this is a reasonable film. So, should we expect a financial success on par with our best-case-scenario from the previous group (It Follows)? Not even close. On a budget of $20M, The Conjuring earned $318M, good enough for a nearly 16-fold RoI, and the highest-grossing film in this piece. Wow.
Oculus is up next, and features the lowest critical scores we’ve seen yet, with a RT score of 73% and a MC score of 6.1/10. Hence, this film is even more down-the-middle than The Conjuring, but it certainly still does a great deal right. From a financial standpoint, Oculus is actually far more comparable to It Follows, with a RoI of about 8.8-fold ($5M budget with a total gross of $44M). This is one of the more informative comparisons, as it is difficult to justify why Oculus and It Follows should receive the same financial reward when the two are so different in terms of quality (and this is coming from someone who enjoyed Oculus just fine – but it aint no It Follows!) Unfortunately, it gets much, much worse. Every other film we’ll discuss puts the 15-fold RoI of The Conjuring to shame.
The last film included in this category is Unfriended, which despite its schlocky webcam found-footage style was surprisingly watchable. This film sports the most average of all the critical metrics, with a RT score of 60% and a MC score of 6.1/10. And yet, despite this relative banal reception, Unfriended attracted the attention of a number of young idiots who decided to go see it in theatres, so it made $59M on a production budget of only $1M! I’ll leave the RoI calculation to the reader, but suffice to say that it is gargantuan, and the largest we have seen so far – for a movie made up of webcam footage and screen captures.
Still, these three films all have some merit. I would argue that they are weaker artistic and cinematic pieces than the films in the first category, and while I would rather the better films and filmmakers receive the most money and attention, they still feel like they do enough to earn their fantastic returns and moderate admiration. But what I will not abide are the films which comprise our final group.
Finally, we get to the films which were universally panned by critics and audiences alike (though less so). It is hard to characterize Annabelle, Ouija, and The Devil Inside as anything but cash-grabbing schlock. These are movies with weak (or nonexistent) plots, poor acting, cheap jump-scares, and all the worst trope-based storytelling out there. With all this going against them, these films are still astounding financial successes.
First up is the “best” of these films: Annabelle. Jesus, what a depressing sentence. Anyway, this stupid film about a haunted doll is both a prequel and spin-off of the better-regarded The Conjuring, which we have already discussed. But where that film succeeded with the critics, Annabelle does not. With a RT score of 27% and an average MC score of 3.7/10, this film does far more wrong than it does right. There are a number of things to point to, but mostly it just ends up being formulaic and boring, which will be a theme for this group. Not that it matters: Annabelle made over $255M on a $6.5M budget. That is an insane RoI of nearly 40-fold! This movie is garbage, but it is okay if you watched it and liked it, so long as you recognize that it cannot hold a candle to the artistry of the films in the previous groups – especially the very good films in the first group. That this stinker rakes in the dough while The Babadook languishes in relative obscurity is an absurdity.
It gets worse, too. Ouija sports even worse metrics than Annabelle, with a RT score of only 7%, though it actually has a better MC score at 3.8/10. Essentially, this means that most of the critics were closer to this 3.8 overall grade, so almost all of them got counted as “negative” reviews by RT. By contrast, Annabelle likely received grades much higher and much lower than 3.7. With such a high variance, some were graded as positive by RT, so that propped up the film on their meter. This is yet another example of why both metrics are better than one alone – they help flesh out the story. Furthermore, everything that was wrong with Annabelle is equally wrong with Ouija, maybe more so. There are dispensable characters portrayed by nameless and terrible actors, ridiculous canned plot devices (it is debatable which is worse – a stupid doll or a stupid board game), and just a bunch of bad filmmaking. Regardless, Ouija did fine at the box office for Hasbro, earning over $102M on a $5M budget, for a 20-fold RoI.
And then, the bottom of the proverbial barrel. The Devil Inside, released in 2012, is by far the worst of the bunch. As a film it is an utter disaster. The plot is pretty choppy, and the ending is one of the most idiotic turns in recent history. It also leans heavily on jump-scares, doesn’t establish a very convincing mood, and ultimately descends into dullness. Sporting a RT score of 6% and a MC score of 1.8/10, both of which are absolutely awful, it is not a stretch to say that The Devil Inside is the worst movie that I have mentioned in this piece. Not bad for a film that makes 100X its production budget! With a $1M production budget, this film made over $100M at the worldwide box office, despite all its flaws.
What’s the point? We all know that some poorly-made films resonate with audiences and do reasonably well at the box office, so that’s not new. And we also know that horror films can stay pretty low-to-the-ground with production budget and reap immense financial rewards as a result. The original The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic example, regardless of how you feel about that particular film. It would seem that a reasonable strategy for a production company would focus on creating as many cheap horror films as possible in hopes that at least one of them will hit, because if it does, it likely erases all of the other failures from a financial standpoint. This is not new, either. I’d recommend the recent documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films for a look into a production studio that employed this strategy to a rousing success, only to stray from it and fall flat on its face.
So that’s the issue. There is little to no financial incentive for achieving even a moderate threshold of quality in the realm of horror. Just look at the kinds of films that perform well! Now, I am aware that a number of terrible horror films do fail, but this isn’t about those films. They get their just dessert. As long as someone can put together Ouija and make one hundred million dollars, it doesn’t matter that other films of similar quality fail. What matters is that some certainly succeed.
The reason why they succeed can be a little nebulous, though. Some of the films can credit an over-performing marketing strategy. The Devil Inside, for instance, played up reactions from the Church and used those night-vision audience reaction trailers to get the word out on just how scary and “wrong” the film was. Others take advantage of favorable release dates. It would seem that there are two big times to release a garbage horror film to reap the best rewards, one obvious and one not-so-obvious. The obvious one you have probably guessed: Halloween. Annabelle and Ouija both released in October, so audiences in the festive mood looking for something to scare them likely flocked to these films in greater numbers than if they had been released in May (like It Follows was, for instance). The other time to release these films is in the doldrums of winter: January and February. These months usually have very few (if any) big releases, and are often dumping grounds for studios who want to vomit out films which they have very little faith in. In this environment, many will choose manipulative scares over blandness, and the studios seem to have noticed this.
The question confronting film makers who want to work in the horror genre is: why would you set out to make an interesting, complex film when broad trash like this can earn the same financial reward? As the opening quotation from this piece suggests, the answer can only be found in artistic merit. Only the men and women who want to actually create something of aesthetic value will bother to make those choices and put in the effort to make something great. Pride in their work, a particular vision, or the drive to tell an important story inspire these creators more than the financial rewards, though those certainly can exist as well. Absent this kind of inspiration, these filmmakers could simply lend their talent towards piecing together the next slew of board game-inspired schlock and would likely have a much better chance of financial success.
This can be viewed two ways. The obvious cynical approach leads to bitching and moaning about how terrible movies shouldn’t make any money – let alone tens of millions of dollars. There’s been enough of that so far in this piece, so I would like to take the more optimistic view. This means specifically seeking out these independent horror films which are clearly inspired by a true love of the genre. Because we know that the creators care about these films, and we should support them when they deliver. So, instead of defaulting to whatever is in wide release, pay a little more attention and go look for the independent weirdo flick. Skip The Forest and check out The VVitch. Watch What We Do in the Shadows on VOD instead of Sinister 5. Not only do you support a better movie, you are rewarded by a more complete film, and you can be reasonably confident that the people making the movie really love what they have put together and that the quality will follow.
Obviously, just because a film is made independent of the big Hollywood studios does not mean that the result is going to be something worth watching, even if the people making it care about the artistry. But my argument is that these kinds of films are the place to go looking for quality, because the incentive to create artistic value is most clear with these films. Occasionally, the big players get it right (I would say The Conjuring is a great example of this), but this is the exception to the rule.
Hence, the great divide in the horror genre. The over-produced Hollywood films most often turn out to be nothing more than manipulative products. If you were to focus just on these films, you’d correctly conclude that the genre is dying, getting dumbed-down, or just becoming horribly uninteresting. The smaller independent films offer much more substance, but lack the broad appeal and distribution of the Hollywood films, so while they are often financially successful, there seems to be a limit. Regardless, were you to just analyze these kinds of films, you would conclude that the horror genre is in a fascinating place right now, as new filmmakers produce terrifying pieces with wildly disparate tones and structures. Many of these films fly under the radar, so it can be difficult to keep them in mind when thinking about the current state of horror and get discouraged by the schlock that always seems to do well.
Put simply, magnificent things are being done on the big screen in the realm of horror. But sometimes the presence of the duds seems to elbow the gems out of the conversation. I have often been frustrated with the dominance of weak horror films in the public consciousness, but that frustration is overly negative and contributes little to the discussion. Instead of scoffing at The Boy or the next iteration of Paranormal Activity, take a breath and look away from these films. Look towards the smaller, interesting, weird horror flicks out there and find ways to see them, promote them with good word-of-mouth, and support the talent that creates them. Despite the performance of subpar entries in the genre, the gems are out there to discover, if you’re willing to look.
And I’ll prove it to you: comment on this post with the title of a horror film released in this millennium that you think is less-well-known than it should be. I think you’ll be surprised what has slipped past your attention.
2 responses to “Horror by the Numbers”
[…] I am especially proud of the work that went into the horror piece, so if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to give it a shot. I’ve got a couple more of these longer pieces in the works, and I have particularly high hopes […]
Nice article. I came across a foreign produced film called SPRING but it was mostly in English and featured American Indie actor Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker). I thought that this was definitely worthy of a look, on a similar wave length with A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT.