Well the first third of the year has passed, and thus it’s time to recap the “season’s” offerings of horror fare and how well they have done financially. It’s true that how much or little that a film makes at the box office doesn’t really matter (and certainly never reflects its quality), but with so many films doing quite well, it’s possible that we’ll be seeing more like them in the next year or two, so it’s good to keep a record of such things to look back upon and say “Oh, THAT’S why we have so many movies like The Devil Inside.”
Indeed, the year started off quite well for the bean counters, as that movie became one of the very few in history to make all of its production budget back just from midnight screenings, a good chunk of a record $33 million opening weekend. But it also broke another record (I assume) – highest grossing film to score an F Cinemascore from polled audiences. The film actually isn’t that bad for the most part, but an abrupt ending and insanely misguided text epilogue (which suggests you visit a website for more of the story) left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, and turned even its defenders against it in those crucial final moments. I’ve said it a million times – the last five minutes have to work in order for the audience to give a film a pass, regardless of how they felt about what came before. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in bad word of mouth and plummeting grosses, and the film ended up with only $53 million, making nearly two-thirds of its money on those first three days and sinking to 15th place in its third weekend.
Maybe it would have held up a little better that third weekend if not for another option – after six years, Kate Beckinsale returned for Underworld: Awakening (she was heard but not seen in 2009’s prequel Rise of the Lycans), which was also in 3D for added appeal (Beckinsale + skin tight leather + 3D = tickets sold). After the previous, fairly convoluted entries (I have no idea what is happening during any point of the second film), this one went in the opposite direction, eschewing any real narrative at all in favor of what is essentially an 85 minute chase scene. The extra dimension didn’t really add much (despite being a native 3D production, it was weirdly flat), and Kate seemed pretty bored, but it was certainly an enjoyable timekiller, and boasted some of the best werewolf FX in the series to date. And it also became the top grosser in the series, with a huge worldwide take likely ensuring a fifth film.
Two weeks later, bang! Another big hit. After a few missteps and DTV entries, it looked like the Hammer revival might have been short-lived, but The Woman In Black not only earned a healthy $54 million (and more abroad) but was a creative success as well. Superior to the 1989 television adaptation of the novel, it had a refreshingly old-school approach to the haunted house/ghost tale after years of J-Horror wannabes, and was positively drenched in the atmosphere nearly all modern horror flicks lack. The last major horror film of this sort that I can recall was Dead Silence in 2007, which tanked (and was mangled by Universal to boot), so this is a great victory for those of us who like our horror movies to devote half their budgets to fog machines. A sequel has been announced, and Hammer has ramped up their production schedule, so it looks like they got a new lease on life. Thanks, Harry Potter!
Unless you count the idiotic thriller Gone or the atrocious Ghost Rider sequel, February didn’t produce any more wide release horror films – unusual since these early months tend to be loaded with genre fare as the studios make way for their bigger budgeted films. Opening against John Carter as counter-programming on March 9th was Silent House, a remake of a Uruguayan home invasion thriller that offered something pretty novel in the whole of filmmaking – a one-take film. Hitchcock’s Rope is probably the most famous, but it’s not exactly one of the Master’s best films, and the “hidden” cuts are laughably awkward as the camera will randomly pan to someone’s back or something. Here (and in the original), the cuts are hidden quite effectively – I understand there are at least eight or nine edits in the film (I’ve also heard thirteen) but I only caught three or four places that seemed to be hiding them. The unique approach was impressive enough to mostly look past the film’s third act problems (an out of nowhere, under-developed twist), and Elizabeth Olsen was fantastic as the heroine who barely ever leaves the frame. But it never really caught on with audiences, limping its way to a meager $12 million gross - less than any of the above scored in their opening weekends.
Again things got quiet for a while, with nothing major in between Silent House and Friday, April 13th, which saw the long awaited release of The Cabin In The Woods, three years after it was shot. In that time it was scheduled for 3D conversion, which was later abandoned, and it also switched studios (from MGM to Lionsgate). Usually this is a sure sign of a disaster, but thankfully it was all just business crap – the movie kicks ass and will almost assuredly end up as my favorite genre film of the year. I’ve already written at length about it, so I won’t go on and on here, except to say that if we got a horror movie as good as this every year, I wouldn’t have to worry about the genre’s health ever again. Sadly it hasn’t exactly broken box office records – it’s doing okay, but it will probably top out at around $40 million, which is about what writer/producer Joss Whedon’s next movie (duh) will make in its first twelve seconds of release, if Fandango pre-sales are any indication. Audiences were also divided on the film, which didn’t help much (I don’t blame the marketing – they had a tough job and did about as well as anyone could). But it will live on, and luckily it’s the sort of movie that can’t exactly start a trend or even get a sequel – I’m stoked that audiences embraced Woman In Black, so we can have more Hammer and ghost films. We don’t need Cabin wannabes (though I’d be morbidly curious to see someone try).
But it WOULD be nice to see a smart, original genre film succeed. Woman is based on a book that had already been adapted, Underworld was a sequel, Silent House was a remake… the only other major original release was Devil Inside. And that one seemed to actively hate the idea of good storytelling, whereas Cabin embraced the genre and even sort of defended horror’s admittedly repetitive storylines and thin characterizations in its own way. If it flat out tanked I’d be livid; luckily it’s done well enough for me to just click my tongue that it didn’t do as well as the films that showed you much less respect.
And then there’s The Raven, a film that reminded me of a great old Onion article about Matchbox 20. In that story, the band was discussing how proud they were that they had finished watering down their new album, filtering out anything that could be considered “passion” and giving it the “plastic spork hitting mashed potatoes” sound they were going for. The Raven felt the same way; it’s like they had a good idea and possibly even a good script at one point, but somehow managed to rewrite and overproduce it (there are at least ten credited producers) into a hollow shell of a film, with flat, uninteresting “action” scenes allegedly peppering a thoroughly pointless and uninvolving mystery. Alice Eve is out-acted by her horse in one scene, Cusack’s performance changes from scene to scene, and the killer’s identity can be guessed early on because James McTeigue doesn’t understand how to direct a whodunit film. Free hint, Mr. Ninja Assassin – never put potential suspects in a scene with the villain when they are not required to be there. After 40 minutes or so we are left with only two possible suspects, so the next hour is just a long wait to find out which of the two it is (and the two characters work together, making it even less interesting because you can also guess where the reveal will take place!). Surely the biggest disappointment of the year; Devil Inside may have been insulting, but at least it caused a reaction. Raven had all the presence of a movie on an airplane that the guy three rows ahead of you is watching on his headphones – you’re aware that it exists, but you’d have to put a lot of effort into being affected by it one way or another.
As always, we had some limited release films, though oddly most of them were worse than their studio counterparts. Vincent D’Onofrio’s slasher musical Don’t Go In The Woods was a complete disaster (and I was the only one paying attendee during its Friday night showing on opening weekend here in LA), and ATM – a film about three people (including Alice Eve! Her again!) trapped in the titular locale with a killer outside – actually managed to be riddled with plot holes and contrivances BEFORE THEY EVEN GOT TO THE BOOTH! And the less said about The Moth Diaries, The Divide or The Wicker Tree, the better.
On the positive side of things, the British thriller Kill List got a minor theatrical release to go along with its VOD availability, allowing audiences to get confused (or “challenged”) on a big screen and then drive home wondering if they were dumb (I can’t wait to watch this one a few more times). Ti West’s acclaimed horror comedy The Innkeepers also landed on about 25 screens, but as with most Magnolia releases they put more effort into the VOD option (which had already came and went), muting its theatrical appeal. In fact, Magnolia can also boast the year’s lowest grossing release – they put their slasher movie Playback (also previously available for home viewing) on one screen in March, where it grossed 264 total dollars and currently ranks 201st of the 201 theatrical releases of 2012. Grats!
For my money, the best of the lot (save Cabin) was Rabies, an Israeli import that went DTV. Like Cabin, it’s a movie that works best when you know almost nothing, but I will say that if the Coens ever opted to make a slasher film it might turn out somewhat similar to what writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado have delivered here. A terrific and unique film that I highly recommend to genre fans looking for imported fare but sick of the usual J-horror ghost tales or hardcore French flicks. The rest of the DTV stuff I’ve come across isn’t worth mentioning, though the TV movies Leprechaun’s Revenge (Syfy) and My Super Psycho Sweet 16 Part 3 (MTV) were quite enjoyable and worth sitting through the commercials for the mostly rancid garbage that their respective networks usually air.
Overall, we’re off to a better start financially AND creatively than we were in 2011, which is a good sign. There’s a lot of variety here, and with most of it doing well, the creativity-challenged execs won’t be able to pin down what exactly they should be copying over the following months (though it seems we’re going to be seeing a LOT of found footage movies, thanks to Devil’s Inside as well as Chronicle, bafflingly covered by all of the major horror sites). And we got some fun looking stuff coming up – Dark Shadows, Piranha 3DD, Paranorman, Chernobyl Diaries, The Apparition… summer’s usually the most horror starved time of the year (everything not burned off in the late winter is being saved for the fall), but that’s a pretty decent sized list. And a mostly original one; only Dark Shadows (feature of an old TV show) and Piranha (sequel to a remake) are existing properties. But the former has a bit of a Beetlejuice/Edward Scissorhands era Burton vibe to it (based on the trailers anyway), and the latter offers Gary Busey biting the head off a piranha, so who cares that it’s not original – I want to see it!