There were a few duds, and I'd have to dig a little deeper to know for sure, but I'm willing to bet that overall, horror had one of its best summers ever at the box office over these past four months. While would-be four-quadrant releases like Independence Day: Resurgence and Alice Through The Looking Glass (just to name two; there were many more) flopped hard, the studios' horror offerings just kept racking up big numbers on very low budgets; the grosses for Purge 3 alone were enough to cover the combined production costs of just about every other genre film released since May. Not bad for a genre that's traditionally had trouble finding much success among all of the superheroes and animated flicks that dominate Hollywood's most lucrative period.
Alas, one of those rare duds was also the first - the long-delayed and seemingly re-edited/reshot The Darkness was tossed to the wolves in early May, surprising no one with a four million opening weekend and eventually scraping its way to $10m or so. I can only assume Kevin Bacon's presence was thought to be enough for Jason Blum to give the film a wide release (via High Top, who also put out Eli Roth's Green Inferno) instead of dumping it on Netflix via the Blumhouse "Tilt" label, but it was a rare misstep for the usually dependable horror guru - it's actually his lowest grossing wide release horror film ever. Not that it deserved much better; despite a decent setup, the film seemed too content to run through the basic Poltergeist template with only some half-baked family drama (Bacon's having an affair, the daughter has an eating disorder, etc.) to set it apart. It's always nice to see Greg McLean stepping outside of Wolf Creek, but perhaps generic supernatural thrillers aren't his thing and he should stick to more believable genre fare.
Of course, it's possible no one bothered with Darkness because they knew The Conjuring 2 was just around the corner, as only a fool would bet against James Wan these days. I don't know if it was quite as good as the original, but it delivered the same scares and creepy true-life backdrop as its 2013 smash predecessor, and while the sequel failed to outgross it (not a shock when it was the highest grossing R rated horror movie of the past 30 years or something - not an easy record to break), it still pushed past $100m during the competitive June schedule. Plus, overseas audiences made up the difference anyway, putting the film within a mere million of the original's record-breaking gross, so I doubt anyone at Warner is complaining. And like the original, it inspired its own spinoff film: the creepy-ass nun will be getting its own movie, just as Annabelle got one after the first Conjuring. Wan will only be producing that one, but that should be enough for it to make zillions of dollars, if his other productions are any indication (more on those soon).
The next big release was The Shallows, which gave us Jaume Collet-Serra's long-awaited return to horror after a (too) long dalliance with Liam Neeson thrillers. A simple survival piece pitting surfer Blake Lively (and a seagull) against a man-eating shark, the film pulled an impressive $55m total after a $16m opening weekend, and about as much overseas as well, enough to become Serra's top grossing horror film ever - hopefully that will keep him coming back (alas, he's already back with Neeson for his next movie). Since Jaws more or less invented the summer blockbuster tradition, there's a bit of a stigma to releasing anything like that in the summer (the last one I can recall was the indie Open Water in 2004), as you're just giving snarksters an easy target if the movie tanks (or worse, you can suffer the indignity of making less money than Jaws 4), so I'm glad Sony took the chance. That it paid off was even sweeter - hell it probably would have performed even better if it wasn't for the Independence Day sequel siphoning away a few popcorn-munching thrill-seekers (that said, I'm sure Sony's happier with their returns than Fox is with ID4's).
The following week saw the expected big opening for The Purge: Election Year, which continued the upward trend of both grosses and quality for this intriguing yet oddly unambitious series. After three films we still don't know much about the (potentially fascinating) nitty gritty of how the Purge works (I want to see a movie set the following day, personally), and once again despite all crime being legal it seems everyone is just content to shoot or stab random strangers to get their rocks off. But with the timely election angle (the tagline was even "Make America Great Again") and the return of Frank Grillo, it was hard to get too wrapped up with the details, and the film's $79m gross will likely ensure another film hitting theaters in 2017 or 2018. I just hope eventually they let other filmmakers tackle the concept; James DeMonaco has written and directed all three so far, which is nice for consistency but might hold a lot of potential back.
It certainly did better than some of its competition, but given Sony's ambitious plans for the Ghostbusters franchise, it's obvious that the reboot's $126m domestic gross on a $150m budget is much less than they were hoping for. The foreign returns and other things down the road (Blu-ray, cable, etc.) will soften the blow and maybe even help them break even, but it's hard to celebrate such a minor victory, especially in the face of all the idiotic trolls who probably think they "won" their fight. Thankfully they didn't; when Ghosbusters topped more expensive films like Alice and Tarzan and had many reviewers hoping for a sequel now that they had worked out the kinks (and hopefully gotten all of the distracting cameos and homages out of their system), I can't say the "Ghostbros" really did much of anything beyond annoy everyone for the past two years. The reality is that audiences were turning to fresher material (unless Disney made it, that is) this summer, and Ghostbusters was just one of around a dozen franchise films that didn't perform up to par.
But maybe they could have doubled their money if they had just hired James Wan to produce. Much like Annabelle, Lights Out was a tiny budgeted little flick that used Wan's name value to score huge grosses; making back more than four times its production budget on opening weekend on its way to a 66 million gross (with another 74 and counting overseas). Some folks took issue with the film's inadvertent "message" caused by its downer ending, prompting first time feature director David Sandberg to address concerns and explain how that non-intentional takeaway came about (summing up, and spoilers ahead: there was an extended ending that showed the ghost kept coming after them despite the mother's suicide, which would have given a clear "suicide is NOT the answer" message for those looking for such things, but test audiences didn't like the extended bit, so it was cut). Otherwise it was a solid crowd-pleaser, offering a roller coaster series of jumps and jolts that landed successfully more often than not. I don't usually go for such things, but when they're working as intended it's hard to find fault with them, and I look forward to Sandberg's next film (another Wan production - Annabelle 2).
However, the real box office success story of the summer came at the very end. While these others are nothing to scoff at (except The Darkness. Scoff away there!), Sony's Don't Breathe is just a monster, staying at the number 1 slot for two weeks (incredibly rare for an R rated film, and even rarer for R rated horror - the last to accomplish it was Final Destination 4 in 2009) and even earning lots of good reviews, albeit not from Devin. I didn't totally love it myself, finding the logic to be too strained for what was a stripped down People Under the Stairs redo, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable one-time thriller, and a step up from Fede Alvarez' joyless and unnecessary Evil Dead remake. It was also another win for non-supernatural fare, which until 2016 has been dominating the horror genre and scaring up the most cash. Between Don't Breathe, The Shallows, and the continued success of The Purge series, it's clear that audiences are looking for something besides ghosts and curses to scare them.
There were also a number of limited releases, of course, though many of them failed to be notable in any positive way - like poor Satanic, which grossed a total of 252 dollars (not a typo) during its run on three screens, which translates to about eighty or so attendees per theater for the entire week. Fun fact: the film was written by Anthony Jaswinski, who also wrote The Shallows, released the week before - it must be odd to have a surprise smash and a record-breaking dud (it's one of the ten lowest grossing films OF ALL TIME) opening back to back. Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon failed to capitalize on its buzz or unique release (it was financed by Amazon, released theatrically ahead of an exclusive window on their Prime service), ending up with a mere $1.3m and also finding itself on some unfortunate box office charts. On the other hand, the Korean zombie adventure Train to Busan has grossed nearly $2m so far thanks to strong word of mouth (and, to some extent, a curious lack of zombie movies coming out of Hollywood), a huge win for distributor WellGoUSA - after five years of Stateside releases, it's their 3rd biggest grosser yet (and only horror release to top $1m). And while its $55k gross is hardly impressive, it was nice of Dimension to finally release Jon Watts' Clown, which was shot in 2012. It suffers from some pacing issues, but I found it to be a fairly admirable attempt at combining typical slasher stuff with a body horror movie (it's closer to The Fly than Clownhouse or other killer clown flicks), and I suspect it will get a few more eyeballs when Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming is released next year.
What's interesting about a lot of the wide releases is how well they held week after week. Most horror movies are front-loaded at the box office, earning sometimes more than half of their total just in the opening weekend (the Friday the 13th remake is probably the most famous offender, grossing more than SIXTY percent of its domestic total in its first three days), but Shallows, Lights Out, Don't Breathe, and even Ghostbusters bucked that trend, with opening weekends only accounting for an average of around 35% of their eventual totals. The weak competition helped, I'm sure, but the fact remains that people kept coming back because they were good, and folks were encouraging their friends to check them out. It's an unusually high ratio of hits to misses both in box office and in quality, and I hope it continues for the months ahead. I have little doubt that Blair Witch will clean up, and even though I found the first to be interminable, I can't deny that Ouija: Origin of Evil looks fun (evil kid stuff, yay!), and with Mike Flanagan directing it has a damn good shot of being a legitimately solid flick despite its pedigree. And even better, we don't have to suffer through another Paranormal Activity movie this year, so let's hope the next Drawn & Quartered has as much good news for the genre - nothing should tank unless it deserves to!