There are no sure things in horror, especially when it comes to the box office, but the closest we got is this: they tend to make a lot of their money in the first weekend, and sink like a stone after. Friday the 13th (2009) is a rather extreme example, grossing nearly 2/3s of its $65m haul in its first three days, and poor Texas Chainsaw 3D has the dubious distinction of being the only film to ever open at #1 and end up near the bottom of the top 40 chart (36th, to be exact) just three weeks later. It's not hard to figure out why: die-hard fans show up for the films as soon as possible but they're not all that often worth recommending to anyone beyond other die-hard fans, and there's simply too much content nowadays to have time for multiple viewings of even the better films. I saw Blair Witch Project three times in theaters when it was released, but I still haven't found time to revisit (the equally good) The Witch even at home.
But like all rules, there are exceptions, and one of the best examples of the past twenty years is easily The Ring, which opened to a rather mediocre $15m in October of 2002 and yet went on to gross a whopping $129m, launching a wave of ghost films (many of which were also remakes of Asian films) that defined the decade's genre output (or at least put it neck and neck with "torture" type horror). But it wasn't just horror fans that dug the film, obviously - word of mouth is the reason it performed as well as it did, without any twist like The Sixth Sense or "phenomenon" type allure (Blair Witch Project) that got people to keep buying tickets throughout the fall. In fact its fourth weekend was actually more successful than its first, and this was AFTER Halloween to boot - something that wouldn't be possible if not for the fact that it was simply a damn good movie, regardless of its genre. Naomi Watts' heroine was likable and realistic, Gore Verbinski's direction was both outstanding and distinct (it remains one of the best LOOKING studio horror films as well), and even though the story had been told on film before, there were still some surprises and scares in store, making it kind of a perfect package.
And as any number of filmmakers could tell you, the higher-than-average quality and outstanding box office returns presented a major hurdle, because there is an even stronger rule: if a horror film is a hit, it must get a sequel. 2005's The Ring Two made some money, though it had a more typical box office trajectory (opening big, falling fast) and was not particularly well-loved by anyone, despite what seemed like a surefire recipe for success, bringing back the surviving cast, the same writer (Ehren Kruger, more on him soon), and director Hideo Nakata, who was the filmmaker behind the 1999 Ring/Ringu film and its first sequel (there are other Ring films, but that's a whole column in itself. Let's just say he made the most famous one and skip the "actually" comments, shall we?). But whether Nakata simply wasn't up to the task (or used to working within the Hollywood system, as his predecessor Verbinski was) or Kruger had run out of ideas, it ultimately simply didn't work as well, and was quickly forgotten.
However, it wouldn't be the last time someone following up The Ring would falter. Watts works constantly; Ring Two was merely the first of her four films released in 2005, in fact, so it stands to reason that she'll have a few stinkers on her resume, but what's interesting is how many of them tend to be her return to horror/thriller fare. It seems every couple of years the star of one of the best major horror films of the modern era will return to that world, but they never even come close to the same kind of success; they all flop (Stay, Dream House, Funny Games) and apart from Games don't tend to find a lot of fans. But none are worse than Shut In, a psychological thriller that was released last November and is probably on Blu-ray already. Watts starred as a psychiatrist who finds herself trapped in her home with her invalid stepson during a snowstorm while trying to locate a missing patient (Jacob Tremblay), which sounds like it could tap into some Shining territory while also reviving the "protect the disturbed child" element that served her so well in The Ring, but good god is it a terrible film (her lowest rated ever on Rotten Tomatoes, in fact). If you recall, I watched horror movies every day of my life for over six years, and I prided myself on always finishing them no matter how bad, but I came real close to walking out of this one when I saw it last fall, only staying because the reclining chair was comfortable and I figured I could just get a nap (no peace and quiet at home with a two year old).
Alas, I only dozed off for a minute or two, and missed absolutely nothing because the movie was too goddamn uneventful; I could have left the theater to get a coffee and come back without missing anything important. Basically the movie wants you to think that Tremblay is either a ghost or evil and is trying to drive her crazy or harm her, but it's actually the stepson who just wants her for himself (and isn't invalid!), but with none of these people wanting to harm anyone else, that means the movie is 90 minutes of nothing happening by design. The script keeps tossing in nightmare scenes to try to jolt it back to life, but they're just as pointless as everything else, and director Farren Blackburn fails to make the most of his (mostly) single location, directing it like generic television for the most part (no surprise, that's what the bulk of his resume is). I've certainly seen worse films, but rarely have I been privy to one as remarkably stakes and tension-free as this one. It's like they had the general idea for a claustrophobic thriller and forgot to fill in the details before they started shooting but were too embarrassed to tell the crew to wait.
Then there's screenwriter Ehren Kruger. The film's success kept him employed for quite a while, because who wouldn't want "From the writer of The Ring" on their marketing material? In fact, his pre-Ring resume is actually kind of solid; he is the sole screenwriter on the underrated thriller Arlington Road and the guilty pleasure John Frankenheimer flick (and ultimate theatrical swan song) Reindeer Games, with Scream 3 being the only red flag before he was hired to bring Samara out of Japan and into American televisions. But after that it's been mostly movies that are synonymous with garbage, such as the Transformers sequels and the woeful Blood & Chocolate (he also has executive producer credit on the aforementioned stinkeroo Dream House, which means he was probably brought in for rewrites). And despite an existing sequel that he could have tried to improve upon (1999's underwhelming Ringu 2, also by Nakata), he opted to create his own story this time, and it was a terrible one that was far worse than the previous followup. His transgressions have put his name alongside the likes of Akiva Goldsman and Kurtzman/Orci as far as horror/sci-fi fans are concerned, a damn shame for a career that started out rather promisingly.
As for Verbinski, he's certainly found success, helming the first three Pirates of the Carribbean movies (so, the two good ones), the wacky animated film Rango, and the underrated Nic Cage comedy The Weather Man. But he's been less dependable as of late, first with the disastrous Lone Ranger (which has its fans, but I am not one of them, and I say that as a Bruckheimer apologist) and now with A Cure For Wellness, which is his first genre flick since... you guessed it, The Ring. While the Pirates films and Lone Ranger had their share of macabre elements, Wellness is his full return to typical fright fare, even diving into an R rating this time (The Ring was PG-13, if you recall). But while it has some inspired moments (a painful, unedited assault with a drill on an un-numbed front tooth, a man being forced to swallow eels), the film as a whole is an overlong exercise in tedium, offering very little payoff for the amount of time he's asking you to spend to get there. The plot isn't particularly complicated and we experience the entire thing (save for a few quick scenes near the end) from Dane DeHaan's perspective, so there isn't much room for a lot of action or letting the other actors do anything beyond mumble exposition in hushed tones. It's just scene after scene of DeHaan wandering around, seeing something odd, and then being returned to his room by evil head doctor Jason Isaacs (who is the best part of the movie by a longshot). It's also got one of those plots that only work if people don't act like human beings, i.e. DeHaan seemingly waiting a week to call the office he was supposed to return to within 24 hours. All of this would be fine in an 85 minute movie, but Verbinski was apparently too in love with his (admittedly striking) visuals to let any of them hit the cutting room floor, despite their ultimate lack of necessity.
But it's the complete lack of scares that really troubled me (and no, this isn't one of those things where we're calling it horror when it isn't - Verbinski himself has dubbed it as such). If he was able to wring plenty of suspense and fright out of something as goofy as a ghost climbing out of a TV, why can't he do the same for something a little more grounded and believable? Even the "stuck in a tank with eels" scene, which features heavily in the marketing, failed to really deliver much - I was far more frightened for Ethan Hunt's near-drowning in the last Mission: Impossible movie. When I'm more afraid for a megastar in an action flick than a character actor in a horror one, something is amiss. The climax seems swiped from a Hammer or Vincent Price film (complete with a raging fire!), offering the requisite thrills one should expect, but the 130 minutes before it have precious little of that sort of thing, not enough to sustain a movie even half that length. A few jolts here and there do not make up for the fact that the movie really should be getting under your skin (especially when part of the plot involves actual things under the skin) more than it did for me, and seemingly for many other audience members, given the movie's pitiful box office and even more troubling "C" Cinemascore. Even a "B" is less than ideal for this particular audience rating, and "F" is actually better because then you know the movie at least pissed people off - anger is a more enticing emotion than "eh", I think. Needless to say, a Ring-like word of mouth success will not be happening for this one.
And finally we come to Rings, the "long-awaited" (by Paramount stockholders and no one else) sequel that drops Watts, Kruger (though he has one of those suspicious executive producer credits), and pretty much everything else that would connect it to the first two films in any meaningful way, opting for an entry that straddles the line between sequel and remake. It starts off well enough, with the tape circling through a group of college students who see it as a kind of drug (taken directly from the "Rings" short film that accompanied the earlier film's DVD release), but that plot is gradually whittled out of the film entirely in favor of yet another young woman going to some creepy northwestern town to solve a mystery about Samara. To its credit, it doesn't really retcon anything from the previous films; in fact I was kind of surprised that it tied into a few plot points that were introduced in Ring Two, rather than do the Texas Chainsaw (and now Halloween) thing of ignoring the less successful sequels to picking up from the one people like. But it didn't make it any less of a chore to sit through, and of the year's six genre wide releases I'd rank it as the worst (this is not a particularly great bunch of movies, mind you - Split is the only one I'd say is legitimately good*), making me rethink how bad Ring Two really was after all. Rings didn't even bother to have a crazed animal scene to rival the first one's horse and sequel's deer nonsense! Just some flies.
Long story short, not only should the American Ring series be put to rest, but perhaps its major players should get way choosier with their genre projects, if not skip them altogether. There seems to be some bad mojo going on that is keeping these talented folks - who (save Kruger) have found great success in other genres post-The Ring, but seem to falter, badly, whenever they try to reclaim some of that magic. Hell, at this point they could even make a meta Ring 4 about it. At this point I think it's got more merit than the Poltergeist curse, at any rate. I mean, come on, the joke writes itself: the phrase "leave well enough alone" applies and the damn series is about a ghost in a well! It's right there!
* The others, for those with shorter memories than my own: Underworld 5, Bye Bye Man, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Cure For Wellness. Split is also the only one to qualify as a true success, so this won't be a very fun Drawn & Quartered to write if things don't turn around soon.