Collins’ Crypt: Why Do Great Horror Comedies Play To Empty Theaters?
On the new Slither Blu-ray, writer/director James Gunn gives a new interview that runs close to a half hour, and given that he already contributed plenty of insight on the bonus features for the original release (all of which have been carried over), it's no surprise that the film's unfortunate box office fate is mentioned. Since he's gone on to make two gigantic blockbusters with the Guardians of the Galaxy films he's obviously not too broken up about Slither's box office failure anymore, but he does mention that he's in good company, because so many horror-comedies tend to sell way fewer tickets than their current status would suggest. If you remove spoofs (Scary Movie and its ilk) and entries like Ghostbusters and Teen Wolf that are not trying to be scary, this list of horror-comedies is a pretty dire looking one, financially speaking. For every Zombieland ($75m) there are a dozen who end up more like Slither, ultimately grossing less than even movies no one wants to see like Wish Upon can still manage to make in their opening weekends. Horror-comedies, it seems, don't get the "Well I might as well see it just to see it" boost afforded to any number of generic horror flicks year after year.
Hilariously, Gunn seemed to be tempting fate with his script, which had a number of references to horror duds (not just comedically inclined ones). The high school is named after Fred Ward's character from Tremors, and Gregg Henry's character is named Jack MacReady, one of two such shoutouts to Kurt Russell's character from The Thing (there's an even more direct "RJ MacReady" funeral home). He even has some deep cuts; the diner is Meg Penny's, after Shawnee Smith from the 1988 remake of The Blob, and if the IMDb is to be believed, a character using a horse statue is an homage to Student Bodies, the 1981 slasher spoof that's less funny than most of the movies it was mocking. Out of those four movies, none grossed over $20m - a club Slither sadly joined, barely grossing half of its meager $15m budget when released in the spring of 2006. But like all of those movies (well, not Student Bodies, but I do know at least one die-hard fan, inexplicably) Slither has gone on to be a favorite among horror fans, and Gunn's success in the MCU has only helped its reputation over the years.
However, unlike The Thing, which was raked over the coals by critics in 1982, or even the more mixed response to The Blob, Slither actually had good reviews going for it - at the time it was one of the best-reviewed horror movies in years, according to Gunn*. All of the horror sites and writers championed it of course (alas, not me, I wasn't writing for anyone yet. But I've learned from experience my endorsement is more of a red flag than anything), but the likes of Variety, Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, NY Times, and LA Times all sung its praises as well, which is probably not what you'd expect for a gross-out horror comedy from a guy who cut his teeth working for Lloyd Kaufman's Troma outfit. But too many horror fans simply refused to show up, let alone mainstream audiences - opening in eighth place (EIGHTH!), not even enough to beat the *second* weekend of Stay Alive, the killer video game movie that, as far as I know, is not being re-released on Blu-ray this week with the almighty Scream Factory endorsement. By its third weekend, Slither was trailing the *sixth* weekend for Hills Have Eyes, and Scary Movie 4 was opening to $40m. People that would take a gamble on horror-related stuff were not exactly hiding at home at this particular time in history - they just didn't want to see Slither.
Thankfully I took the "risk", and I was sitting there on opening day to watch it with like five other people who dared to buy a ticket. If memory serves, we were all seeing it by ourselves and scattered throughout the theater, a shame since the movie is a crowd-pleasing type but I don't think I've ever actually watched it with another human being. It wasn't the first time I could hear crickets for a horror-comedy on opening night (Idle Hands, yo!), nor would it be the last (yes, I DID pay to see Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, thank you very much), and there are any number of others I was either too young or too broke to help contribute to and wished I had once I finally caught them on video. I distinctly remember having to pass on Club Dread because I had just bought my now-wife an engagement ring and was flat broke, which broke my heart because the movie had a Halloween gag in its trailer - I had to betray one eternal love for another! But I alone wasn't the reason that film or so many others tanked; for whatever reason, there's just an inordinate number of horror comedies that never catch on at the box office, even though creatively their track record isn't any worse (or better, to be fair) than any other sub-genre. Box Office Mojo's list has 129 movies on it, and all but 27 of them grossed under $20m, and most of those exceptions are spoof films (five Scary Movies, Madea's Boo, Vampires Suck, etc.). It's true that many were limited releases, but part of the reason they were limited is because of the failures of so many others deeming them too risky to go wide. And when the sequels get funnier - Seed of Chucky and Gremlins 2 for example - the grosses go down as well. It's not that folks are inherently opposed to blending laughs and scared - they just seem to prefer to do it at home.
Now, I'm sure someone is about to argue Scream and its sequels (well, the first two sequels) made a lot of money, but those aren't comedies - there's a sense of humor and a few laughs, but they're not comedies (A Few Good Men is also pretty funny - would you call that a comedy?). Most horror-comedies are split in a way that they can appeal just as much to comedy fans as horror fans, and I don't think Scream quite qualifies. Perhaps we can debate it another time, but for now let's just operate under the idea that a series of films revolving around a very depressed young woman who lost her mother and has witnessed the brutal death of most of her closest friends isn't particularly kneeslapping. There's a certain lighthearted tone and, more often than not, a heightened sense of reality that can make them very easy to distinguish, at least for me. In fact, many of the movies I'm talking about are basically comedies spiced up by horror elements, such as Jennifer's Body, which largely operates as a high school comedy albeit with more dudes being eaten. The movie had solid reviews (including one from Roger Ebert, who was hard to please with modern horror), was riding on the popularity of Megan Fox *and* screenwriter Diablo Cody, and had zero horror competition as the Halloween season approached (the slasher remake Sorority Row had been released the week before, but fared even worse). But no one showed up; it ranked 118th for the year, behind films like The Fourth Kind, The Stepfather remake, and The Unborn - you know, all those beloved classics people still talk about today. 2009 was actually a pretty great year for horror, box office wise - indeed, it was the year of Zombieland, Paranormal Activity, and the highest grossing Final Destination movie. What exactly was the problem? Why don't people show up for these movies when it seems like they should know by now that they'll end up loving them later?
Marketing might be a problem. I polled my Twitter followers, asking the ones who were able to see Slither but didn't (meaning they were old enough and had transportation) why they decided to skip it, and the universal response was that the marketing was terrible. As the replies came in I realized I couldn't actually remember what the trailer was like, but thankfully it was included on the Blu-ray and I gave it a look - and they're right, I wouldn't have seen that movie either if that was all I had to go by. I also recalled that Universal had a "Slug It Out" contest where fans could cut together their own trailer for the film, which is basically admitting that they weren't sure what to do with with the damn thing. Indeed, the finished trailer almost seems like something someone made on their own PC, with the titles of a number of horror classics flashing onscreen before some very tacky text informs us that those movies were "for pussies", and then cuts to a collection of highlight moments that doesn't quite tell us what the movie is about. To be fair, it doesn't hide the comedy as some other trailers for this sub-genre do - we are treated to a few of Nathan Fillion and Gregg Henry's funnier lines - but the context is missing, which makes them seem far less amusing. Basically the trailer just reeks of desperation, as if they were almost trying to dare us to see the movie rather than let it speak for itself.
(That the plot was - unintentionally or not - largely cribbed directly from Night of the Creeps might be part of why they tried to hide it, since Creeps was a big dud 20 years earlier as well.)
Admittedly, it is kind of hard to sell the appeal for the best of these movies, which tend to earn their laughs through character-driven humor, which is a lot harder to convey in a two-minute spot. When you think about the films in this sub-genre that have the most fans, you quickly see that it's the character folks love, as opposed to say, a slasher movie (where fans are drawn to the killer and/or his ways of killing people) or ghost/haunting movies (how scary they are). Gunn said he never saw Night of the Creeps, but freely admits the plot is recycled from Cronenberg's Shivers, so either way it's not like the concept was what made Slither so memorable, and while it's a practical marvel in many instances, it also has some dodgy CGI that can easily turn off a horror fan. But none of that really mattered; people just loved Bill Pardy (Fillion), Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), and of course Mayor MacReady (Henry), who goes on a lengthy rant about the lack of Mr. Pibb in one of the film's funnier moments. Hell even Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) is endearing in his own way, even though he's the (somewhat tragic) villain - let's not forget that he actually comes to his senses and brushes off his would-be mistress before really doing anything (he gets possessed moments later though). There aren't a lot of horror movies where you hope every character survives (spoiler: they don't), and it was a surprise to see one coming from the guy who made Troma movies. Tremors is similar in that regard - all of the characters were lovable and they kept bringing some of them back for other installments; even Kevin Bacon's Val is supposedly returning for the upcoming TV series. And part of the reason Gremlins 2 is often considered superior to its original is due to the number of beloved characters, such as John Glover's Trump-spoofing Clamp, Grandpa Fred (the late Robert Prosky) and an expanded role for Dick Miller's Mr. Futterman, as opposed to its storyline or even the FX work.
But I really wish the marketing folks that work on these movies could figure out how to sell them to the most important audience (ticket buyers), because it's a shame how rarely any of the films get to shine. Even with Zombieland's success, it was still difficult to get horror-comedies released, with most of them playing in limited release at best over the next couple years. Joseph Kahn's Detention, the (festival) crowd-pleasing Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and acclaimed Final Girls were dumped into a handful of screens, despite the fact that all of them had recognizable actors and/or mainstream appeal. Perhaps if Madea's Boo 2! scores as big as the original we will see the other studios test the waters again (it usually takes two hits to kick off a copycat trend), but it's already a shame that one of the few big hits (especially of late) is so bad. Had it bombed, few would have lamented not seeing it in theaters once they finally caught it on cable or Blu-ray, the way folks do for Slither and so many of the others mentioned above. It just proves, once again, that box office success and quality are not connected in any meaningful way (here's the most blatant proof), and the silver lining is that there are now more ways of finding these movies than there ever were in the past. Thanks to this new Blu, someone is gonna see Slither for the first time, and they're gonna love it. That's fine by me.
* I don't have the patience to double check his claim - but with only 11 "Rotten" Tomatoes out of nearly 80 from the time leading up to its theatrical release, I'll take his word for it.