More than four decades after John Carpenter made his defining slasher movie, the Halloween franchise returns to theatres this weekend for what is predicted to be one of its highest-grossing instalments.
The excitement for Halloween Kills reflects a growth of interest in horror movies during the pandemic, with industry experts declaring that the genre helped keep Hollywood afloat when box offices reopened in the spring.
“There is a lot of anticipation for it, both in the horror community and more widely,” said Alison Peirse, associate professor in film and media at Leeds University. “Michael Myers is a bona fide horror monster in the same ilk now as Dracula and Frankenstein. Whatever the actual content of this film, it will find a wide audience.”
The original 1978 Halloween, directed and scored by Carpenter and starring Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis, told the story of psychopathic killer Michael Myers, who escapes from a sanatorium and returns to his small hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, to murder a slew of teenagers on Halloween night.
Made on a tight budget of $300,000 (£218,000), when studios had no interest in horror, the film went on to gross more than $70m and spawned many of the tropes now associated with slasher movies, including that of the “final” girl who lives to confront a killer.
It is now a franchise that’s returned for a dozen sequels and remakes, with a 13th in the offing. “It’s already been confirmed that the next edition will come out next year, which means they had enough faith that people would turn out for this one,” said Alex Osben, a box office analyst at Gower Street Analytics.
The release of its prequel in 2018 by David Gordon Green – which had the second largest October opening in US box office history – coincided with what’s been termed a “horror renaissance”, as studios began churning out one horror after another.
According to Peirse, every generation has its horror film cycle. In the 1980s, following Halloween, it was the original slashers. In the 90s, it was prestige, high-budget gothic adaptations and postmodern frighteners (Scream, Urban Legend). The 2000s saw the prevalence of torture porn (Saw), while the 2010s saw the rise of independent, diverse voices (The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).
Today, cash-strapped studios are “remaking existing film properties for guaranteed audiences and bankable hits”. Jordan Peele’s Candyman was released last month, while reboots of the Exorcist, Resident Evil, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream – the trailer for which was trending on Twitter this week – are all upcoming.
“If you’re putting £150m into making a film, you want to minimise the risk,” said David Hancock, research director of cinema at Omdia. “Of the top 50 films in the US in 2019, 75% of revenue was taken by films that were part of a franchise series.”
In general, Hancock said, horror films don’t have the highest budgets, but they do well because they have a very loyal fanbase. “It’s very easy to market to them.”
When cinemas reopened, the big hitters were A Quiet Place II, Spiral: The Book of Saw, and the Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, which earned five times its production budget. Streaming services have made the most of this appetite, with Netflix releasing its Fear Street trilogy – based on the RL Stine books – last summer and slasher film There’s Someone Inside Your House this month, while Amazon’s TV adaptation of I Know What You Did Last Summer launches on Friday.
All five of the original Halloween movies were also released on Netflix earlier this month – a smart strategy, according to Osben, because it would introduce a new generation to the franchise. “Especially with the cult status that things so quickly get when they’re released on Netflix,” she said.
Mike Muncer, who hosts the Evolution of Horror podcast, said what we’re seeing now with streaming is similar to the spike of cheap horror movies in the 80s because of the boom of VHS and home video. But the draw of the cinema, he added, remains unique, especially for a genre that many enjoy watching in groups.
“It’s like going to a theme park. If you went on a rollercoaster, it wouldn’t be so much fun on your own,” he said.
Anxiety sufferers have long attested that the genre can offer catharsis in times of trouble. During the lockdown, one of the most successful movies of the year was Host, which centres on friends who accidentally invite the attention of a demonic presence during an online seance. And as news coverage focused on migration, the refugee horror His House – currently with a striking 100% rating on Rotten tomatoes – became a hit.
Director Charlotte Colbert, whose psychological horror She Will premieres at the London Film Festival this weekend, said the genre attracted “a specific type of wandering soul who is interested in the boundaries or the frontiers of where reality lies; the edge, just beyond what’s visible”.
“Horror films, like all stories, are cathartic, and help us navigate and make sense of our reality,” Colbert said. “As we were cooped up and afraid during the pandemic, perhaps they helped us release pent-up adrenaline in a shared, more controllable experience.”
“Everything that’s been happening in the last couple of years is one of the reasons why horror’s been thriving,” said Muncer. “In the late 60s and 70s in America when there was a lot going on in terms of civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, there were a lot of horror movies responding to that. Even before the pandemic, people might look back on these last few years as Trump-era horror, movies that speak to social anxiety or racism, such as Get Out. It’s a cathartic way to be scared – it’s almost therapeutic.”