Is 2017 bringing horror back to the mainstream?

·UK Movies Writer
Will 'It' scare up a smash hit? (Credit: New Line Cinema)
Will ‘It’ scare up a smash hit? (Credit: New Line Cinema)

With the success of ‘Get Out’ and ‘Split,’ and the likelihood of ‘It’ becoming a box office smash, horror cinema seems to be seeing a resurgence in critical and commercial acceptability. Is this the dawn of a new golden era for the genre?

Depending on who you talk to, recent years have been either a treasure trove or a wasteland for horror movies. On a cult level, interest in the genre has arguably never been higher, with innumerable websites and blogs covering all things horror and scores of horror-based film festivals and conventions popping up across the globe.

However, from the perspective of the more mainstream audience, one could be forgiven for thinking there hasn’t necessarily been a great deal going on in horror of late. Sure, there have been plenty of horror hits at the box office, notably with the ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ franchises, but few would argue that many of these were likely to stand the test of time; indeed, some barely endured beyond their opening weekends.

Meanwhile, the contemporary horror releases most widely acclaimed by critics in recent years – ‘It Follows,’ ‘The Babadook,’ ‘The Witch’ – have been largely met with indifference by the wider audience. Even 2016’s ‘Blair Witch,’ the heavily hyped revival of the ‘Blair Witch Project’ franchise, proved a dud at the box office.

'Get Out' (credit: Universal)
‘Get Out,’ one of the best-reviewed films of 2017 so far (credit: Universal)

Four months into 2017, however, things are looking altogether different for horror. ‘Split’ became the biggest hit M Night Shyamalan has had in years, whilst writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut ‘Get Out’ has enjoyed similar success, winning over both critics and audiences in a way few films have managed in recent years.

This past week also saw the release of the first teaser trailer for ‘It,’ the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s novel – and the audience response wildly surpassed expectations, the trailer swiftly breaking the record (previously held by ‘Fast & Furious 8’) for most views within its first 24 hours online.

As such, it looks likely ‘It’ will be a huge success once it arrives in September – and it might not be the only major horror hit to look forward to. May will see the release of ‘Alien: Covenant,’ Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ sequel/’Alien’ prequel, and the existing red-band trailers suggest something very horrific indeed in store.

On top of this, The Wrap just revealed that ‘mother!’, an upcoming collaboration between director Darren Aronofsky (‘Black Swan’) and actress Jennifer Lawrence, is also a horror film – and notably, studio Paramount have scheduled it to open on 13 October, a pre-Halloween release date which had originally been earmarked for their now-axed ‘Friday the 13th’ sequel.

All of this would seem to point towards Hollywood coming to view horror less as a minor commodity for a niche audience, and more as something commercially viable for a mass audience. So why do the tides seem to be turning? Well, if we want to get a bit socio-political about it, the horror genre has always been known to flourish in times of trouble: take the rise of extreme horror directors like Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, or the ‘torture porn’ wave that followed 9/11. In these days of Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s fair to say 2017 qualifies as a troubled time, and in such times audiences demand an outlet for their anxiety which family-friendly films just can’t deliver.

'Logan's box office success demonstrates the demand for grislier, adult-oriented movies (credit: 20th Century Fox)
‘Logan’s box office success demonstrates the demand for grislier, adult-oriented movies (credit: 20th Century Fox)

Whether we want to consider politics a key factor or not, there are clear signs that the studios are at last warming to the notion of making specifically adult-oriented tentpole films, after many years of PG-13 movies taking preference. 20th Century Fox’s R-rated superhero movies ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Logan’ have both proved major successes, sparking talk of more comic book properties gearing toward mature audiences: notably, Sony have pitched their in-development ‘Spider-Man’ spin-off ‘Venom’ as R-rated sci-fi horror.

Contrast this with only six years ago, when director Guillermo del Toro was unable to get a green light for his long-held passion project, HP Lovecraft adaptation ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ despite having producer James Cameron and star Tom Cruise on board. Universal would not give the project the go-ahead primarily because of del Toro’s insistence on shooting with an R-rating in mind, fearing this would mean a loss at the box office given the necessity of a large budget.

However, if ‘It’ proves as big a hit as we’re now anticipating, could this spark off a new era of large-scale event horror movies? For one thing, Warner Bros also have an adaptation of another epic Stephen King novel ‘The Stand’ on the back-burner, whilst the upcoming movie of King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ (not strictly speaking horror, but said to be heavily steeped in the author’s iconography) also has designs on launching a franchise. In this climate, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that a project like ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ could finally get off the ground.

On top of all this, Universal intend their upcoming reboot of ‘The Mummy’ to launch a revival of their classic monsters universe – and though by all accounts these films are planned to be PG-13 rated, should they prove successful this may be taken as yet further evidence of horror’s broader appeal.

If these and other upcoming genre releases continue to scare up a great response critically and commercially, the coming years could prove fertile ground indeed for horror cinema. There may well be dark times ahead – but for those who love scary movies, this might not be such a bad thing.

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