Horror movies are comparatively cheap, still count as “theater worthy” releases and may play well to moviegoers after a traumatic year.
We can debate whether summer started last weekend, actually starts this weekend or really kicks into gear over Memorial Day weekend, but the multiplexes are about to fill up. Last weekend’s $8.1 million debut for Wrath of Man (a heist/revenge actioner so brutal and violent that it almost felt like a horror flick) will pave the way for Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (in semi-wide nationwide release thanks to Cinemark in advance of its Netflix launch) and Lionsgate’s buzzy (review on Wednesday) Spiral: From the Book of Saw this Friday. Paramount’s A Quiet Place part II will hope to approximate its pre-Covid expectations next weekend. In a skewed irony, this summer will mostly be dominated by franchise-specific horror movies.
It was a matter of indie theaters and drive-ins playing nostalgic reissues and indie horror flicks to the extent that last summer existed at all. IFC’s The Wretched, The Rental and Relic were among the closest things we had to breakout summer hits, although they earned a total of around $4.5 million domestic. So it’s a little ironic that more prominent and franchise-specific horror titles will at least somewhat dominate this summer. Back when we all hoped that the Coronavirus pandemic would be mostly winding down by late summer 2020, many of the big post-Tenet blockbusters were indeed horror films. Think Halloween Kills, Candyman, A Quiet Place part II and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.
Likewise, while we have something representing a theatrical summer movie season in 2021, quite a few of the preordained biggies (The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, etc.) have fled to safer waters. Many of the proposed summer 2020 flicks that were initially delayed last year (think Minions: The Rise of Gru, Top Gun: Maverick or Ghostbusters: Afterlife) are opening not this summer but either later in 2021 or sometime in 2022. What’s left, save for a few surefire tentpoles (F9 and Black Widow) and some riskier or smaller franchise plays (Space Jam: A New Legacy, Cruella or The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard), are a flurry of new installments from various horror franchises.
The thinking is frankly the same this summer as it was last Fall. Horror movies are still considered theater-worthy experiences. Televised/streaming horror having not quite taken hold as a replacement compared to, for example, the crime drama, star-driven comedy or young adult fantasy adaptation. For instance, we’re going to get a fifth Purge movie this July, even as the USA Network Purge spin-off show got the ax after two seasons. Sure, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hell House was a buzzy hit, but Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal was more blogged about than watched during its three critically acclaimed and lowly-rated seasons on NBC. It helps, frankly, that “hard” horror hasn’t yet been appropriated into the world of PG-13 superhero movies.
Despite being potential event movies in a world where fewer and films are considered “got to see this in theaters,” shockers are comparatively cheap. Platinum Dunes and Paramount’s A Quiet Place cost just $17 million, which made its $188 million domestic and $338 million worldwide haul unthinkably profitable for a studio that has struggled in the new “marquee characters > movie stars” era. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split kicked off 2017 with $256 million and $276 million on a combined $14 million budget. Warner Bros.’ two It movies, which were relatively expensive for horror movies, earned $700 million on a $35 million budget in 2017 and $490 million on a $70 million budget in 2019.
Don’t Breathe is getting a sequel because the first film (an original, star-free, R-rated chiller with a terrific hook) earned $158 million on a $9 million budget in summer 2016. Sony’s Escape Room (i.e. – Saw 4 Kids, and I mean that as a compliment) earned $155 million on a $9 million budget, more than almost every one of Lionsgate’s Saw movies in unadjusted global earnings. And while, for example, Annabelle Comes Home slightly disappointed compared to its fellow Conjuring Universe flicks, it still earned $227 million on a $27 million budget. Few of these will likely reach the theatrical highs they might have under normal circumstances. But lower budgets mean they don’t have to break records to break even.
A Quiet Place part II probably won’t score the $60 million domestic debut for which it was tracking last March, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Old may perform closer to The Visit ($98 million in 2015) than Glass ($255 million in 2019). While 18 months ago, I might have pegged Nia DaCosta’s sequel to Candyman as opening closer to Jordan Peele’s Us ($71 million in 2019), now Universal and MGM would be thrilled with a debut closer to Get Out ($33 million in 2017). New Line’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It would still (likely) be profitable at $100 million worldwide, especially if it’s good enough to keep interest in the franchise sufficient to justify additional spin-offs.
None of the big wide-release horror films in play (Spiral: From the Book of Saw, A Quiet Place part II, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, The Forever Purge, Escape Room 2, Old, Don’t Breathe 2, The Night House, Candyman and, if you count post-Labor Day as “summer,” James Wan’s Malignant) have to break the bank to justify their theatrical existence. However, as a combined force, they may be what theaters need to keep the lights on as life (hopefully) returns to some semblance of normality before the comparatively more significant slate of year-end tentpoles (Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Dune, No Time to Die, Eternals, Top Gun: Maverick, Matrix 4, Spider-Man: No Way Home, etc.).
Moreover, audiences may be all-too-willing to cope with a year from hell by going to the movies to indulge in fantastical or somewhat visceral fears playing out onscreen. San Andreas did exceptionally well in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the summer of 2015. Twister famously did well in “tornado valley” in 1996 (25 years ago this weekend). I don’t think the idea of horror films (or thrillers) being a safe way for folks to confront their fears is going to make any of these horror flicks overperform, but I do think it’s a reason not to presume the worst. Moreover, none of these franchises are so vital to the respective studios that they can’t afford one circumstances-driven underperformance.
Maybe Conjuring 3 will push the franchise over $2 billion while Spiral sends Saw past $1 billion. Perhaps Malignant (whether you count the September 10 release as the end of summer or beginning of Fall) will allow James Wan to reset the mainstream Hollywood horror movie for the third time, as he did in 2004 with Saw and 2011 with Insidious. Maybe Don’t Breathe 2 and Escape Room 2 will each capitalize on “better than expected” leggy predecessors even if neither achieves conventional “breakout sequel” status. Heck, The Forever Purge is supposed to be the last one anyway. In traditional times, these films might have earned between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion worldwide. Let’s see how they do this summer.