Unlike sweeping epics and action thrillers, horror movies can be made on the cheap, yet still rake in big bucks for the studios. And often, the gorier they are, the better.
Hollywood is still on a high from the success of horror films such as Saw (and its subsequent franchises) and Hostel, which made big money on relatively small budgets. Encouraged by the streak that horror and supernatural films have been having at the box office, producers have been churning them out faster than you can say 'slasher'. It's the one genre that always has a core following, insiders say.
Stephen Hopkins, the director of The Reaping, says that, for a horror film to do justice to the genre, there need to be twists and turns galore, a creepy musical crescendo, and a strong, original story.
There's something illuminating about a great horror movie, 'in how it makes you feel', Hopkins says.
Millions of people appear to agree. According to Gitesh Pandya, founder of boxofficemojo.com, which tracks takings at the box office, the genre has enjoyed steady growth since Scream (1996), which is credited with reinventing the category. The more gruesome films such as Saw 2, Saw 3 and Hostel have done particularly well, he says. 'There's been growth with the more brutal horror films, even if they usually have no big stars and small budgets,' Pandya says.
The first Saw was shot in 18 days for a paltry US$1.2 million - yet it brought in more than US$100 million worldwide. Its sequel was made for US$4 million, and made US$144 million globally. Even Dead Silence, which was made by the same people behind Saw, had a fairly strong first US weekend opening of US$13 million.
300, which isn't horror but is certainly bloody enough, made US$70 million during its opening weekend. Remakes of decades-old movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen have also done well.
'A lot of them have been successful because, for horror films generally, the threshold for success is lower because the costs are less,' says Pandya. 'If you can gross US$4 million in North America, then you have a big hit on your hands, and there are still inter-national markets and worldwide video revenues to come. These movies can be very profitable.'
Still, purists decry the increasingly fast-food nature of the genre. John Fallon, film critic for arrowinthehead.com, says horror films are now 'more of a business'.
'It's more product-driven,' he says. 'Some studios will make a film knowing damn well it's not a good film. But it was filmed for nothing and they hope for the opening weekend to recoup their costs.'
That said, Fallon says there's no sign that the popularity of the genre is on the wane.
'Horror films have always been an echo of where we are as a society, and right now the world is a very scary place,' he says. 'It's cathartic to watch a horror film.'
Nonetheless, Fallon says he's hoping for a return to the chillingly atmospheric horror films of the past, instead of movies that are what he calls 'just jacking up the music'.
'Dead Silence was refreshingly good because it was a ghost story,' he says. 'It wasn't a remake or a rip off, and it was for adults. It wasn't one of those films that say, 'Let's torture people and call it horror.''
But whether it's The Reaping, or The Hitcher, which opened in Hong Kong last week, horror films are now more mainstream than ever. According to Don Sumner, founder of best-horror-movies.com, some of the genre's best are small, independent productions from Europe.
'There's a huge resurgence of independent horror which counters all the remakes and the lack of creativity, and that's really starting to take off,' Sumner says. 'If you don't have the budget, you have to be innovative, and studios are willing to take a risk on films like that.'
The Reaping opens today