Ghosts scare off gore for Halloween movies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 3:56pm

After almost a decade in which torture films dominated the box office, horror movies are returning to ghostly thrills with a new slew of low-budget productions making big money for studios.

The success of 2009’s Paranormal Activity – which was made for US$15,000 and grossed more than US$107 million at US box offices – has fuelled a thirst in audiences and movie studios for things that go bump in the night.

Halloween audiences previously gripped by the gory Saw franchise about a sadistic serial killer are flocking this season to see supernatural horrors, with Sinister and Paranormal Activity 4 providing otherworldly scares for the spooky festivities.

The supernatural trend, with very little blood, started this year with The Woman in Black and The Apparition, and will spill into next year with upcoming horror films including Mama, Evil Dead, Carrie, and ghostly spoof Scary Movie 5, which will parody Paranormal Activity.

“It’s a return to a more classic style of suspense,” Henry Joost, who co-directed the third and fourth Paranormal Activity films with Ariel Schulman, told reporters.

“When you’ve just been obliterated with gore, having it slammed in your face for a decade, you respond by seeking the opposite.”

Sinister, currently playing in US movie theatres for Halloween-loving audiences, features an author (Ethan Hawke) who discovers home videos of mysterious murders and soon finds himself pursued by an otherworldly presence.

Director Scott Derrickson said audiences were drawn to bloodless supernatural horrors as a means to escape from news about wars and violent killings.

“There’s something about the real-world pain and violence that has enveloped the American reality, that makes films like Saw not necessarily the catharsis that people are looking for,” Derrickson said in an interview.

Inexpensive ghosts reap box-office benefits

Saw, made for US$1.2 million, grossed more than US$55 million at the US box office in 2004 and spawned a franchise, leading a slew of films dubbed “torture porn” for the excessive use of gratuitous violence.

The trend produced the Hostel trilogy, 2006’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and 2008’s The Strangers.

But while the Saw franchise initially brought in big money for movie studios – the second and third films each grossed more than US$80 million at the domestic box office – the profits slowed by 2009, when the franchise’s seventh and final film Saw 3D: The Final Chapter was made for US$20 million and grossed only US$45 million.

“The torture porn stuff really played itself out, Saw and Hostel, they were just too much. People want to be engaged with the story and not just grossed beyond imagination,” Bradley Jacobs, film editor at Us Weekly, told reporters.

In comparison, the Paranormal Activity franchise, which relies on suspense and strange phenomena, has revamped the genre with a more cost-effective model since most of the scares are off-screen and on deliberately grainy footage, minimising the need for costly special effects and action shots.

The second Paranormal film was shot for an estimated US$3 million and made US$84 million, while the third film, made for US$5 million, has grossed more than US$104 million in North America.

“The profitability of making a film for less than US$5 million and hedging the bet of the financiers and the studios with a possible giant upside becomes extremely attractive,” Derrickson said.

Sinister, made for US$3 million, has grossed US$39 million after three weeks in US theatres. Paranormal Activity 4, which cost US$5 million, has made more than US$42 million since it opened on October 19.

“Audiences realised that the feeling of suspense and the anticipation of horror is actually more emotionally impacting than graphic horror itself in these low-budget movies,” Derrickson said.

The Paranormal Activity franchise was released by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc, while Lions Gate Entertainment’s Summit studio distributed Sinister as well as the Saw and Hostel films.