With a slew of major commercial (and often critical) hits like “The Conjuring,” “Insidious: Chapter 2,” “World War Z,” “Warm Bodies” and the terrific “Evil Dead” remake, 2013 was a great year for horror. 2014? Eeh…let's just say the business of fright was a little weak.
And it wasn't just the numbers, which were bad enough – only 4 horror films broke $50 million domestic this year as compared with last year's 9 – but the quality of the films themselves that disappointed. If we're being honest, the number of truly worthwhile mainstream horror films this year can probably be counted on one hand.
So what did we learn from horror's (mostly) horrible 2014? Below are 8 lessons we'll be taking away.
Lesson #1: Even in a down year, horror remains the most consistently profitable genre
Judging strictly by budget-to-worldwide gross ratio, the only true flop this year was the bloated Aaron Eckhart reboot “I, Frankenstein,” which took in $71 million across the globe on a $65 million budget. Otherwise, you'd be hard-pressed to find an actual dud among this year's crop. Not only does critical opinion mean little to the genre, but costs are kept so low for the majority of these films that, if marketed right, finishing in the black seems a near-inevitability.
Lesson #2: Quality is moot
While this could apply to basically any film genre, the percentage of critical stinkers among this year's Top 10 grossers is pitifully high. Only one of them, in fact – the inventive haunted-mirror flick “Oculus” – finished with a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Lesson #3: James Wan is the undisputed king of horror
Look at this: “Annabelle” brought in $252 million on a budget of only $6.5 million, making it the highest-grossing and no doubt most profitable horror film of the year by far. Though Wan didn't direct the “Conjuring” spinoff, he produced it and has been a major creative and commercial force in the genre for over a decade now, building a mini empire that has spawned three major horror franchises. Last year he directed both “The Conjuring” and “Insidious Chapter 2,” which together grossed nearly $500 million worldwide. Safe to say there's no other current horror director who can boast that kind of resume.
Lesson #4: Found footage is on the downswing, but let's face it – these movies aren't going anywhere
Remember the found footage craze spawned by “Paranormal Activity” a few years ago? It's still here! True, these films are beginning to fall out of favor with audiences. The latest installment in the “Paranormal” franchise (“The Marked Ones”) brought in only $32 million domestic and $90 million worldwide, making it by far the lowest-grossing of the entire series. Still, the films are so cheap to make Hollywood really has no reason at this point to stop churning them out. Indeed, this year's crop included two other commercially successful films, “As Above/So Below” ($40 million worldwide, $5 million budget) and “Devil's Due” ($36 million worldwide, $7 million budget).
Lesson #5: The mid-budget horror film is an endangered species
“Dracula Untold” wasn't the unqualified flop you probably think. Though Luke Evans' Vlad the Impaler origin flick only grossed $55 million domestic off a $70 million budget, it brought in over three times that amount internationally. That said, it was an outlier in a sea of sub-$10 million movies, and it didn't make nearly enough to change the Blumhouse-minted paradigm. “I, Frankenstein” surely killed off any good will generated by “Untold's” minor triumph.
Lesson #6: You probably haven't seen the best horror film of the year
Though it's slowly building buzz – thanks in part to publicity drummed up by “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin – Jennifer Kent's unnerving bogeyman tale “The Babadook” hasn't gotten much of a theatrical push despite being arguably the greatest horror film of the year, and possibly the last several years. IFC understandably doesn't have the resources to get this into more theaters (last weekend it topped out at 23, and it probably won't go much beyond that), but I suspect it will drum up more interest on VOD, where you can currently view it for less than the cost of a movie ticket.
Lesson #7: Kevin Smith just can't catch a break
Was “Tusk” a great film? No. Was it a good film? Mmmm…almost. But it was genuinely strange, genuinely original and genuinely disturbing – more than we can say about most horror movies released this year. Unfortunately, it tanked in theaters, grossing a scant $1.8 million at the box office. I suspect it did healthier numbers on VOD, but still – those per-theater averages (it was released in just over 600 locations back in September) suggest distributor A24 may have overestimated the former indie darling's public goodwill.
Lesson #8: Nobody cared about that “Saw” 10th anniversary re-release
I for one am overjoyed that the era of “Saw” is over – an abominable series that truly deserved being labeled as “torture porn.” Fortunately, the rest of America seems to agree, as Lionsgate's 10th anniversary re-release on Halloween weekend brought in only $650,000 from over 2,000 locations – a pitiful per-theater average of only $315.
How did you feel about this year's horror movies? Sound off in the comments.