‘Don’t Breathe’s’ big box office win capped off a terrific summer for horror

Originally expected to finish somewhere in the teen-millions this weekend, Don't Breathe – the latest gallows-humor frightfest from Evil Dead remake director Fede Alvarez – stunned industry onlookers by raking in $26 million (including Thursday night previews), nearly triple its reported $10 million budget over its first three days. The film's weekend triumph capped off a terrific summer for horror movies at the box office overall (though we can't say the same for the season's big tentpoles), joining The Conjuring 2, The Shallows, The Purge: Election Year, and Lights Out as the last three months' biggest genre champs. Before I delve into the reasons behind their success, here's a quick look at the numbers:

The Conjuring 2
Release date: June 10
Production budget: $40 million
Worldwide box office total: $319 million

The Shallows
Release date: June 24
Production budget: $17 million
Worldwide box office total: $93 million

The Purge: Election Year
Release date: July 1
Production budget: $10 million
Worldwide box office total: $105 million

Lights Out
Release date: July 22
Production budget: $4.9 million
Worldwide box office total: $125 million

No doubt, horror has been one of the most consistently-performing genres at the box office for the last several years, but it enjoyed an especially impressive batting average this summer, with only two relatively minor releases – Nicholas Winding Refn's divisive The Neon Demon and Greg McLean's critically-panned supernatural horror film The Darkness – sinking with moviegoers. 

So what's behind the genre's success this season? Here are three simple but powerful factors which allowed them to thrive:

1. Audiences actually seemed to like them.

Each of the above-mentioned films scored a “B” Cinemascore or better based on theater exit polling, with The Conjuring 2 nabbing a rock-solid “A-” grade and everything but Lights Out garnering a “B+”. Contrast that with last summer's crop of fright-driven offerings, which not only boasted one high-profile commercial misfire (the critically-drubbed Poltergeist remake) but a lower average Cinemascore among its major titles. The Gallows, for example – while ostensibly a hit relative to its miniscule budget – was rated a “C” by moviegoers, which is a pretty dismal score that leaves little doubt as to why the film didn't perform better. Audience goodwill and positive-word-of-mouth is what allowed films like The Conjuring 2 and Shallows to demonstrate sturdy legs over their respective runs, adding several million to their final totals.

2. The critics were kind.

For a genre that's historically, and often unfairly, been judged more harshly than others by the critical community, this summer's offerings finished with astonishingly high Rotten Tomatoes averages, which likely helped boost their grosses. Among the season's big hits, only The Purge: Election Year came in under the threshold needed to be “Certified Fresh” by the review aggregator at 54% – which, for the record, is about double the number that Suicide Squad was able to muster. While some tend to pooh-pooh the effect of sites like RT and Metacritic on so-called “critic-proof” genres like horror, I tend to think a solid score can add considerably to a film's final tally, particularly if it's an original horror film like Don't Breathe (86% average) or Lights Out (76%) that isn't based on a pre-sold property.

3. They felt conceptually distinct from one another.

Audiences were treated to a wide variety of horror films this summer, from the “Blake Lively vs. shark” thriller The Shallows to the unbearably tense home-invasion antics of Don't Breathe. Even The Conjuring 2 and Lights Out, while both technically supernatural horror films, felt different enough from one another not to feel redundant, and that kept the genre feeling fresh from June through August.