Back from the dead: is the slasher movie set to make a killing?
The hit Happy Death Day hints at renewed interest in the masked killer genre, with Jamie Lee Curtis back in the Halloween saga and Scream getting revived
Vampire in Brooklyn, Thinner, The Dentist, Leprechaun 3 the horror genre in the mid-90s was terrifying for all the wrong reasons. It was barely even a thing, at least outside of the very bottom shelf of Blockbuster, a place where kids would awkwardly hover before begging parents to let them watch some film about an evil laundry-folding machine.
But then Wes Craven, whose career had wound up in an equally dread-filled place, made Scream, a slasher film that had the balls to kill its biggest star in the opening scene while ridiculing the very genre it was trying to resurrect. It was a phenomenon, both at the box office and with critics, yet 21 years later, masked killers have been replaced with evil clowns, evil dolls and evil racists. Scream brought back the horror genre, yet ultimately killed the slasher film once again.
Last weekend, though, represented something of a last-minute gotcha moment, the bogeyman knifing his way back to life with the shock success of the high-concept slasher Happy Death Day. Box office pundits jumped out of their seats when the star-free, $4.8m budget film made $26.5m in its debut, only $5m less than Blade Runner 2049 the weekend before, a big star sequel that carried a $150m price tag.
Happy Death Day boasted a juicy premise, crudely described as Groundhog Day meets Scream (a college student is stuck in a time-loop that sees her murdered again and again), and arrived in a year thats seen horror films rise to the top of the box office (It, Get Out, Split and Annabelle: Creation are all bona fide smashes). But it still posed something of a risk. A slasher film hasnt made any real money since Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013, and even then, it was hardly a seat-filler, with a final gross just $7m more than Happy Death Days opening weekend; plus, it benefited from brand awareness (something thats died down enough to mean the latest chapter, Leatherface, has premiered on DirecTV). It also arrived after a number of major flops, including 2009s Sorority Row, 2010s My Soul to Take and 2011s Scream 4.
The well-trodden formula of pretty young things being ripped apart by a seemingly unstoppable madman gradually became irrelevant even as the horror genre continued to make a profit. But why?
In the late 70s, as critics cooed over a golden age of prestige cinema, John Carpenter was bringing a violent, low-budget revolution to the outskirts, far away from the more socially acceptable films of the time. The minimalist horror film Halloween brought a new subgenre to date night audiences, one that was crafted through films such as Peeping Tom, Psycho and Black Christmas, and the $300k budget hit remains one of the most profitable independent films of all time. Its success led to inevitable sequels and the advent of other slasher franchises in the 80s.
But audiences grew understandably tired of watching Freddy and Jason slice moronic horny teens into pieces and Hollywood appeared equally bored. The formula was brutal and repetitive and existed within a world that was so impossible to identify with that none of the scares were cutting deep anymore. In 1994, after nine Friday the 13ths and six Nightmares on Elm Street, something shocking rose from the graveyard of gristle: an original idea.
Before the word meta had become commonplace, Craven hatched a nifty way to breathe new life into the Elm Street series. In his New Nightmare, the maniacal pedophile Freddy Krueger crossed over from the world of fiction to reality and haunted the actors from the original film as well as Craven himself. It was a daring idea and one that audiences were unprepared for (it was the poorest-performing Elm Street film at the box office) but the director was convinced he was on to something.