From 'American Horror Story' to 'Walking Dead,' How Horror Took Over Hollywood
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The makeup trailer on the New Orleans set of American Horror Story: Coven contains a whiteboard with instructions on how to achieve just the right look for the zombies dispatched by Marie Laveau, a real-life 19th century voodoo priestess played by Angela Bassett: "Aged blood/bruise tone around wounds. Black in rotted areas. Warm yellow to make oozing."
On this Friday in late September, 13 makeup artists will spend nearly five hours turning a clutch of actors into the grotesque undead for a climactic scene in "Burn Witch Burn," the fifth episode in the third season of FX's Emmy-winning gothic camp franchise (which was set to return Oct. 9). Taissa Farmiga, whose character was revealed in season one as a rafter-dwelling ghost, is rehearsing a scene in which she uses a chain saw to dispatch the zombies in a finely choreographed (and shockingly gory) dance of death. As she practices swinging a bladeless saw, a prop guy asks if it's time to swap in the real thing. "We definitely want a blade on the chain saw," answers director Jeremy Podeswa. "A bloody blade."
As the grunting zombies advance toward Farmiga, Podeswa checks the camera and cracks, "It's a nice family show."
Increasingly, it is. Horror, once a niche domain, is flourishing in film and television. Although the genre has a rich Hollywood history -- the late 1950s to early 1980s saw such classics as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Shining and TV series like The Twilight Zone -- horror never has played as broadly (and as profitably) as it does today. In film, it now slices like a cleaver through all four audience quadrants at a fraction of the cost of a typical tentpole and can be sequelized and exported around the globe. Studios are scrambling to greenlight new potential franchises, and marquee stars who once eschewed the genre are dipping their well-manicured toes in. "In many ways, [horror] is the hottest genre," says Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate. "It can be cost-effectively produced, attracts some of the most talented filmmakers and is popular with men and women regardless of age and also African-American and Hispanic audiences."
On TV, as in film, the genre is able to lure women and men, as well as more lucrative younger viewers -- and the gorier the better, it seems. AMC's The Walking Dead returns Oct. 13 as TV's top-rated show in the 18-to-49 demo (its third-season finale lured 12.4 million total viewers) despite a deluge of decapitations and impalements. The Ryan Murphy- and Brad Falchuk-produced AHS -- with boundary-pushing scenes featuring lobotomies and alien anal probes -- earned more 2013 Emmy nominations (17) than any other show. Fox's serial killer drama The Following -- where victims routinely have their eyes gouged out -- was last season's No. 1 new show. A&E has had success with Psycho prequel series Bates Motel. And NBC, which had a modest hit this spring with Hannibal, on Oct. 25 launches Dracula, which is said to be a high priority for chairman Bob Greenblatt and is being promoted as a broad drama. Showtime in 2014 will bow Penny Dreadful, a psychosexual horror thriller written and produced by Oscar nominee John Logan, with the first two episodes directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible). Series versions of The Exorcist and American Psycho are in the works. Even teen-targeted ABC Family is circling the genre with The Final Girls, which would have Jamie Lee Curtis -- heroine of 1978's Halloween -- playing a den mother of sorts to a group of teen girls who survived their own horror stories. "There's a long pattern of young audiences flocking to horror movies," notes Nick Grad, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions. "For us, [the genre] offers something noisy that has a lot of meat to be marketed."
Tellingly, AHS' highest-rated demo last season was advertiser-coveted women 18-to-34 (a 3.8 rating). "This season is designed to be a little more fun, and specifically to invite [even more] women to the party," says Murphy of the witch-themed Coven. But no demo is off-limits for horror. "Today, which I find a little disturbing, we know that 70-year-olds are watching [The Walking Dead] and 10-year-olds are watching it," says Sharon Tal Yguado, executive vp at Fox International Channels, which distributes Walking Dead globally.
At the same time, there have been more top-grossing horror films in 2013 than ever before. As studios are under increasing pressure to slash costs after a summer of big-budget misfires, many of these horror hits are made for less than the salaries of some tentpole stars. Warner Bros./New Line's The Conjuring, based on a true story about paranormal investigators hired to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse, cost just $19 million and grossed more than $300 million worldwide this summer. It trounced its opening-weekend competitor, R.I.P.D., a film with a $130 million budget starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges. Four other horror releases in the past 10 months made for less than $20 million have surpassed the $85 million mark worldwide: Universal's Mama and The Purge, TriStar's Evil Dead remake and FilmDistrict's Insidious: Chapter 2. January's horror hybrid Warm Bodies cost $35 million and took in $117 million worldwide. Brad Pitt's zombie pic World War Z, while pricey, exceeded expectations with $540 million worldwide, as did Seth Rogen's midbudget horror-comedy mashup This Is the End ($122 million). "It's hard to get to a number like $300 million with a teen-only audience," says New Line chief Toby Emmerich of Conjuring's success. "Movies can only hold like that when all four quadrants are showing up."
Indeed, in the past, horror films typically were made for and targeted at white teens. But now women and Latinos are fueling the surge. Females represented 56 percent of Purge's opening-weekend audience. For Mama, women and teenage girls accounted for a whopping 61 percent of the $32 million debut weekend, and Latinos made up an astounding 47 percent of the audience. Conjuring skewed older, as 60 percent of its opening-weekend audience was over age 25 and 53 percent were women. Without relying on fickle teens, the R-rated film played through July and August. "What's new is, it doesn't have to be about the opening-weekend audience anymore," says Simon Oakes, vice chairman of Exclusive Media and president and CEO of Hammer, who produced 2012's Daniel Radcliffe horror movie The Woman in Black ($128 million worldwide). Paramount's Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Jan. 3), the fifth in the series, will target the Spanish-language audience with a Latino cast and a storyline about a Catholic inquiry into a suspected demonic possession. "We started to realize that that segment of the audience was the most loyal advocate for the movies," says Paramount Film Group president Adam Goodman.
The seeds of the film boom were planted in 2002, when Eli Roth's $1.5 million budget Cabin Fever earned $31 million worldwide for Lionsgate, becoming the first R-rated horror film to play on more than 2,000 screens. The indie studio then hit the jackpot with Conjuring director James Wan's microbudgeted Saw, which took in north of $100 million worldwide and spawned seven films in seven consecutive years -- a feat still unrivaled -- with a combined gross of $873 million. "Cabin Fever helped Saw, and Saw 2 helped Hostel," says Roth. "Hostel helped The Hills Have Eyes. Every success fed into the next and really helped the genre."
In 2009, Paranormal Activity ushered in a new and especially lucrative subgenre of handheld camera horror. The film, made for just $15,000, started a franchise that has grossed $719 million worldwide over four movies. In the process, it turned its producer, Jason Blum, into Hollywood's first microbudget mogul. "It isn't the sexiest part of the business, and that's what I love about it," says Blum, a former Miramax exec whose Universal-based Blumhouse Productions also is behind Purge, Insidious and last year's Sinister for Lionsgate. "You also have total creative freedom."
The Blum formula relies on stars willing to work for cheap to receive a hefty backend. On Purge, Ethan Hawke took almost no money up front, and sources say he ultimately scored a mid-seven-figure payday. Blum "has a high-quality assembly line and has figured out how to find stories that have either a universal theme or a very sellable concept," says FilmDistrict CEO and incoming Focus Features CEO Peter Schlessel, who worked with Blumhouse on Insidious.