New thrillers in state of rigor mortis

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The thrill is gone. In recent weeks, Hollywood has rolled out a succession of thrillers, but with the exception of "Disturbia" -- a sort of teen spirit riff on "Rear Window" -- audiences clearly haven't been on the edge of their seats.

Sony Pictures' release of Revolution Studios' "Perfect Stranger" -- though it had all the appointments of a sleek-looking thriller and potential star power in Halle Berry and Bruce Willis -- opened in fourth place with a disappointing $11.2 million, dropped to ninth in its second weekend and has grossed only $18.7 million domestically.

New Line Cinema's legal thriller "Fracture," starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling in a battle of wits, walked away with better reviews and opened at No. 2 but still took in only $11 million in its first weekend.

Paramount Pictures' "Zodiac" might have been more of an atmospheric procedural about the search for San Francisco's Zodiac serial killer, but it was sold as a thriller and has picked up only $32.9 million after eight weeks. MGM's release of the Weinstein Co.'s "Hannibal Rising" in February drew even less blood, grossing only $27.6 million.

The thriller, of course, is an elastic genre, embracing all sorts of combinations of shadowy suspense, violin-shrieking jeopardy and tricky plotting. BoxofficeMojo.com, in its accounting of the boxoffice performance by genre, helpfully divides thrillers into various flavors: erotic, serial killer and political.

What's illustrative is that, a handful of hits aside, thrillers don't usually result in breakout movies. Looking at movies released since 1980, the site identifies only two erotic thrillers that broke the $100 million mark: 1987's "Fatal Attraction" ($156.6 million) and 1992's "Basic Instinct" ($117.7 million.) In the serial killer category, three of the top five movies, beginning with 2001's "Hannibal" ($165.1 million), featured Hannibal Lecter. As for political thrillers, they're a hardier bunch: Eight have topped the $100 million mark, including three movies based on books by Tom Clancy and one, "The Pelican Brief," an adaptation of a John Grisham novel.

Instead, most thrillers, even when they've connected with audiences, have served as solid, midrange performers. Paramount mined that vein in the '90s with the Ashley Judd vehicle "Kiss the Girls" ($60.5 million), then hit gold in 1999 with the actress' "Double Jeopardy" ($116.7 million) only to see the formula collapse with 2004's "Twisted" ($25.2 million.) In fact, when "Perfect Stranger" stiffed, one distributor suggested the film simply looked too much like those old Paramount thrillers that had run their course.

It's not just a case of a genre simply wearing out its welcome. The thriller has migrated to TV. Women-in-jeopardy tales became standard movie-of-the-week fare before finally taking up permanent residence on Lifetime. TV's courtroom dramas, from "Law & Order" to "The Practice," have worked just about every twist on double indemnity -- "Fracture" follows in the wake of "Practice" story arcs where wily killers, played by such actors as John Larroquette and "Lost's" Michael Emerson, schemed to get away with murder. And TV's current crime wave, led by "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and its spinoffs, pretty much dispenses with the thriller element altogether -- murder takes place even before the opening credits as the emphasis shifts to high-tech mysteries.

No genre ever really dies, though. "Disturbia" might not have reinvented the thriller, but it shrewdly repackaged it for younger audiences. Older critics might have carped that the new movie -- devised by DreamWorks and Montecito Pictures and directed by D.J. Caruso -- lacked the formal rigor of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Unlike "Rear Windows' " James Stewart, who is confined to one room, "Disturbia's" Shia LaBeouf roams all over his house and yard.

But the new movie did find fresh anxieties to exploit. Just as the turn of such '90s movies as "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" tapped into society's distrust of independent women, "Disturbia" milks the adolescent sense of powerless in an adult world with the result that it has grossing $42.3 million in less than two weeks. That's the kind of satisfying ending that Hollywood is looking for, but doesn't often find, when it enters thriller territory.
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