Smile, Halloween Ends, Black Phone… Will horror movies save cinema?

In the United States as in France, where the cinema industry suffers from competition from streaming platforms, horror, blood, and gore fill theaters.

Post-Covid, as the season of Oscars 2023, Hollywood seems to be smiling again. Or more exactly, two smiles. Those who have brought spectators back to cinemas, which have been deserted since the start of the pandemic. On the one hand, that of Tom Cruise, carnivorous and devastating, at the controls of Top Gun: Maverick , a new all-time US box office record with over $662 million in revenue. On the other, an enigmatic and threatening grin, from an unknown actress, on the poster of Smilea mini-budget horror film – $17 million – which earned six times as much in less than two months of release.

This story of a young psychiatrist (played by Sosie Bacon) who sees in the smiles of the people around her the chronicle of her announced death, has just entered the top 15 of the most viewed feature films of the year. It is well ahead of star films like that of Julia Roberts and George Clooney (Ticket to Heaven)… The feat of arms is all the more admirable since for the past year, tearing spectators aged 45 and over from their sofa and the cornucopia of offers from streaming and VOD platforms has been an almost impossible mission. Faced with an alarming drop in cinema admissions in the United States (- 34%) and in France (- 30%) in 2022, the muscular (super)heroes and the heroes of slashers bloodthirsty (violent films) turn out to be the appointed saviors of an industry worried about its own finitude.

Horror movies are part of the backbone of Hollywood, especially in times of crisis

Didier Allouch, Canal+ cinema correspondent in Los Angeles

2022 for cinema? A annus horribilis in the literal sense of the term. Because the success of recently released horror films like Smile and Halloween Endsthe revival of that of scream, with Neve Campbell, or Nope, by Jordan Peele, does not surprise the experts. The genre is booming. “In 2017 alone, horror films had generated for the first time in history 900 million euros at the global box office,” recalls Michael Grabowski, professor of communication at Manhattan College in New York. “They are part of the backbone of Hollywood, especially in times of crisis,” said Didier Allouch, Canal + cinema correspondent in Los Angeles. “Already during the Great Depression, after the crash of 1929, what worked indoors? The Dracula and the Frankenstein Universal studios”, recalls the journalist, keen on the genre.

Fear in times of crisis

Today, in another context anxiety inducing, is the public once again more fond of horror in the cinema? “We are programmed to play at scaring ourselves, and the collective experience of a film seen in theaters, as a group, reinforces social cohesion as much as it reassures us individually”, confirms Michael Grabowski, specialist in neuroscience applied to cinema. . The strong visual and sound stimuli, our feeling of the anguish of the characters generate in us the reaction, instinctive, “fight or flight”. A survival instinct. And a chain reaction that is accompanied by a surge of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. Faced with this intoxicating chemical cocktail, it is not surprising that the first fans of horror films are teenagers, who are particularly sensitive to jump scares, those thrilling sequences designed to make you jump or scream, like an amusement park roller coaster. “They rush there in bands or in pairs, in a tradition that continues from generation to generation”, observes Didier Allouch.

In this clear increase in box office receipts, we therefore find young people, but also ex-teens who went to see the first Halloween, The Night of the Masks, by John Carpenter, in 1978, and who return to see the last part, Halloween Endsalways with Jamie Lee Curtis, star of the genre. The terrifying sagas become multigenerational. Not to mention that the platforms have also begun to nurture a nostalgia for the masters of angst: Apple TV+ and Netflix are adapting Stephen King (Lisey’s story, In the tall grass), the Duffer brothers explode audience records on Netflix with their Stranger Thingsfed with references to horror hits from the 1980s and 1990s.

Horror early on gave pride of place to women as strong heroines

Damien Golla, Distribution Director at Wild Bunch

Hollywood knows that this unquenchable thirst for hemoglobin pays off. Because of the dozens of horror films produced each year, two or three small productions will blow up all the prediction counters. released this year, Black Phone and Smile are among these surprise successes. “A mini budget of $2.3 million like Barbaric (Disney+), produced for one platform and released theatrically in America, brought in more than 45!” enthuses Didier Allouch. A vein not to be missed. Especially since the horror genre, essentially on the fringe, adapts very well to new societal trends that directors like to seize. Sometimes as pioneers.

The survivor, a cult role

“Horror gave pride of place to women very early on as strong heroines, not just supporting roles or victims,” ​​notes Damien Golla, director of distribution at Wild Bunch, a distribution company that launched Severe, the first feature film by Julia Ducournau, in 2016, about a cannibalistic veterinary student. Sigourney Weaver in AlienJamie Lee Curtis in HalloweenNeve Campbell in Scream : all have a code name like “The final girl”, the survivor who defies evil and overcomes it, and with whom the public identifies. It is therefore perhaps no coincidence that certain horror films attract female spectators in greater numbers: “They formed 60% of the audience ofannabelle(2014)”, notes Damien Golla.

On video, Severethe teaser

An award-winning genre

The genre has already won critical acclaim, as evidenced by the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Golden Globe for Best Picture for The Exorcistin 1974, or Thesilenceofthelambs the only one in the history of cinema to have received the ultimate distinction of best film, in 1992. More recently, Get Out,by Jordan Peele, won the statuette for best original screenplay, giving the director the status of spearheading a new type of dread. “At the crossroads of horror and thriller, these films present real points of view of authors”, analyzes Damien Golla, who is preparing the release in France, in 2023, of the survival film Tower , by Guillaume Nicloux. Whatever the form of these films – slasher (violent), gore(blood), psychological terror, malevolent entities to fight (killer, zombies, paranormal demons, vampires) – let’s be reassured: our thirst for fear on the big screen is not about to be quenched. Nor the desire of directors to reinvent the codes to better stage our worst nightmares. “The world is changing, different fears are taking hold of our cultures, and from there new ideas will always spring up,” assured Eli Roth, considered the pope of the torture film (hostel ) to Guardian,in 2013. We can therefore rejoice, like Julia Ducournau, Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2021 for her horrifying and feminist Titaniumthat cinema has finally “let the monsters in”.

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Smile, Halloween Ends, Black Phone… Will horror movies save cinema?