The new horror movie The Conjuring earned $41.5 million this weekend, an impressive feat for a low-budget genre film with no A-list actors in a crowded summer field including an action sequel (Red 2), an animated film (Turbo), and a big-budget CGI action flick (R.I.P.D.). (To be fair, R.I.P.D. seemed destined to flop no matter the competition.) But initial box-office predictions had The Conjuring earning $25 million and losing the battle for first place against the racing-snail flick Turbo. Well, in the end, The Conjuring blew by Turbo, which fell short with only $25 million. It’s just the latest in a string of surprise victories by overachieving, R-rated horror films.
Just a few weeks ago, The Purge found itself in a similar spot, confounding expectations with a $34 million opening weekend, handily beating the Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson buddy comedy The Internship. The Purge has earned $64 million total, as interest dropped off precipitously in subsequent weeks (which is typical of horror films).
But these scary movies continue to be safe box-office bets because they are much cheaper to produce than your typical summer tentpole. The Conjuring cost about $20 million. The Purge cost only $3 million. You’re Next, about a gang of animal-mask-wearing killers spoiling a family reunion, hits theaters in August and cost even less: $1 million. (Red 2, meanwhile, had a budget of $84 million.) Horror films also tend to attract women—53 percent of The Conjuring’s audience was female—which gives them a solid counterprogramming attraction amid all the fanboy-friendly big-budget fare.
Of course, this is no secret. Studios have made buckets of money on low-rent slasher franchises for decades. But, along the way, notable trends and horror subgenres have come in and out of favor. In the mid-2000s, “torture porn” was all the rage, with films like the Saw franchise and Hostel. Soon after, “found footage” took over—an inexplicable trend that dates back to The Blair Witch Project in 1999, but which really came into full bloom with the runaway success of the Paranormal Activity franchise in the late 2000s.
So what kind of horror era are we living through now? Many critics have observed that The Conjuring, which is set in 1971, feels old-fashioned, like the great horror movies of an earlier time—stories based less on shocks and gore, and more about the slow-building tension of creaking doors, shadowy figures, and religious iconography. (Indeed, the film’s protagonists are the same real-life paranormal detectives who investigated the original Amityville Horror haunting.) The Purge, meanwhile, relied on a retro, Twilight Zone-like suspense. And this January’s Mama, which made $71 million after its $28 million opening, was an old-school ghost story. (There is also a resurgence in horror-themed TV shows, what with American Horror Story, Hannibal, and Grimm.)
For more evidence that a new wave of throwback horror films is upon us, know that a sequel to The Conjuring has already been greenlighted, and the director, James Wan, has another movie coming out this fall. It’s called Insidious: Chapter 2, and will be a sequel to a 2011 film. It was a ghost story.