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How Horror Films Could Save Cinemas From A Gruesome Death

Forget gold class – ghoul class is the big new draw card.

Recently, a mouse ran across the top of a row of seats in front of me at a cinema. It’s the most confident rodent I’ve seen since the pizza rat. I braced for a fellow audience member to scream but that was unlikely because there were only five of us in a 100-seat cinema on a Saturday night. The session ended without a yelp and we exited the theatre, walking past empty bars and abandoned sections of premium lounges on our way out.

Where did everybody go?

Cinemas have been rolling out the red carpet to entice audiences away from the comfort of a Netflix account, but it’s the mice having all the fun. You hear the word ‘experience’ thrown around a lot because the excitement of seeing a film is no longer the biggest draw-card.

There are many pain points involved in going to cinema: overpriced tickets, expensive snacks, poorly behaved audiences and malfunctioning automated projection booths. Despite all the perks, going to the movies has become an endurance test, and patience is running out.

And it’s heartbreaking, because I love going to the movies, and it sucks to see it rotting away.
The sign of a good horror film is if you're too terrified to hold your snacks. Image: Getty.

According to Screen Australia: “In 2017, total Australian box office and admissions were down by 4.6 percent and 6.9 percent respectively compared with the year prior.” Last year in the U.S., ticket sales were the lowest they’ve been in 25 years . Ticket sales and profits are still in the billions – thanks to Star Wars and comic book movies – but there’s no denying there’s a decline in effect.

But while graphs are dipping when it comes to ticket sales, there’s a spike when it comes to horror films.

Last year was the biggest year at the American box office for horror movies with an estimated $733.5 million haul thanks to hits like Get Out and IT. One of the biggest hits of 2018 so far has been A Quiet Place, which has earned just over $300 million worldwide.

But the pulling power of horror films didn’t truly hit until I was hyperventilating before a screening of Hereditary.

After it premiered at The Sundance Film Festival, Hereditary was described by A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club as: “the most traumatically terrifying film in ages.” The film tells the story of a family (led by Toni Collette in career-best form) that begins to experience strange occurrences in their home following the death of a relative.

MAT WHITEHEAD: Is Hereditary The Scariest Movie Of The Year?

The raves began to stack up for Hereditary and I faced down the possibility of having to see this thing. Oh, I should note: I do not handle horror movies well. I’ll only seek them out in a cinema if the word on them is golden. The rest can slide to home where I have a couch I can hide behind if necessary.

So, despite the prospect of a traumatic experience, I bought a ticket to Hereditary. I survived! Where is my ill-fitting t-shirt?

The film was so great it made me want to take out a restraining order against its writer and director, Ari Aster. And it seems others are making the trip too, with the film making more than $15 million worldwide, which seems small, but this film is performing beyond expectations as a smaller title against studio offerings like Ocean’s 8. Word-of-mouth is sure to keep Hereditary in business, but like other horror films, its power is in the experience.

While cinemas promote fancy food and reclining seats as the best way to enjoy a film, they forget it's the films themselves that do a lot of the heavy lifting. Look, a lot of cinemas need a kick in the arse when it comes to customer service, but trusting in the films is an idea so crazy it just might work. Bonus points if the film has a whiff of originality or is not based on a pre-existing franchise.

Horror films are best placed in the cinema landscape because they function like a dare: can you last? It sucks to think of films as theme park rides, although, there are plenty of blockbusters designed to function like rollercoasters. Still, horror is a grand lure to get people back to cinemas, and unlike other genres, horror has always thrived on innovation and reinvention, often done on modest budgets which encourage maximum creativity.

A 1960 screening of horror film 'The House on Haunted Hill.' (Image: Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Originality is in short supply in Hollywood, but horror has always been a frontier for new talent: George A. Romeo’s Night of the Living Dead, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (and later A Nightmare on Elm Street) John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sam Rami’s The Evil Dead. Jordan Peele made his debut as a filmmaker with Get Out last year, which netted more than $250 million dollars and four Oscar nominations; Peele won best original screenplay. There’s also a long list of actors who got their big break in horror movies, including Renée Zellweger, George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron.

There was a time when horror films were easily dismissed because they were too violent and shocking for audiences. It’s a running joke that the Oscars never acknowledges the genre at its highest level. Despite the success of Get Out in getting nominations, the last time anything close to a chiller won Best Picture was The Silence of the Lambs in 1992. But now we have horror franchises that could open their own bank: The Conjuring, Paranormal Activity and Saw. Not to mention the long-running slashers like Friday the 13th that are now in double digits. Even psycho killer Michael Myers is making a return this year in Halloween, a new sequel to the 1978 film that disregards the previous sequels.

The Silence of the Lambs Best Director Jonathan Demme, Best Actress Jodie Foster, and Best Actor Anthony Hopkins at the 64th annual Academy Awards, March 30, 1992. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

Horror is the weird cousin of mainstream cinema who inherited a fortune and a lot of influence. And it’s not a coincidence we’re turning to dark stories during turbulent political times. Maybe a small part of us wants to know if there’s something worse lurking on the big screen than what’s creeping in news headlines.

Horror, the once shunned genre, is now emerging as one of the saviours of the cinema.