It’s not quite as well known as “in a world…” but “if you only see one movie this [season], make it…” is an equally disingenuous trailer quote. It means nothing, because it can mean anything. For instance, “If you only see one movie this January about your mom or dad’s filthy father, make it Dirty Grandpa,” or, “If you only see one movie this Halloween, make it Ouija: Origin of Evil.” Thing is, that second one is actually true. Despite being a sequel (and a prequel!) to a bad movie named after something bored teens in the 1970s played with during sleepovers, and despite having the most vague subtitle ever, and despite starring Edward’s mom from Twilight, the enjoyably corny Ouija: Origin of Evil isn’t half-bad! Most of the scares are earned. It’s a perfectly inoffensive pre-Halloween horror movie to see on a first date.
Not that you have many options. There are only two horror movies out this October: Ouija: Origin of Evil (I can’t get over that title; it might as well be Ouija: Dawn of Justice) and Boo! A Madea Halloween, which is horrifying for different reasons. That’s it. How did this happen? Have studios always bee this inexplicably stingy when it comes to spooks and scares this time of year, when we most want to be spooked and scared? I looked back at the release schedule for the past 20 years and noted every wide-release horror movie (or horror adjacent, which includes comedies like Scary Movie). It’s terrifying.
Boo! A Madea Halloween
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
The Devil’s Rapture
Paranormal Activity 4
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D
Beneath the Darkness
Paranormal Activity 3
I Spit on Your Grave
Let Me In
My Soul to Take
Paranormal Activity 2
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant
The House of the Devil
Night of the Demons
The Haunting of Molly Hartley
30 Days of Night
The Grudge 2
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
House of the Dead
Scary Movie 3
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
The Little Vampire
House on Haunted Hill
Bride of Chucky
I Know What You Did Last Summer
There are some good movies in there — Zombieland is a clever deconstruction of zombie flicks; I Know What You Did Last Summer is schlocky fun; and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn’t really “scary,” but whatever, it’s delightful — although few classics. Think of this way: how many of the films above would you watch every Halloween, the way some people do It’s a Wonderful Life or The Muppets Christmas Carol around Christmas? For me, it’s Zombieland, The Ring, The House of the Devil, and… that’s about it.
It seems like an easy win: horror movie + Halloween = profit. But there’s a stubborn refusal on the part of the studios to solve this obvious solution. There are two reasons why I think this is. The first is, simply, there aren’t many wide-release horror movies anymore. The Babadook is a modern-day classic, but it barely crept into multiplexes; you had to live near an art-house theater, or wait until it was released on DVD, to enjoy Essie Davis’s brilliantly tortured performance. Horror will always be more niche than comedy, drama, or action, so studios are less likely to fund one unless they’re part of a successful franchise, which is how you end up with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. (The six films (!) in the Paranormal Activity series cost a combined $28 million — they made $889.7 million at the box office.)
And the few wide-release horror movies that do come out are scheduled throughout the year, which brings me to the second reason. There’s little risk and lots of reward in horror because they’re usually so cheap — studios can plop them wherever there’s an opening in the schedule and know that they’ll find an audience. Even during the blockbuster summer: The Shallows is a highly enjoyable B-movie; The Conjuring 2 is an upgrade over the original; and Don’t Breathe is one of the best movies of the year, in any genre. They’re the opposite of superhero movies, which are scheduled years in advance, then shot. Warner Bros. can finance and film Lights Out and worry about when to release it later. (Lights Out came out the same weekend as Ice Age: Collision Course and Star Trek Beyond, and made $148 million, or nearly 29 times its minuscule budget; Star Trek Beyond made less than two times.)
For years, that “later” was October, a “dump month” — a Hollywood term for the times of the year, generally January and September/October, when studios are between blockbusters and awards hopefuls and expectations are at their lowest. But then the Saw and Paranormal Activity movies became huge hits, and as A Haunted House 2 producer Rick Alvarez told USA Today in 2013, “You would never come up against them because you would be killed.” (Saw: Legacy is already penciled in for Oct. 27, 2017.) Plus, as noted by Complex‘s Matt Barone, “Horror’s now too big of a business for major studios to care much about October.” James Wan’s The Conjuring came out in July 2013 and ended up grossing $318 million worldwide; The Conjuring 2 came out in June 2016 and made $320 million worldwide. Both are perfect for Halloween.
But why mess with success?
Horror movies are too often an afterthought — for one thing, they don’t rely on stars to sell tickets, so it’s hard for the studios to market them; also, they can easily be relegated to video-on-demand, where they’ll often find an audience. It’s a welcome development that scary movies that otherwise wouldn’t have been made can now debut on Netflix or another streaming service. But there’s nothing like being in a packed theater full of people who are screaming in terror just as loudly as you are, especially around Halloween. That experience is now spread throughout the year, but come October 31, we still deserve better than Madea.