Finding dependable, bankable box-office hits for anything without a superhero has been a downright scary proposition for Hollywood. The solution, it turns out, is a nightmare, too.

Horror has emerged as one of the most lucrative and in-demand genres in Hollywood, a box-office success story as well as – thanks to a new generation of ambitious genre filmmakers – a creative one.

Like perhaps never before, horror is hot. For an industry that has struggled to find areas of growth outside of the pages of comic books, it’s now hailing slashers as saviours.

“Right now it’s pretty obvious what audiences want,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “People want their horror fast and cheap. And that should be music to the ears of studios.”

It certainly was to Paramount Pictures – the most hit-starved of the major studios – when John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place debut with an impressive US$50.2mil (RM198.mil) in the United States. Despite costing only US$17mil (RM67mil) to make, the expertly sound-designed suspense film has earned over US$200mil (RM788mil) worldwide.

Blumhouse Productions, the horror factory, is leading the horror renaissance. As the producer of dozens of low-budget, often socially provocative horror releases, it has blazed the path for the 21st century horror film. (The latest from Blumhouse is Truth Or Dare.)

Blumhouse, which has a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, was behind two of 2017’s biggest hits. There was Split by M Night Shyamalan, a veteran of the last horror craze in 1999 when his The Sixth Sense was released along with The Blair Witch Project.

And, of course, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a US$5mil (RM20mil) movie that grossed US$255mil (RM1bil) worldwide, earned four Oscar nods (and won for Peele’s script), and stoked more discussion than any other movie in 2017.

“I am convinced that budgetary boundaries created better, more original, more subversive movies,” Blumhouse founder Jason Blum says last fall while accepting an honorary Gotham Independent Film Award. “Lower budgets allow us to take risks, to make movies no one imagined would get made.”

That’s a drastically different strategy in tentpole-obsessed, risk-adverse Hollywood. The goliath of the industry, the Walt Disney Co, doesn’t even make horror films, making it one of the few movie realms its intellectual property-backed blockbusters don’t dominate.

In a movie industry where bigger is presumed to be better, low-budget horror has proven an exception.

“Making low-budget horror movies has always been a pretty good idea. Blumhouse just sort of upped the game a little bit by getting really, really talented people to get on board and make some cool stuff,” said Steven Soderbergh, who brought a new (and inexpensive) perspective to the psychiatric hospital nightmare by shooting his latest release Unsane with iPhones.

Depending on what you classify as horror, the genre last year accounted for about US$900mil (RM3.5bil) in US box-office, one of the highest totals in decades if not ever. It became the highest grossing horror film of all time (RM2.7bil worldwide), though 1973’s The Exorcist still has it handily beat when accounting for inflation. A sequel to It will shoot this summer.

The success of A Quiet Place confirms that horror is still surging. That’s good news for upcoming releases like the Sundance sensation Hereditary (June 8); The First Purge: The Island (July 4); the latest Conjuring spin-off; The Nun (July 13); Slender Man (Aug 24); David Gordon Green’s Halloween (Oct 19) from Blumhouse; and the anticipated Suspiria remake from Call Me By Your Name filmmaker Luca Guadagnino.

The once-ghettoised genre is more mainstream than ever before. Krasinski, the former Office actor, acknowledges he wasn’t “a horror guy” before making A Quiet Place, but he promises he’s been converted. “The thing I learned most from watching all these horror movies to catch up was how ignorant I was to stay away from them,” says Krasinski.

“You realise that some of the best films are being made in the genre space. From Get Out, to The Babadook, to The Witch to Let The Right One In – I mean, these movies are just phenomenal. I might be late to the party but I want to stay,” he adds. “I want to stay as late as they’ll have me.”

Kyle Davies, distribution chief for Paramount, believes the success of A Quiet Place – like Get Out and It – has less to do with its genre than its story. At its core, A Quiet Place is about trying to keep a family together with mysterious, unknowable threats all around.

“That’s something that anyone can relate to on a basic level,” says Davies. “This film appeals to people from all walks of life, and the proof of that is in the demographics. It played well as a matinee and at night. It’s balanced on gender. It’s balanced on ethnicity. It played in big cities and small towns.”

And like comedy, horror movies are overwhelmingly improved by the communal theateregoing experience. Right now, comedy is down and horror is up. Moviegoers today feel more like screaming than laughing. As Bock says: “You have someone else’s troubles for a little while.” – Tribune News Service