Many of the best critical performers in the horror genre today are dwarfed by the financial success of those which hold comparatively little critical credence. Whilst outliers such as A Quiet Place (2018) are both box office and critical successes, far more prevalent are bloated franchises packed with jump-scares, many of which appear to have been chopped up and reassembled in a slightly different order from their predecessors. But why do audiences opt for franchised offerings like The Nun (2018)? What makes them more profitable than critical successes Hereditary (2018) or It Comes At Night (2017)?
We need only look at the Paranormal Activity franchise, an example of the formula A Quiet Place seems destined to fall victim to. The first movie in the series was a genre-changing hit with audiences and critics alike, grossing $139m against a meagre $15,000 budget. It earns the scares through a slow build of tension and disconcerting scenes such as the iconic moment its protagonist, Katie, wakes in the middle of the night to stand lingering over her bed for hours. By the time 2015’s The Ghost Dimension was released, everything the first entry had done successfully had been butchered. The franchise became a shambolic mess of jump-scares and was consequently slaughtered by critics. The root of this can be traced back to Paramount adding a new theatrical ending to the original which was included in the film’s wider release, adding a jump-scare finale as a setup for future instalments. Once the imagination had bled from the franchise in exchange for lazy moments of shock, Paranormal Activity became a safe financial investment.
Similarly, franchises offer audiences the kind of safety that original-concept just can’t. The formulaic nature of franchised horror films grants ticket-holders a feeling of comfort and familiarity. Originality doesn’t always appeal when the option to step back into recognisable scares already exists. Take the recent entry into the Conjuring franchise, The Nun. The film’s effectiveness hinges solely upon whether you find the appearance of its titular character scary. After that, it relies upon jump-scares in order to frighten its audience. There’s little imagination offered up in these lazy attempts to frighten, and this transfers to the viewer. It’s momentary terror driven by a sudden intrusion of noise, often without an accompanying frightening image. Scared, we may be; but the feeling passes. We’re not asked to think too hard, and if we do we’re likely to dismantle a nonsensical plot. We leave the cinema with an adrenaline rush, but there’s little to dissect and no lasting effect on our psyche.
In contrast, the horror of It Comes at Night is born from the unknown. It examines psychological degradation as one family struggles to maintain their humanity under threat of infection from an unseen enemy. The audience is given no information about the infection, we never see any creature or infected humans actively trying to hurt them. The tension is instead drawn out through a dubious friendship with another family and the resulting paranoia created. The film effectively approaches its world building with unsettling imagery, an atmospheric soundtrack and its placing of characters under extreme duress, all elements which linger long after the film ends. Yet, the marketing for the film by production company A24 presents it like a creature horror much more akin to 28 Days Later (2002).
This year’s Hereditary issues a lethal injection of terror with its compelling depiction of a family unravelling in grief. It was billed as ‘this generations The Exorcist’ and yet, The Nungrossed nearly $300m more at the box office. Hereditary was also distributed by A24, with much of the promotional material portraying a more generic movie seemingly revolving around a disturbed child. There’s a correlation between packaging psychological horror films as formulaic and their poor performance with audiences. It suggests that we would rather take our chances with the spooky Nun, which has a tangible presence, than the more abstract haunting presence of evil which is liable to linger in our minds. When presented with a film which is more challenging than initially promoted, audiences respond negatively.
This goes someway to explaining why A Quiet Place enjoyed such universal success. It managed to blend unnerving imagery and a tense atmosphere with an accessible story. There is undoubtedly a place for both the jump-scare and more emotionally challenging horror. Whilst some films will lean heavily on one or the other, the best manage to combine them, earning the scares which service a story that audiences are invested in; allowing the horror haunt us long after the closing credits.