Jane Levy in "Don't Breathe" (Screen Gems)

Watching scary movies in the dark: The success of “Don’t Breathe” and the resurgence of horror

Watching a horror film is a communal experience — that audiences will actually leave their living rooms for


Nico Lang
September 3, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)

This is the worst summer for Hollywood in more than two decades.

As of the time of writing, the 2016 summer box office stands at $4.12 billion, according to Box Office Mojo. At face value, that doesn’t seem so bad. The legendarily abysmal summer of 2014, in which “Despicable Me 2” topped a dreary season, fared worse in total dollars, topping out at just over $4 billion. But adjusting for inflation, you have to go back 24 years to find a summer this anemic — to 1992, which saw the release of summer movies like “Batman Returns,” “Honey I Blew Up the Kid,” “Alien 3,” and “Pet Sematary II.”

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The hottest months of the year are reliably big business for Hollywood, but 2016 has been notable for a series of big-budget failures. Sequels and franchise reboots like “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Ben-Hur,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” all flopped, while “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad” underperformed to their billion-dollar expectations. The decent $125 million haul of “Ghostbusters” would have been an unqualified success for any other comedy, but not an expensive studio tentpole that reportedly had to earn $400 million globally just to break even.

But amidst Hollywood’s sea of troubles, the horror genre continues to prove itself recession-proof. Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” made twice what it was expected to earn over the weekend, taking in $26.4 million. The film, in which a group of teenage burglars attempt to rob the wrong blind guy, was boosted by stellar critical reviews — earning an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a rarity for a mainstream horror release.

As I’ve previously written, 2016 has been a banner year for horror — both in terms of box-office success and overall quality. Sundance breakout “The Witch,” one of the best movies of the year so far, earned $40 million dollars, 13 times its slim $3 million budget. “Suicide Squad” and “The Legend of Tarzan,” both of which struggled to break even against massive budgets, would kill for those dividends. Fellow horror hits like “The Conjuring 2” ($319 million worldwide), “Lights Out” ($110 million), “10 Cloverfield Lane” ($108.3 million) “The Purge: Election Year” ($102.3 million), “The Shallows” ($84.5 million) each made back between five to 10 times their modest budgets.

The lower financial risk associated with horror releases makes them the “best investment in Hollywood,” as FiveThirtyEight points out. But why are audiences lining up to get their pants scared off at the theater when so many other properties have been abandoned by moviegoers?

In recent years, studios have tried to entice potential patrons to leave their living rooms by turning filmgoing into a Super Bowl-like event, a unique experience that can’t be recreated via “Netflix and chill.” But more than any other genre, horror needs to be experienced in the dark of a movie theater. It thrives on that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we cling to the arm of the person next to us, nervously awaiting that unexpected “boo!” moment. The communal experience of having the daylights scared out of us reminds audiences why we go to the movies in the first place.

How horror gave us what 3D didn’t

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The success of horror movies in 2016 has frequently been chalked up to viewers’ desires for fresh ideas during a year where everything feels like a retread. Did we really need another “Independence Day” movie, or a “Zoolander” follow-up more than a decade too late?

That’s a nice sentiment, except that it isn’t entirely true. Of the year’s 10 highest grossing films so far, just two are original properties: “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” (“Deadpool” is technically a spinoff from the poorly received “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”) Of this year’s movies officially classified as financial failures on Box Office Flops, just 24 percent were sequels or reboots. The list of bombs includes critical darlings like “The Nice Guys,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” and “Midnight Special,” the kinds of idiosyncratic, original concepts frustrated filmgoers say they want.

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Audiences do want those movies, but they don’t want to pay $15 for them — especially when something like “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “A Hologram for the King,” or “Florence Foster Jenkins” will just be available on iTunes in three months.

The latter is a fine example of the issue at hand. Starring Meryl Streep as a famously terrible opera singer, the Stephen Frears-directed comedy is the kind of well-crafted adult entertainment that — at one time — proved a reliable sleeper hit in the dog days of August, when students abandon the theaters for the classroom. That strategy worked wonders for Streep’s “Julie and Julia” in 2009. Co-starring Amy Adams, the frothy Julia Child biopic earned $94 million domestically.

Despite warm reviews and strong Oscar buzz, “Florence Foster Jenkins” has earned just $20 million in the U.S. at this point in its run. The film will likely finish with less than half of what fellow August release “Hope Springs,” in which Streep and Tommy Lee Jones played an aging couple struggling with intimacy, earned four years ago.

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This isn’t a Meryl Streep problem, of course. It’s a Hollywood problem.

Overall filmgoing has notably declined in recent years, reaching a 20-year low point in 2014. Following the massive success of “Avatar,” the resurgence of 3D was intended to stem the tide of audience ennui. The James Cameron-directed film was an unprecedented global phenomenon, one that managed to get $2.7 billion dollars worth of viewers to buy a movie ticket at a time when people don’t buy movie tickets. Suddenly, everything was in 3D, even if it didn’t need to be. Baz Luhrmann’s unnecessary “The Great Gatsby” remake reimagined the Roaring Twenties as an era where the glamour and wanton excess of the idle rich literally reached out and touched audiences.

Through fourth-wall-breaking spectacle, the 3D revolution was intended to reclaim the theater’s rightful place as the center of the moviegoing universe. It was a faulty gamble. The public’s interest in 3D has drastically waned since the technology’s heyday, when the glitzy gimmick was supposed to “save” cinema. In 2014, just 6.6 percent of films were released in 3D, down from a peak of 45 percent just three years earlier.

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Why horror audiences keep coming back

If 3D failed to give audiences a compelling reason to come back to the multiplex, horror has done what it did not.

“Don’t Breathe,” which relies on a tightly-wound coil of tension to build its unbearable atmosphere of suspense, needs to be seen in the largest, most crowded theater imaginable. The film was produced by Sam Raimi, cinema’s reigning grand maestro of funhouse horror. Movies like “Drag Me to Hell” and “Evil Dead 2” are designed to push the audience’s buttons, so giddily inventive that they border on cartoonish. In the former, a mousy banker (Alison Lohman) fights off the forces of the underworld after a scorned client puts a demonic curse on her. In the film’s most cringe-inducing sequence, the heroine jams a ruler down her tormentor’s throat.

“Don’t Breathe” pays tribute to that scene in what amounts to the most egregious use of a turkey baster in cinema history, a moment so deliriously tasteless that it elicits paroxysms of shock and delight. You’ll gasp. You’ll be disgusted. You might also clap for joy.

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There’s a certain call-and-response aspect that’s unique to the experience of horror, which needs an active, engaged viewership to effectively get under our skin. For instance, you might roll your eyes at the crying, hysterical theatergoer next to you in “Don’t Breathe” — that is, until you are that person. In an interview with The Wrap, Alexandra West of the Faculty of Horror podcast explained that these extreme, often vocal reactions are caused by the “physical sensation” that horror elicits, one she compares to pornography.

“It provokes people in so many different ways,” West argues. “There’s a huge amount of participation. At ‘Lights Out,’ for example, it was a packed crowd and people were losing their minds.”

This communal experience is not totally exclusive to horror. Being in a standing-room-only theater filled with people laughing hysterically can make the most middling of comedies funnier (e.g. “Meet the Fockers”). No genre, however, has the ability to use mass hysteria to tap into the audience’s collective unconscious like horror does — the buried, primordial fears unearthed through public catharsis.

On a surface level, “Don’t Breathe” and “Lights Out” deal with our respective fears of silence and darkness. But Alvarez’ film also uses the landscape of contemporary Detroit — the parts that look abandoned and post-apocalyptic — as an allegory about the failed economy. “Don’t Breathe” is about our fear of getting trapped, whether that’s in a basement or a rundown neighborhood few have the opportunity to leave. Rocky (Jane Levy) robs a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) not out of greed but to buy a better life for her younger sister, whom she plans to move to California. The botched heist ends in a violent, terrifying standoff, but it’s less scary than the everyday reality of living in Detroit.

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The breakout success of “Don’t Breathe” and its peers will continue to be tested in the fall with the release of a string of horror sequels: “Rings,” which trades the deadly videotapes of the 2002 original for a haunted iPad; “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a “Conjuring”-like take on the popular board game; and “Blair Witch,” a reimagining of the 1999 cult phenomenon. Sixteen years ago, its shaky-cam forebear nabbed an unbelievable 4,143x return in its $60,000 budget, a harbinger of the decades to come. What once seemed like an outlier now looks like the future of cinema.

In “Danse Macabre,” a 1981 non-fiction book on the evolution of popular horror, Stephen King describes terror as the “finest emotion.” When it comes to the movies, it’s also the one that keeps us coming back.


Nico Lang

MORE FROM Nico Lang


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