Movie News & Reviews

Choices for horror connoisseurs are virtually unlimited

Denis O’Hare shaved his head to play a cross-dresser who goes by the name Liz Taylor on “American Horror Story: Hotel.” This is the fifth season for the FX anthology known for its gore.
Denis O’Hare shaved his head to play a cross-dresser who goes by the name Liz Taylor on “American Horror Story: Hotel.” This is the fifth season for the FX anthology known for its gore. FX

At the Trussell home there’s nothing more relaxing than settling down for an evening of unmitigated horror on DVD, cable TV or a streaming service.

There’s something strangely life-affirming about watching fictional human beings surrender to their innate bestial nature and commit acts of grotesque violence.

Aside from the lurid entertainment value of severed heads bouncing down staircases, drill bits piercing temples and zombies looking for an opportunity to rip away the next available Adam’s apple, a steady diet of make-believe atrocities is rich in philosophical nutrients. By watching people at their worst, we can reflect on how relatively civilized we are in what might, for lack of a more precise term, be called “normal life.”

These days horror movies — and horror television — are ubiquitous. Log onto Netflix and it immediately unleashes a universe of macabre cinema. Japanese horror. Spanish horror. British horror. Aussie horror. Korean horror. The list goes on.

“Every country now has a horror film industry,” Michael Gingold said. “Even Israel has been getting into horror filmmaking.”

Gingold should know. He’s the editor-in-chief of Fangoria, the magazine that has covered blood-spattered cinema since 1979.

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Gingold said the horror industry is in a “healthy place” because there seems to be plenty of production money and current equipment, including high-def video cameras and online editing software. All of this makes it easier for directors to shoot sharp-looking imagery on a tight budget.

“As far as distribution goes, there are so many more platforms,” Gingold said. “The unfortunate thing is I think you lose a bit of the audience effect. When you see a movie like this there’s nothing like seeing it with people.”

Gingold effectively summed up the reason we see so much of this stuff — and, no, it’s not because the End Times are near. Horror movies are relatively cheap to make and there’s an expanding market for them. That was the underlying reality that drove the great horror-movie boom of the late 1970s and ’80s.

John Carpenter’s “Halloween” demonstrated that you could spend very little production money and create a box-office hit. His little movie about “the night he came home” opened a floodgate. There were “Halloween” sequels. There was “Friday 13th” and its sequels. There was “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and its sequels. Tobe Hooper, the director who arguably started it all with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” came back with the minor classic “The Funhouse” and ultimately the mainstream “Poltergeist.” Also in the distribution mix were Italian zombie movies and micro-budgeted Canadian flicks.

Then came the ’90s, when horror movies hit something of a slump.

“It goes through cycles,” Gingold said. “When I signed up (to write for Fangoria) in 1990 there was kind of a downswing. The studios didn’t want to make horror. … Horror was associated with kind of a down-market thing, but I think people started realizing it wasn’t the ugly child in the family. But we were sometimes struggling to find enough to cover in the ’90s. Now there’s too much.”

Today, thanks to video-on-demand and streaming, the horror audience has gone global. Americans can sit in their living rooms and watch a series of Spanish movies about a zombie virus outbreak or a Swedish film about teen vampires.

I caught director Patrick Rea in a good mood the other day because he had just purchased “The Invoking 2,” an anthology available through Redbox that included a 12-minute movie he made a few years ago. Oct. 6 was declared Indie Horror Day by, in honor of the profusion of horror movies that hit the market in October.

“I went to Wal-Mart last night and they were literally stocking the shelves with new horror movies,” he said.

Rea, a KC-based filmmaker, made a name for himself with his first feature, “Nailbiter,” a 2013 release that he had worked on for years. Erin McGrane, these days best known as one half of music duo Victor and Penny, starred. He sold the distribution rights to Lionsgate and two weeks ago screened it at a drive-in in Austin, Texas.

“That thing is still playing on Chiller right now,” Rea said. “These horror movies are doing better on video-on-demand because they really don’t have to spend a lot of money on advertising for a theatrical release.”

How much a film earns through streaming or through other forms of online purchases remains something of a mystery — even to filmmakers. Variety, the show business periodical, traditionally reports box-office figures for theatrical films. But Gingold said nobody is collecting figures for video-on-demand.

“That’s why most filmmakers go for the biggest up-front deal they can get,” Gingold said. Some companies collect and publish VOD estimates, but published reports suggest that confidentiality agreements between distributors and content providers preclude transparent figures for individual films.

Rea put it this way: “People keep asking me: So every time (“Nailbiter”) plays on Chiller you get paid? And I say, ‘no.’ 

Rea is finishing a horror thriller called “Enclosure” that he shot last December in Charleston, S.C.. He hopes to position it for a 2016 release. After that he hopes to shoot “Nailbiter 2.”

Another factor in the resurgence: television. “American Horror Story,” “The Walking Dead” and other series are available on Netflix for binge-watching.

“I think a series that really broke a lot of ground was ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ” Gingold said. “I’d say that was a gateway drug for a lot of young girls to get into horror. Statistically, the audience for horror is more female than male. ‘The Walking Dead’ is a great example. If you had told me 15 years ago that there was a market for a TV show about flesh-eating zombies, I would have said you were crazy.”

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