How 'The Purge' Reveals the "Secret Formula" to a Successful Horror Movie

How 'The Purge' Reveals the "Secret Formula" to a Successful Horror Movie

Jun 10, 2013

 
With the new "home invasion" thriller The Purge riding a pretty amazing opening weekend ($36 million in three days for a movie that cost about $3 million to produce), you can expect to see a dozen new articles about how "horror is BACK!" and "wow, horror is POPULAR!" and on and on. To those of us who actually love the horror genre (and pay attention to it), what The Purge pulled off is a pleasant surprise -- but it's hardly a new phenomenon.
 
The "secret formula" to a sucessful horror movie is actually pretty easy: find something that scares modern audiences, keep your costs down, and hire a writer who has a legitimately cool idea. Like these movies:
 
Frankenstein (1931)
Budget: $262,000 // Box office: $12,000,000 (domestic)
 
The Blob (1958)
Budget: $240,000 // Box office: $12,000,000 (domestic)
 
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Budget: $114,000 // Box office: $42,000,000 (worldwide)
 
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Budget: $300,000 // Box office: $31,000,000 (domestic)
 
Halloween (1978)
Budget: $325,000 // Box office: $70,000,000 (worldwide)
 
Friday the 13th (1980)
Budget: $550,000 // Box office: $60,000,000 (worldwide)
 
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Budget: $25,000 // Box office: $248,000,000 (worldwide)
 
Open Water (2004)
Budget: $500,000 // Box office: $55,000,000 (worldwide)
 
Saw (2004)
Budget: $1,200,000 // Box office: $103,000,000 (worldwide)
 
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Budget $15,000 // Box office: $194,000,000 (worldwide)
 
Insidious (2011)
Budget: $1,500,000 // Box office: $98,000,000 (worldwide)
 
The Purge (2013)
Budget: $3,000,000 // Box office: $40,000,000 (worldwide) (in three days)
 
So what's the point? The point is right there: horror films almost always succeed because of "ideas," not high concepts, movie stars, or a shiny deluge of special effects. We all like to be scared, and we all appreciate a novel idea. So while sequels are (sometimes) all fine and good -- The Purge 2 is definitely happening, by the way -- here's the "secret formula" to a successful horror film:
 
Come up with a good idea, and build everything else around that. Period.
 
(Notes: I'm using original production budgets, not final expenses. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, for example, were finished films that played festivals  and then had more money put into them after they were bought by distributors. Thanks to Wikipedia and Box Office Mojo for the stats.)

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