Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
When we think of seeing scary movies in the theater, we tend to envision the calendar showing a date sometime in October. Thanks to the Halloween holiday, the 10th month of the year has been the primary release window for slasher movies and anything spooky for pretty much my entire life. October is the one month where it’s okay for the normals to actually cop to enjoying something scary or gory.
However, if you check out the box office receipts for the past decade or so, you’ll start to notice a bit of a trend. October is still the month for horror movies (and almost assuredly always will be), but January and February have also become big release windows for genre movies – and they’ve found appreciative audiences.
This past January, we saw Texas Chainsaw 3D and Mama win their opening weekends. If we stretch the definition of the term horror, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters also held the top spot in its opening week. The trend has continued into February, where Warm Bodies (which features zombies even if it isn’t a straight horror film) ruled the roost over the past three days.
If we roll back the calendar, we can see that this isn’t an anomaly. Last year, Underworld: Awakening and The Devil Inside were two of the highest grossing films of January. Previous Januarys featured titles like The Rite (which was a top earner, yet still lost money), Legion, My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Unborn, Hostel, White Noise, and Final Destination 2 raking in dough. February, meanwhile, saw the debut of titles like Constantine, Boogeyman and the Friday the 13th reboot – all making enough to land in the top 10 for the month.
Looking at that list, we can see that January and February have become horror hotbeds. The question then becomes, why? We’ve got a few theories about that.
In some ways, January and February might actually be better months for horror movies than October – even with Halloween. October comes not long after the end of the summer blockbuster season – a four-month stretch of spectacle films that overwhelms even professional movie bloggers. By the time October rolls around, we’re just starting to come out of the summer blockbuster hangover. Horror flicks might not have the huge budgets of the big summer superhero films, but they’re still largely spectacle movies (replace big action set pieces with the crazy traps of Saw or the supernatural shenanigans of Paranormal Activity). Some potential viewers are likely feeling “spectacle movie fatigue” even at that late date.
Moving horror films to the dead of winter puts the releases in a favorable window on several fronts. From Thanksgiving through New Years, the movie industry shelves pretty much everything even slightly horrific to capitalize on the holiday season. The October fright flicks give way to family fare based around the “most wonderful time of the year.” That’s great – but by the time Santa has dropped off his last package, most of us have had enough “wholesome” entertainment to last us for another 12 months. Releasing horror films immediately after the holidays end (like this year’s Texas Chainsaw 3D) is a smart move – it realizes there’s a lack of something in the marketplace and a demographic (albeit a relatively small one) that isn’t being served, and aims to fill the void. If you’ve just spent the past month and a half watching family films, Leatherface firing up the chainsaw is a nice change of pace. Audiences seem to agree.
Yet it’s not only the proliferation of family films during the holiday stretch that is helping horror films released in January and February find viewers – it’s also the abundance of serious awards films released in that same period.
With the Oscars and Golden Globes right around the corner, November and December have also become a dumping ground for award contenders looking to make the calendar cutoff for nominations. That means multiplexes are filled with weighty fare alongside all the feel-good holiday cheer films. Since horror is rarely considered award worthy, the discerning genre fan is left with nothing to watch.
After a month or more of watching great, yet occasionally challenging films it’s understandable that people are looking for some entertainment that doesn’t require so much brain power in the start of the year. Watching a bunch of people encounter ghosts or Jason Voorhees is a pretty nice change of pace from foreign films and Oscar-bait titles that have been front and center for weeks on end. Again, it’s one of those instances where distributors are looking at the market and filling a need.
Finally, perhaps the biggest reason for this sudden spurt of successful genre films in January and February is attributable to the distributors themselves – they simply release more movies in that time period than they do in October.
While Halloween season remains the king of the horror box office hill, we’ve seen an interesting change in how horror films are released in the past decade. Saw got popular and released a sequel every October for years. The first few films did well – and other studios were reluctant to release their horror movies on dates that would put them in direct competition with Lionsgate’s juggernaut. Paranormal Activity eventually came along and dared to take on the champ – and won, but then everyone was afraid to release a horror film in competition with the yearly PA sequel. Because of this, October sees fewer horror film releases than it used to, despite it being the season for these very movies to succeed. Hollywood isn’t making fewer scary movies, though – and it has to release them somewhere, so January and February have now become almost as much of a horror film season as the fall. What was once a period where “films went to die” (because the studios had no real faith in their box office viability) has now blossomed into a fairly fertile miniseason where horror films have not only appeared, but flourished.
Ultimately, this shift feels like a mixed blessing. There’s something to be said for going out to see horror films in a theater on a chilly October night when the leaves are changing color and jack-o’-lanterns are lighting up every block. It doesn’t feel quite the same in January (particularly in Florida, where it’s still 80 degrees most days…), but if this is what it takes to keep a steady stream of horror flicks in theaters and stop studios from dumping them direct to disc and VOD, I’ll take it. Judging from the box office numbers, it appears as though most other genre fans will too.
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