For those of us who enjoy seeing horror movies on big screens the news hasn’t been too encouraging. I’m referring to the recent high profile horror releases CRIMSON PEAK and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: GHOST DIMENSION, both of which flopped mightily. So too the Eli Roth over-the-toppers THE GREEN INFERNO and KNOCK, KNOCK; Roth is a popular figure in horror circles, yet neither film made much impression theatrically.
The reasons for those failures are, obviously, numerous. CRIMSON PEAK was misleadingly marketed and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: GHOST DIMENSION suffered from the fact that many theaters refused to screen it (due to Paramount’s decision to significantly collapse the theatrical-to-VOD window). That’s also the fact that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: GHOST DIMENSION was a rotten movie, as (to varying degrees) were THE GREEN INFERNO and KNOCK, KNOCK. And anyway, as a recent Fortune article on the subject stated, “CRIMSON PEAK will probably do decently eventually on video.”
These days, it seems, the home video arena is where it’s at movie-wise. It’s certainly not insignificant that so many iconic horror films, such as THE THING, THE BEYOND, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, JACOB’S LADDER and DONNIE DARKO, gained their popularity almost entirely through video and/or DVD. Yet having experienced most of those films in movie theaters, I can attest that the big screen is where they play best.
Seeing a paying audience react to THE THING is arguably one of the highlights of that film. Ditto the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, a 1984 big screen viewing of which remains one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life. We can add to this grouping CRIMSON PEAK, whose incomparably lush visuals simply must be seen in a theatrical venue to be fully appreciated. I certainly don’t dismiss home video, as that’s how I’ve experienced quite a few great films over the years, but my feelings toward the format are summed up by the back cover logo on the VHS release of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW: “Dream it in your living room, live it in the theater.”
I’m fully aware that trumpeting the joys of movie theater viewing is largely pointless, as it’s clear that in the war between the big and small screens there is a clear winner. As Screambox’s Ray Cannella correctly assessed, “Between legacy TV and OTT (Over The Top) services, horror fans are scratching that itch in the privacy of their own homes.”
Certainly the logic behind that decision is sound, as uncut versions of many horror movies can generally only be seen on home video or online, with those same movies’ theatrical versions butchered by the MPAA (which has always taken a hands-off policy with DVD and PPV releases). Add to that the skyrocketing cost of movie tickets (it wasn’t too long ago that an outcry was raised over the fact that ticket prices had topped the $10.00 mark, whereas ten bucks now seems cheap) and the shuttering of so many independently owned and/or discount theaters (it’s rare to find a theater these days that isn’t an AMC or Regal) and…well, I guess the stay-at-home option makes sense. But still…
The communal experience is all-important to horror movies, with audience screams, gasps and even laughter being integral to the viewing experience. Another vital theatrical component, and one that isn’t often brought up, is sound. Anyone who’s ever seen Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA on a big screen can attest that it’s an entirely different (and superior) experience than viewing the film on VHS, or even DVD. The reason? The soundtrack, one of most artfully cacophonous you’ll ever hear, which must be experienced via a movie theater sound system to be fully appreciated. The same is true of Ken Russell’s ALTERED STATES, whose soundtrack was known to blow out many a speaker during its initial theatrical run, while Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER provides an equally potent demonstration of the power of silence, the effect of which can only be properly assessed in a movie theater.
Once again, I know my pro-movie theater arguments are futile, as, once again, modern horror fans have already made their choice between the big and small screens. Note how nostalgia for the grindhouse moviegoing experience has proliferated in recent years, yet not too many people bothered to turn out for the theatrical release of GRINDHOUSE, an overt tribute to such flicks, while 2011’s CHILLERAMA, a similarly formatted take on drive-in movies, bypassed theaters altogether–and I haven’t heard too many complaints.
But there might actually be hope. In contrast to CRIMSON PEAK et al, some current horror films have actually thrived in movie theaters, specifically the kid-friendly offerings HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 and GOOSEBUMPS. I’m not overjoyed with either film, but I feel their success bodes well for the future of horror cinema. Why? Because those movies’ main audiences are children, and, like a certain tyke I once knew who eagerly patronized PG rated fare like SATURDAY THE 14th and POLTERGEIST prior to becoming a full-blown horror fanatic once he came of age, I believe it will only be a matter of time before those youngsters are inspired to seek out the harder stuff.
In the words of Quentin Tarantino, “I’m hoping that while this generation is completely hopeless, the next generation will come out and demand the real thing.” That “real thing,” for the record, is 35mm projection, experienced on a big screen.