Monday, December 7, 2009

A History of Hollywood Holiday Horror

A while back I posted a look at CinemaScore, and was struck by the fact that some of the lowest-scoring movies released in recent years were horror films opening on Christmas Day. This got me to thinking - I know that the end of the year is prime time for big budget fx blockbusters, comedy, tearjerkers, children's animation and Oscar contenders...but Horror? Looking at the days to come, there's nothing on the horizon for Christmas 2009 or earlier, but it seemed to me like recent years have had options for the horror fan. Granted, they may not have been box office successes, but at least they were there. So, that meant it was time for one of those "The Jar Investigates" Reports that you know, love and can't live without.

Let's start with the towering titan of them all, 1973's The Exorcist. Technically, this was released the day after Christmas, but America had been hearing about this film for months, as William Peter Blatty's novel had been an unavoidable best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, the latter of which had been trumpeting the movie's imminent release on its cover for months. Once it hit theaters, the papers were filled with stories of long lines, sold out showings, and patrons who screamed, fainted, vomited or even miscarried. It was on its way to becoming a cross-cultural phenomenon, and a new generation was believing in Satan as more than a concept or fantastical figure. However, this was primarily a token release to theaters to qualify The Exorcist for the Oscars (it worked, scoring 10 nominations). Warner Brothers subsequently crafted a platform release for the picture that resulted in large swaths of the nation waiting weeks, even months to see it. Given that this was the pre-multiplex era, that meant some theaters didn't get a print of the film until well into Spring, and it played nationwide for much of 1974. Total Box Office - $204 million, and, adjusted for inflation, the second highest-grossing horror film of all time after Jaws.

One year later, audiences got their horror mixed with
humor with Mel Brooks' instant classic Young Frankenstein, released wide by 20th Century Fox on Dec. 15, tussling it out with The Towering Inferno for bragging rights as THE movie to see that Christmas. Although the burning skyscraper eventually triumphed, shed no tears for Victor von Frankenstein's creation. In the same calendar year, audiences had made Brooks' Blazing Saddles the #1 movie of 1974, and, combining it with Young Frankenstein's $86 million, there was only one candidate for 1974's Entertainer of the Year. (I should also note that October saw the mostly drive-in release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was still making its rounds nationwide, so if you lived in a warmer clime, you could have had yourself a Leatherface little Christmas.) December 20 also saw the opening of Black Christmas, the influential slasher from director Bob Clark, but with a limited number of screens, it managed $4 million; not a lot, but a considerable return on its $686,000 investment.

We didn't really get anything timed for Christmas 1975, except that summer smash Jaws was still playing in hundreds of cinemas across the country on Christmas Day, because, hey, it takes time to vacuum up $260 million dollars. Hell, here in the Midwest there were probably folks afraid of going ice skating, lest Bruce break through and gobble them up. Jaws also continued to whittle away at the Hollywood mindset of the platform release for genres like horror, action, suspense and thrillers. We were slowly being conditioned to want to see the newest movies NOW, and multiplexes were gradually expanding in quantity and screenage.

Newspaper ads in 1976 urged patrons to "take Carrie to the Prom for Christmas," and we did - in great numbers. With a comfortable $26 million in receipts, Stephen King and Brian DePalma were well on their way to household name status; in fact, that total was almost twice what DePalma's idol and inspiration Alfred Hitchcock earned that year with his final picture, Family Plot. The picture carried over (no pun intended) into the new year, Academy members saw fit to nominate stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie for Oscars, and viewers were ready for whatever the gentleman from Maine was willing to serve up (Salem's Lot for TV, and The Shining for bookstores and the big screen).

After the game-changer that was 1977's Star Wars, studios saw fit to push high-end sci-fi to holiday viewers for a few years instead, with 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1978's Superman being the box office juggernauts of those respective years. Sci-horror was able to represent with Philip Kaufman's intelligent re-imagining of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It hit theaters just three days before Christmas, making it the first movie we're considering to be slotted as a true holiday option for filmgoers, and not just a holdover from an earlier date. Audiences were receptive to the tune of $25 million, but if you looked around hard enough, you could have found a cinema willing to take your money and add it to the $47 million that Halloween was still ringing up. Talk about a nightmare after Christmas...

Newsweek had famously promoted 1979 as featuring "Hollywood's Summer of Horror," and with a listing that included Alien, The Amityville Horror, Dracula (with Frank Langella), Prophecy, and even such low-budgeted knockouts like Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm, audiences were just plain screamed out. They spent the last Christmas of the 70s enjoying Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer and The Jerk.

The 80s bring about a shift in Horror, with low-budget, independent slashers following the Halloween model, and incapable of mounting the kind of wide release and promotional campaigns to allow them to compete in the cutthroat Christmas market. We don't get a Christmastime horror flick until 1981's glossy version of the Peter Straub best-seller Ghost Story, its winter-swept settings making it a natural for a December 18 premiere. However, despite Universal's best efforts at selling it (after all, according to the lyrics of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Christmas is a time for "scary ghost stories," right?), the finished product proved too reserved and remote for audience tastes, and it was considered a major disappointment with only $16 million banked. Sadly, it also effectively ended Hollywood's interest in future movies from Straub.

We must wait for two more years for another December horror release, and this one flames out even more spectacularly than Ghost Story. F. Paul Wilson's
best-seller about the WWII discovery of a golem by Nazi forces got turned into the hazy echo-chamber that was Michael Mann's 1983 staging of The Keep. It was meant to be one of Paramount's high-profile end of year offerings - alongside Terms of Endearment - but it was pilloried by critics and ignored by audiences. (In my local market, it made it's national debut of December 16 - and was gone within a week!) It limped to a final box office take of merely $3.6 million. In the quarter-century since, it has enjoyed a critical re-acceptance on the other side of the Atlantic, with UK magazines like Empire hailing its virtues, but it has yet to see a DVD release on these shores.

Gentle reader, you can probably guess what happened next. Horror movies were kept off of December schedules, and fans would have to wait five years before the next holiday horror, and this one could only muster a somewhat circumscribed release at that. After its December 23 debut, I had to travel 90 minutes to find a theater that was showing Hellbound: Hellraiser II. (I went to a ten-plex in a shopping mall the day after Christmas with my best friend from college - was that dedication, or what?) Hellraiser had pulled in over $14 million the previous September, and New World allowed no grass to grow under its feet in turning out the sequel in only one year's time. Despite the fact that it played on fewer screens, the second installment of Clive Barker's opus pulled in $11.6 million - and was the bloodiest Christmas release we had seen up to that point.

Even though his name had been attached to major Summer releases and Halloween slots for almost a decade and a half, Stephen King doesn't show up in December cinemas again until 1990's Misery, with Sony downplaying the author's involvement to make their November 30 release appear less of a horror film to John Q. Public, and more like the latest effort worthy of Academy consideration from acclaimed director Rob Reiner. It worked. Considering that this was the first big studio Horror in seven years, audiences filled the seats, and the picture wound up as one of the big holiday blockbusters with $61 million, along with Kindergarten Cop, The Godfather Part III and Three Men and a Little Lady. Kathy Bates earned a Best Actress Oscar, James Caan experienced a career resurrection, and "Mr. Man" entered the vernacular for empowered women everywhere.

If you squinted hard enough, you could have turned 1991's Cape Fear and Naked Lunch into Horror, but even if you did, the former had died out at the box office by Christmas, and the latter never got much beyond an arthouse release. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula was the big Thanksgiving screener, but was largely over and done with after a month. On December 29, 1993, audiences got the tax write-off that was Ghost in the Machine, buying a mere $4 million in tickets. December 1994 was as dead for Horror as the rest of that year. Mel Brooks' sub-standard 1995 Dracula: Dead and Loving It could muster only $10 million after its December 22 unveiling.

All of that changed in 1996. Scream hit theaters on December 20, and while adults were catching romantic comedies like One Fine Day and Jerry Maguire, teens were seeing a flashback from the 1980s - a slasher film, but one with smart, quotable dialogue, savvy in-jokes and a hip young cast. The movie opened strongly in what seemed at the time to be a triumph of counter-programming...but then the crazy thing grew...and grew...forcing entertainment reporters to use the long-forgotten term "legs." Word of mouth was contagious, as young people demonstrated the enormous influence they possessed at the box office - a muscle that they would flex once again with 1997's Titanic. The Horror genre, moribund after a decade (the 90s being especially bleak up to that point), was revived, and after putting a remarkable $103 million in Scream's kitty, moviegoers did it all over again exactly one year later with another $101 million for the sequel.

1997 was the year that Hollywood stopped being afraid of holiday horror, going so far as to open genre films on Christmas Day in the hope that young audiences would find them. The results, however, were middling. An American Werewolf in Paris took in an okay $26 million in '97, and 1998's The Faculty did better with $40 million after heavily promoting the Kevin Williamson / Scream connection, as well as its sexy young cast. (December 4 of that year also saw the premiere of Gus Van Sant's "version" of Psycho, but let's not dwell on unpleasantries, ok?) Stephen King returned in a big way in 1999's The Green Mile, amassing an impressive $136 million after its December 10 rollout. The December 22 release of Dracula 2000 managed $33 million in, of course, 2000.

The next three years - 2001 through 2003 - saw The Lord of the Rings as the big dog scaring away all the other dogs (horror, fantasy and sci-fi) from the yard, but since trilogies can't last any longer than three installments, there followed three years with three
successive Christmas Day horror releases: 2004's Darkness ($22 million), 2005's Wolf Creek ($16 million) and the obligatory 2006 remake of the 1974 classic Black Christmas (again, $16 million). Not only were these Christmas Day horror releases, but the latter two were also two of the grisliest pictures the studios had presented all year. And, as I noted in my earlier post, these films met with terrible audience ratings, with the first two scoring the rare "F" from CinemaScore.

If previous years had the famine of only one offering for Horror fans, then 2007 was a veritable feast, with three high-profile major studio pictures from which to choose. December 14's I Am Legend was the box office colossus, taking in a whopping $256 million, leaving behind relative chump change for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ($52 million) on December 21, and Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem on Christmas Day ($41 million). Were I writing this blog in December of 2007, I would have proudly proclaimed that Holiday Horror was here to stay.

And I would have been wrong. 2008 and 2009 will pass without nary a genre film, although January has been a solid producer of product for the last five years or so, with such films as (quality notwithstanding) White Noise, Hide and Seek, The Orphanage, Cloverfield, The Unborn and My Bloody Valentine 3D opening to solid, if not always sustainable, business. Perhaps we're entering another dry spell for Holiday Horror. History has shown that such droughts do pass, often with spectacular results. So struggle through the next few days, horror fans. Case 39, Daybreakers, The Book of Eli and Legion all await on the flipside of 2010.


Jay Watson said...

Man of man Steven, another great post bringing my brain a blast from the past. I loved most of the movies you mention but YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN holds a special place in my blackened/shriveled heart.
"Follow zee candles..zee stairs can be treacherous"
I still can't hear the original (or all the legitimate covers) "Puttin' On the Ritz" without doing my Peter Boyle impersonation!

Unknown said...

This is an absolutely fantastic post! Full of great information, stats, and nostalgia!

I am definitely becoming a follower of your blog. Excellent work!

senski said...

Thank you both, gentlemen - this one was a bit of work. Glad it's appreciated!

Unknown said...

I'd feel like shit if I didn't give you props for such a well researched post.

I've been looking for an affordable VHS version of The Keep for a while. I love the book and only got to see part of the Mann adaptation.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Incredible. You are a king among men Sen, if ILHM is ever brought back from god damned spam blog hell I want to link back to this stellar article! I was far too young to have seen anything pre-SCREAM in theaters during their original runs, but there is nothing like a great Horror movie to thwart the goodness of Christmas muwahahaha >=)

Jeff Allard said...

Yet another great post, Senski! It's always hard to find horror around the holidays but occasionally some darker material does find its way into theaters!