<I>Apollo 18</i>, <I>Shark Night 3D</i> and the Sorry State of Contemporary Horror Movies

Despite a handful of high-profile disappointments -- Green Lantern and Cowboys & Aliens to name just two -- this summer proved to be a pretty good one (box-office wise, at least) for Hollywood. Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger showed that comic book movies are still a draw, Bridesmaids kicked off a strong season for R-rated comic hijinks and a few -- gasp! -- original, non-franchise movies like Super 8 and Crazy Stupid Love actually became modest hits with critics and audiences. But there was one genre that moviegoers resoundingly rejected during the summer of 2011: horror.

From indie films like John Carpenter's The Ward to such studio productions as Final Destination 5 and Fright Night, scary movies have been playing to largely empty houses since May. Even a plethora of strong reviews (ours included) and producer Guillermo Del Toro's involvement couldn't lure folks into Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which took a licking from Zoe Saldana's grrrl power action movie Colombiana last week. As the 2011 summer movie season officially draws to a close this weekend, two more horror titles are sneaking into theaters: the 3D-enhanced Jaws-sploitation picture Shark Night 3D and Apollo 18, a Blair Witch-style space chiller about two astronauts that encounter some kind of monster during a routine moon mission. No doubt heeding the genre's downward trend, the studios behind both films are essentially dumping them into theaters with little advanced promotion and zero press screenings for critics. Why has horror been such a bust of late? Here are four theories I've been kicking around:

1. Audiences Don't Go to Summer Movies to Be Scared
That's certainly been true both this summer and last, when films like Splice and Piranha 3D failed to scare up audiences (although, thanks to unexpectedly strong reviews, Dimension forged ahead with a Piranha sequel that they'll be releasing in November). Recently, the hot weather creature features that have successfully been luring moviegoers into theaters tend to emphasize action over terror. For example, both this summer's Super 8 and its low-budget cousin Attack the Block pit a group of young kids against monsters from another world, but shows them fighting back against the invading creatures. Contrast that with the family in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, who spend most of the film cowering in fear from the tiny demons wreaking havoc on their house. Of course, the problem with this line of thinking is that some of the most successful summer movies of all time have scared us silly. Think The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Poltergeist and the granddaddy of all contemporary blockbusters, Jaws. Those films thrived on word-of-mouth and repeat business, as viewers went back again and again to be terrified, often dragging their friends and family along with them. Let's face it: there's nothing like escaping out of the summer heat into an air-conditioned movie theater and shrieking along with hundreds of other people at a truly scary movie.

2. The Marketing Campaigns Have Been Non-Existent and/or Uninspired
Don't feel bad if you haven't even heard of Shark Night or Apollo 18 -- after all, it's not like the studios have been hyping them up. In fact, Dimension seems vaguely embarrassed to be releasing Apollo 18 at all; originally slated to hit theaters in the spring, the movie has been repeatedly pushed back and the few posters I've seen in the wild have all been hung in the darkest, least-traveled corridors of my local multiplexes. At least Relativity has invested in a few TV spots for Shark Night, although those choppy 30-second clips make it look like a Funny or Die parody rather than an honest-to-god feature film. Neither ad campaign screams "Hey, you -- see this movie!" Instead, they feel like half-hearted contractual obligations. While certainly more ubiquitous, the campaigns for Fright Night and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark displayed a similar lack of imagination. The former mostly played up Colin Farrell's goofy performance as the big bad vampire (and, to be honest, he's the best thing in it) while the latter splashed Del Toro's name above the title as if he were the star of the show. It's a far cry from Blair Witch's trail-blazing online campaign a decade ago, which turned the $25,000 DYI flick into the summer movie you couldn't afford to miss.

3. No Big Stars = No Big Box Office
Even though there's been a lot of talk about the decline and fall of the star system in recent years, the fact remains that folks are more likely to take a chance on a summer movie if there are at least one or two A-listers in the mix. Heck, even the makers of a pre-sold property like Thor ponied up the dough to get Natalie Portman onboard and Bad Teacher probably wouldn't have banked as much had it featured, say, Amy Sedaris as the behaving badly schoolmarm rather than Cameron Diaz. (Sedaris would have been terrific, though.) Contrast that with Final Destination 5, with its largely anonymous cast of teen victims, or Dark, whose biggest name -- Katie Holmes -- is actually the least famous person in her family, following Tom and Suri. And while it's true that Fright Night had Colin Farrell, the Irish actor has never been a particularly big box-office draw as the weak grosses for Alexander, Miami Vice and Pride and Glory attest. Apollo 18 continues in the no-stars tradition -- in fact, the names of the actors in the film aren't even available on IMDB -- while Shark Night's cast consists almost exclusively of teen TV show vets like Sara Paxton and Dustin Milligan, who no one over the age of 16 recognizes. (On the other hand, the lack of famous faces didn't stop either Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity from taking off and it's not like Heather O'Rourke was a Macaulay Culkin-sized superstar when Poltergeist came out. So you don't always need a big name to attract big grosses.)

4. It's the Movies, Stupid
It always comes down to this, doesn't it? While I thoroughly enjoyed Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and plenty of other critics were high on Fright Night, the fact remains that both films felt a little too familiar... probably because they're both remakes of older, well-liked movies. Meanwhile, The Ward was difficult to recommend even to die-hard John Carpenter fans and the Final Destination series is just running on fumes at this point. And while I'm mildly curious about elements of this weekend's releases -- I had fun with Shark Night director's David R. Ellis' other B-movies including Cellular and, yes, Snakes on a Plane and the premise for Apollo 18 intrigues me -- I'm perfectly happy to stream them on Netflix in a couple of months rather than fork over $13 (or a whopping $17 for Shark Night 3D!) to see them now. And looking ahead to the rest of 2011's horror offerings, we've got the same mix of sequels (Paranormal Activity 3, Piranha: 3DD) and remakes (The Thing) on the horizon. (That's from the major studios anyway -- things are a bit more interesting in the VOD/direct-to-DVD sphere.) With offerings like these, it's no wonder the genre is having such a tough time getting butts in the seats.

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