Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: A Look At The History Of Event Horror Films

April 27, 2018 | Posted by Joseph Lee
Freddy vs Jason Event Horror

Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

As you may have heard, assuming you’re not living under a rock, is that Avengers: Infinity War comes out on Friday. Now I’m not going to make this tie-in any kind of silly “Avengers of horror” or anything like that. Instead I’m looking at the concept of an “event” film in general and the various event horror films over the years.

An “event” movie is a little beyond a standard blockbuster. It’s one that seemingly everyone is hyped about and is the watercooler movie of the time. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was the big return of the series, is a good example. Avatar is another. They’re films that may or may not be loved critically, but they’re all anyone can talk about before, during and after their release. They’re usually huge blockbusters, but they don’t always have to be. They’re just really huge movies that were highly-anticipated and big during their time. Simply put, going to see the movie is an event in itself, and it’s something that you have to see in theaters.

It doesn’t happen often within horror, but it does happen. And it seems like it’s happened more and more as the genre gets more recognition. This decade has seen several blockbuster horror films, even if they weren’t intended that way.

Sometimes it can be thanks to a long-running franchise. In the 80s, Freddy Krueger was a big pop culture figure, so his films had a lot of hype around them. The same could be said for Saw and Paranormal Activity in the late 00s/early ’10s. The franchises usually lose their luster and they stop hitting that territory, which is why both Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Jigsaw came out with resounding thuds.

It’s not a new thing, either. Take Psycho back in 1960. It was pretty big upon its release, thanks in part to Alfred Hitcock being so secretive with it. He refused to let anyone talk about it, including stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. So he promoted the film himself. He also had a “no late admissions” policy for theaters, to prevent anyone from coming in and missing the death of Leigh’s character in the first part of the film.

Can you imagine that happening today? I can’t, because for one, theater owners are all about making more money, not less. Back in the day they had the same problem, but they settled down when they saw the long line of people waiting to see it. Today, with ticket prices the way they are, I doubt they’d be so lenient, of course, there are multiplexes now, but my point stands.

Secondly, the Internet would have ruined the twist way before people got a chance to see it. Sure, there are some that would be nice and not spoil the film. Then there are others who just don’t care and think you’re stupid for not wanting the movie ruined. These days we have critics giving Avengers: Infinity War negative reviews and whining about how they aren’t allowed to spoil it for those who will enjoy it. That’s kind of ridiculous, but that’s a rant for another day. My point is, Hitchcock’s promotion wouldn’t work today but it certainly worked then and it made Psycho the movie to see.

Of course the rest is history, as it made a ton of money and is widely hailed as one of the greatest films of all time.

You can’t talk about horror movies getting a lot of hype before their release without mentioning Jaws in 1975. It was, after all, the movie that more or less created the blockbuster as we know it. The hype by this film was helped by the novel it was based on, which was already a #1 best seller at the time. I mean, it says that right on the poster. The early trailers also promoted this fact, showing almost no footage of the shark and hyping Peter Benchley’s book instead. Universal spent $1.8 million on promotion and $700,000 on TV spots, which was unheard of at the time. And all they really used was the poster’s image and John Williams’ score. Keep in mind that Steven Spielberg was not a name director yet, although he would be once this was released.

There was also the standard promotion along with merchandise that included oddities like sleepwear and water pistols, in addition to the normal books and t-shirts. I don’t need to explain to you how well this paid off, but people came out in droves. It went on to earn a lifetime gross of $470 million. After already doing very well in its initial release ($123.1 million), it enjoyed a ton of success in subsequent re-releases, as recently as 2015!

All that merchandising you see thrown on insurance ads, food products and whatnot for the Avengers? That’s all thanks to Jaws. It was a monster release and is the blueprint for how Hollywood markets, promotes and hypes up a movie today. The fact that critics absolutely loved it and it won several awards also probably contributed to its longevity.

Of course, I was not alive for either of those releases, so let’s talk about a few I’m more familiar with. In 1999, all anyone could talk about was The Blair Witch Project. I’ve mentioned this film in the past and I feel it has to be brought into this conversation. It was one of the first hugely successful releases to rely on viral marketing, another trick that’s used frequently today. This is one of those things that if you’re younger, like say, under the age of 25 or so, you might not even remember what was going on at the time.

As a teenager, I remember seeing it everywhere. It had several internet ads, a website with more information on the story, a mockumentary on the Sci-Fi Channel and the various TV spots and trailers. Of course it also claimed the events were real. That’s a silly thing to think of in today’s world, but people totally bought into it. At the very least, it certainly got people talking to go see it. Even if it wasn’t real footage, you weren’t given a lot as to what it was actually about. It was just some spooky home video clips and a claim that the people in it were never found. They even printed missing posters featuring the cast!

I think this marked the first time I became aware of just how big a marketing promotion could be, especially in retrospect. I went and watched other movies and was excited for them. I was alive for the hype of Batman, as well. But I was young then and at this point in time I was able to full take in just how prevalent they were selling this. And I was pulled in too, because I remember watching the Sci-Fi channel special and going to the website.

Blair Witch ended up popularizing the found footage style, although studios wouldn’t take full advantage of that until Paranormal Activity a decade later. It also was the first, or one of the first, movies to be promoted mainly on the Internet, which seemingly every movie does these days. People were hyped for the movie and it was a sensation, creating so many parodies and references it’d make your head spin. It went on to earn $248.6 million on a budget of only $60,000. It’s still one of the highest-earning independent releases of all time.

Earlier in this column, I mentioned Freddy Krueger. Freddy, Jason, Michael and all of the other slashers were big deals in the 80s. But as the 90s came around, their franchises died off. New Nightmare was the worst-grossing film in the Nightmare franchise, while Jason X was put on the shelf for an entire year before barely making back its budget in 2002. Horror fans were still invested but the public at large didn’t seem to care anymore.

That was before Freddy vs. Jason was announced. It was a movie that diehard fans knew was in the works for a while, particularly after the ending to Jason Goes to Hell. But once the marketing blitz started (primarily on MTV and Spike, if I remember right), it’s all anyone could talk about. Online fans were definitely into it but it also got play on various entertainment shows and even a Las Vegas weigh-in with Michael f’n Buffer! Also, enjoy that early 00s editing.

And why wouldn’t it be big? Even though movie fans had soured on both franchises, this was something new. It would be the first time in a long time two big entertainment icons crossed paths in one film. That kind of thing is common now with cinematic universes, but not so much in 2003. You’d have to go back to the Godzilla movies or the Universal horror films for similar ideas, and that’s just horror. I can’t recall it happening in another genres. You didn’t see John McClane meet up with Dirty Harry, for example. Robocop never battled the Terminator. It took until 2016 for Batman and Superman to cross paths on film and Warner Bros. has owned both characters for decades! So in this department, horror always had a leg up on the competition. Now we’re about to see a movie with The Avengers, Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy team up.

Freddy vs. Jason, by the way, went on to earn $114.9 million worldwide, the highest-grossing film in either franchise until the Nightmare remake topped it by a scant $755,207. It’s still the highest in the Jason series.

If you want a more recent example of event horror, how about one we all remember from last year. I think it goes without saying that there were a lot of people anticipating IT before its September release, and I’m not just saying that as a fan. Warner Bros. brought it to Comic-Con, which I can’t recall happening very often for that many horror films. Not only did they bring it, but they gave it its own haunted house attraction for guests to look at. It was also promoted with a VR game, the usual clips and trailers and the first two minutes being screened before Annabelle: Creation.

This one had nostalgia to thank for it. A whole generation of people, myself included, grew up with the original IT miniseries. Those that read the book always wanted a feature film, because the miniseries was more like a cliff’s notes version of the story and it left a lot out. While IT also left out and changed some things, it certainly had more to it and definitely got the feel of the book. But that’s a conversation for another day. We’re talking about hype here.

Whether you loved or hated IT, you can’t deny that the combination of nostalgia and adept marketing worked. The film went on to earn $700.4 for million. That’s not only the highest-grossing horror film of all time, but that’s higher than Justice League from the same year. That’s higher than Doctor Strange the year before. Between the box office success of IT and the critical success of Get Out (which was no slouch itself in box office), 2017 was a damn good year for horror.

So what’s the next big “event” horror film? What’s the film that’s going to capture the public’s imagination in a way usually reserved for Hollywood franchises and superhero epics? Maybe it’ll be The Predator. Maybe it’ll be something smaller like A24’s Hereditary. Maybe we won’t see another one until 2019 when IT Chapter Two comes out (which you know is going to be huge. That’s the thing. You just never know when a studio, horror fans and the mainstream public are all going to get behind the same film at the same time and turn it into something big.

Ending Notes:

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Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton (get your own custom artwork and commissions at his Etsy account)

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