Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Boo! Give me your money, sucker!

"Ouija" earned $19.9 million Friday through Sunday, making it the top-grossing movie in America for its first weekend of release. This happened despite almost unanimously bad reviews (a 90% "rotten" rating on and negative word-of-mouth (a paltry 4.2 out of 10 from the notoriously easygoing voters at the Internet Movie Data Base). Observer entertainment editor Theoden Janes, a knowledgeable and avid fan of all kinds of horror, said he couldn't remember seeing a worse movie this year. A sample:

What can we deduce from this?

1) Horror audiences are so desperate and/or grateful for product that they will see anything at all. Literally anything, including a movie about a demonic spirit in a Ouija board that destroys people who use it. They don't wait to hear opinions from anybody else, including their friends: They bolt to theaters on opening weekend.

2) If you can make a movie for $5 million or less in this genre, you're virtually certain to get rich. The people behind "Ouija" have already quadrupled their investment before fans could circulate the word that the movie's a dud.

3) One key to box-office success with horror is a PG-13 rating. Would-be horror fans whose parents keep them out of R-rated movies demand tickets, boosting the take. Older fans may balk, believing the picture won't be terrifying enough, but younger ones will make up for them.

4) And the saddest conclusion of all: There's no need to make treasures if people will pay for trash. "Pan's Labyrinth," "The Orphanage," "Mama" and "The Others," my four favorite horror films of the 21st century, all scare me while making me feel something for the characters. (And all four come from Spanish-speaking directors. Hmmm....)

They don't rely entirely on bogeymen jumping out of dark corners, a fright so easy to achieve that any first-time filmmaker can manage it. They spook us by making us think about our own mortality, about what it means to risk death in a meaningful way. Nor does a film have to be deep to be good: "The Cabin in the Woods," another of my favorites, has plenty of screams but turns horror conventions on their heads.

I know I'm in the minority. "Pan's Labyrinth," which won three Oscars, took six months to gross less than the disposable "Ouija" will make in three weeks. As long as Americans are willing to buy junk, filmmakers and distributors will flood the market with it.