The box office was singing a spooky song this Halloween—low-to-mid-budget horror movies have set Hollywood cash registers ringing over the past few months, and indeed all of 2022. The much-talked about horror film Smile, directed by debutant Parker Finn, involves a chain curse on people who’ve witnessed violent deaths. This somewhat mechanical assemblage of (I’ll admit, well-executed) jump scares has raked in nearly $186 million since its release on 30 September, having been made on a budget of just $17 million.
Zach Cregger’s Barbarian (another debut feature), a nifty low-budget composite of the haunted house and slasher subgenres, cost only $4 million and has made over $42 million since its release in September (this is such a triumph in commercial terms that the film is already out on streaming platforms, including Hotstar in India). In June, Scott Derrickson’s horror film The Black Phone (Amazon Prime Video) saw Ethan Hawke playing a mask-wearing serial killer called ‘The Grabber’ who kidnaps, tortures and kills children in Denver circa 1978. Made on a budget of $18 million, The Black Phone earned over $161 million at the box office (all revenue numbers courtesy IMDB’s Box Office Mojo service).
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There’s no denying it: we have been blessed with a large and quite diverse roster of horror movies in 2022. If you think about the three films mentioned in this article so far, they’re all very different from one another. They’ve each provided something distinct and powerful to the audience.
Smile’s Big Bad is a demonic, shape-shifting entity that can assume the form of people you know, so the narrative tension includes the sight of your loved ones sporting creepy grins. Barbarian has a really clever screenplay that introduces us to a Norman Bates type at a double-booked Airbnb — significantly, played by Bill Skarsgård who’s played a number of villainous roles in recent years, including Pennywise the Clown in It (2017). But after a delicious Hitchockian setup it caps off its first act by brutally dispatching Skarsgård’s character, without fully revealing who the movie’s real monster is. And The Black Phone’s titular device is a supernatural phone that allows the spirits of murdered children to speak to the teenaged boy their killer is currently holding captive. As you might imagine, this allows director Scott Derrickson to mount a (remarkably skilful) melding of many disparate genres: ghosts, coming-of-age stories and, of course, serial killer movies.
It’s heartening to see audiences responding to good, solid, writing-backed originals that do not have massive marketing budgets or brute-force star power to fall back upon. These blockbusters have not been focus-grouped to oblivion. The filmmaking-by-committee that appears to steer so many big-ticket features these days (whether theatrical or streaming, I might add) is refreshingly absent in these movies.
Not that the big guys have been sleeping on the ongoing horror renaissance. 2022 also saw a slew of big-name horror franchises producing sequels, reboots or, as is the contemporary appellation, ‘requels’ (remakes/reboots that are also sequels because the new characters are linked to the ‘legacy characters’ via parentage, literal or metaphorical).
Clive Barker’s 80s low-budget horror classic Hellraiser, featuring a sadomasochistic demon-villain called Pinhead (the name is quite literal; Pinhead is a chalky-white demon with pins through his head), was remade into a hyper-stylized gorefest directed by David Bruckner (director of the much-acclaimed 2020 Rebecca Hall horror movie The Night House). The Jeepers Creepers film series (2001-now) was rebooted in September; the new instalment Reborn sees the return of ‘The Creeper’, a predatory ancient being who can smell fear and who hunts every 23rd spring for 23 days.
But the three biggest horror films this year were all representatives of the slasher canon (my personal sweet spot on the horror continuum) — Scream, Halloween Ends and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all of whom brought back the signature villains and other ‘legacy characters’ of their respective franchises. Visually speaking, these films are all about the intelligent and psychologically adroit manipulation of space; the masters of the genre like John Carpenter and Wes Craven knew how to shoot tightly constrained indoor spaces in order to extract the maximum fright-mileage.
A common trope in all three films—and indeed, in a lot of slasher films in general—is that of the ‘final girl’. As the name suggests, this is the last girl or woman left standing at the end of the killer’s rampage; she either kills or defeats him outright, or lives to fight another day (presumably in a sequel) and tell the world her story. It was interesting to see these three franchises’ contrasting approaches to their respective ‘final girls’, especially because these characters are now 50 and 60-something women, with full sets of life experiences that do not include strangers with knives.
Jamie Lee Curtis, who made her onscreen debut playing Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), returned to her role in David Gordon Green’s uneven but visually distinctive sequel trilogy, which ended last month with the theatrical release of Halloween Ends. Laurie, in this telling, has not dealt with her trauma and PTSD well at all, having never really recovered from the serial killer Michael Myers’ kill-spree. Now a middle-aged woman with an adult daughter (and a teenaged grand-daughter) of her own, she seldom leaves the house and is somewhat paranoid. She’s twice-divorced and has a serious alcohol problem, for good measure. Laurie Strode therefore represents the ‘median’ case for survivors—the fallout of unresolved trauma.
Then there’s Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott from Scream (1996), who returned in 2022’s surprisingly effective ‘requel’, also called Scream. By the third movie in Wes Craven’s franchise, Sidney had become a crisis counsellor for women. The new movie also sees her in a similar, healing-nurturing role for a new set of teenaged and 20-something characters, helping them understand the ways of ‘Ghostface’ (the name and accompanying mask adopted by all of Scream’s villains down the years). This, then, is the ‘healer’ archetype for survivors, helping others to help themselves.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022), the disappointing latest sequel to 1978’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sees the return of Sally Modesty (Olwen Fouéré), the only survivor from the original movie. Modesty has now become a badass, vengeful Texas ranger who’s out to get Leatherface, the mask-wearing, saw-wielding murderer who terrorised her all those years ago. Modesty’s is perhaps the most tired archetype of them all in this context: the warrior.
One can see the handprints of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in two of 2022's most successful low-budget horror movies—X and its prequel, Pearl. A macabre sequence in the latter sees Pearl (Mia Goth) dressing up her parents' corpses for the dinner table, invoking a similarly disturbing dinner scene from the 1974 movie.
On the whole, horror stamped its authority all over Hollywood in 2022. Small movies ruled, big movies presented modest successes or interesting failures. Jordan Peele, perhaps the best horror director in Hollywood, gave us Nope, at once a critique of our spectacle-obsessed society and a virtuosic nod to ‘creature horror’. Even Marvel, the home of child-friendly blockbusters, allowed horror veteran Sam Raimi to include straight-up jump scare shots (not to mention, zombies and murderous witches) in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. All of this bodes very well for fans of the genre, as studios and creators gear up to scare the crap out of you at the movies.
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