Blumhouse, James Wan and the rise of low budget horror

There’s a case to be made that James Wan is the most influential horror filmmaker of the current decade, and Jason Blum his equal as a producer. The days of big budget horror are over, and these two men have ushered in a new era.

Wan, the Australian director who first achieved worldwide attention with the twisted gamesmanship of Saw – shot when he was just 26 – has repeated his low budget technique time and time again. His most recent creation is the series of films based on The Conjuring universe, which has profited New Line more than a billion dollars at the box office.

Launched on the back of the success of 2009’s $10,000 bargain Paranormal Activity, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Pictures got in on the act early and has produced more than fifty horror films in the last decade. One of them – 2017’s Get Out – even combined huge box office success with critical praise and earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.

To get a true grip on how horror movies have changed, we need to go back almost three decades. The 1990s launched with a plethora of period horror films including voluptuous remakes of Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s. The one thing they had in common was budget, which was always big and often bloated.

The Silence of the Lambs kicked off the decade and was followed by a glut of psychological thrillers based on fictitious serial killers. Its $19 million budget turned into a $270 million worldwide gross and the five major Academy Awards, but still wasn’t enough to save production company Orion Pictures from bankruptcy. David Fincher’s Seven, made on a $33 million budget, grossed over $327 million for the far more successful New Line.

The success of those two films was the exception, though. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers barely made back its $34 million budget, as did Jon Amiel’s Copycat. Gus Van Sant’s deluded $60 million remake of Psycho performed even worse, and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector also lost money.

Big budget overindulgences were the story of the decade, and we’re not just talking about Waterworld. For every Silence and Seven there were ten flops.

The early-decade quartet of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (with a budget of $40 million), Mike Nichols’ Wolf ($70 million), Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ($45 million) and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire ($60 million) are glorious examples of the excess of studio executives. While all of them made their money back at the box office, none would be considered runaway successes and the middle coupling may even be regarded as outright failures.

These four films contributed greatly to the rising cost of horror films which had always typically been a low budget staple for studios. The ten highest-grossing horror films from 1985-89 averaged a cost of $9.2 million, but this blew out to $20.3 million in the next half-decade and would grow even further to $32 million from 1995-99.

In fact, the latter half of the 1990s saw probably the most egregious examples. Jan de Bont’s The Haunting, another ill-informed remake based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, cost Dreamworks $80 million and only just recouped its budget while drawing bottom-of-the-barrel reviews from critics (16% on Rotten Tomatoes). Tim Burton’s $70 million Sleepy Hollow performed much better critically but could not replicate that success commercially.

A group of science-fiction horror flicks released in 1997 and 1998 such as Peter Hyam’s The Relic (with a budget of $60 million), Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon ($60 million), Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic ($25 million) and Barry Levinson’s Sphere ($73 million) all failed to recover their cost during theatrical runs.

No matter the money you throw at a project, it’s not guaranteed success. In fact, The Blair Witch Project cost just $600,000 and became the most successful horror film of the decade. New faces and a fresh attitude were required to turn around the flailing horror genre, lifting it from the critical and commercial nadir it had suffered in the nineties.

What do the Transformers movies have in common with horror’s resurrection?

The Platinum Dunes production company was created to produce horror films at the start of the new millennium, and huge robot action movie director Michael Bay was its head.

The first property they picked up – New Line’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – had two films produced which cost a combined $25.5 million and grossed $158.9 million. Despite Bay’s presence, Platinum Dunes breathed new life into the dying Chainsaw franchise and made films worthy of their first predecessors – dark, ugly and completely horrifying.

Following up with a remake of The Amityville Horror ($19 million budget/$108 million gross), the company proved that low budgets on known intellectual properties could work. The less successful remake of The Hitcher ($10m/$25.4m) followed before Platinum Dunes hit on further box office success with The Unborn ($16m/$76.5m), Friday the 13th ($19m/$91.4m) and A Nightmare on Elm Street ($35m/$115.7m).

While all of this was happening, James Wan handed off the Saw films to writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman in order to direct the considerably less successful Dead Silence. Bousman’s follow-up trilogy cost a combined $24 million and grossed $452 million, and suddenly Jigsaw was a franchise killer on-par with Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger among true horror fans.

In fact, if we take out I Am Legend and its ridiculous $150 million budget, the next ten highest-grossing horror films of 2005-09 averaged a $19.1 million cost. This was significantly down from both 1995-99 ($32 million) and the half-decade immediately prior ($43.6 million).

Number two on that list of highest-grossing films was Paranormal Activity. A small horror flick made by Israeli computer programmer turned writer/director Oren Peli, the film was made for about $100,000 and picked up during independent screenings by Blumhouse Productions. Distribution rights were purchased by Paramount Pictures for $350,000 and, following the addition of a new ending, it went on to gross $142.8 million.

Paranormal Activity echoed the success of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project a decade earlier not just in box office but also in style. Largely improvised and revolving around ‘found footage’, both films refined this new style of filmmaking to perfection. The writing was well and truly on the wall this time.

Found footage films had been around since at least the release of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, but the number of examples was still in the single digits until Blair Witch’s release. Since then, REC and its American remake Quarantine, sci-fi blockbuster Cloverfield, Neil Blomkamp’s Best Picture-nominated District 9, Aussie thriller Lake Mungo and Andre Ovredal’s distinctive Trollhunter are some prominent entries into the genre.

A great indicator of the genre’s enduring popularity and the ease with which these found footage films can be produced is in the fact that there have been over 130 of them made since Paranormal Activity. While most of them aren’t worth the time required to watch, we can take solace that not much money has been used to make them.

The emerging success of Saw, Paranormal Activity and the Platinum Dunes remakes eventually teamed some of the strongest names in horror filmmaking.

After Jason Blum and Oren Peli paired initially on the release of Paranormal Activity, James Wan joined them to direct the Blum/Peli-produced Insidious in 2011. With a budget of just $1.5 million – about the same as the original Saw seven years earlier – Insidious proved to be a tremendous success and grossed over $97 million. A small, quiet and discerning ghost story about a haunted boy, the film created many of today’s oft-used Blumhouse conventions.

The success of Insidious allowed Blumhouse to team up with Lions Gate – distributors of the Saw series – on Scott Derrickson’s 2012 film Sinister ($3 million budget/$77.7 million gross) and then back that up the following year with a Platinum Dunes co-production on James DeMonaco’s The Purge ($3 million/$89.3 million). Both films starred a resurging Ethan Hawke, who was suddenly in front of more faces than he had been for at least a decade.

Both of those productions also spawned sequels, as successful horror films often do. To date, Sinister has had just the one ($10 million/$52.9 million) but The Purge has had three ($42 million/$342.9 million*).

Saw ($75.8 million/$873.3 million across seven sequels) and Paranormal Activity ($28 million/$697.1 million across five sequels) are two more that saw great success with follow-up films, turning into valuable intellectual properties for Wan, Peli and Blum. Insidious has so far had three sequels including this year’s The Last Key, all of which cost a combined $25 million and grossed $442.4 million. While not as inventive as their originals, the sequels to all of these films have remained authentic and found willing audiences.

Greater than all of these, though, has been the success during the last five years of four different filmmakers or properties.

The first of these involved Wan, who was by 2013 a hot property in Hollywood. Wan, the Malaysian-born Australian filmmaker, had faltered in between releases of Saw and Insidious with Dead Silence ($20 million/$22.2 million) and revenger thriller Death Sentence ($20 million/$17 million), both released in 2007. But Insidious had put him back on top, and New Line pegged him to direct a long-in-production script based on real life Amityville Horror investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren titled The Conjuring.

Produced for just $20 million, The Conjuring was released on July 19th 2013, recouped its budget in just two days and topped the box office in its first weekend ahead of first-week blockbusters Turbo, RED 2 and R.I.P.D. As Box Office Mojo put it, “Four new movies opened nationwide this weekend, and the cheapest of the bunch came out on top.”

The film would go on to gross $319.5 million worldwide, and was followed up with Wan-produced spinoff Annabelle (based on The Conjuring’s creepy opening-sequence doll) the following year, which cost $6.5 million and grossed $257 million. A sequel to the original, also directed by Wan, was released in 2016 ($40 million/$320.4 million); a sequel to the spinoff, Annabelle: Creation, was likewise released in 2017 ($15 million/$306.5 million).

In all, the four films of The Conjuring universe cost just $81.5 million and pulled in over $1.2 billion for New Line. Another sequel for The Conjuring is currently being written, and another sequel for Annabelle is slated for release in July 2019. A new spinoff, The Nun (based on The Conjuring 2’s demonic presence Valak), is due for release in about a month. Another spinoff from The Conjuring 2, The Crooked Man is also in development.

Much-maligned filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has also found success going back to his low budget roots. Following the unbelievable triumphs of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan had big budget failures with Lady in the Water (with a budget of $70 million), The Last Airbender ($150 million) and After Earth ($130 million), all of which were studio films demonstrating a megalomania that made audiences spurn him.

Blumhouse partnered with Shyamalan’s Blinding Edge Pictures to produce 2015’s The Visit at a cost of just $5 million. The buzz of this low budget found footage thriller saw The Visit push to within a few hundred thousand dollars of first place at the box office upon its release, and it eventually grossed $98.5 million. His Blumhouse-produced follow-up two years later, Split, cost $9 million and grossed $278.5 million. Shyamalan’s strength has always been in original scripts based on his own ideas, an asset from which he’d strayed prior.

One could make a case that Shyamalan’s legacy had been tarnished by his extravagances. While his early films were pioneering and relevant, his output immediately following that was dependent upon computer enhancements and expensive stars like Will Smith. As is often the case with money, it impedes creativity. Forced to compete with strict financial guidelines, his ingenuity came to the fore again and both The Visit (65%) and Split (76%) garnered his best reviews in years. (As a comparison, Lady in the Water rated 25%, The Happening 18%, The Last Airbender a pathetic 6% and After Earth a mere 11%.)

Shyamalan will follow these two films up with 2019’s Glass, which features the return of Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis’s characters from Unbreakable, and James McEvoy’s character from Split.

Do you know what film holds the highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes among all horror films? If you guessed Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out, give yourself a pat on the back.

Produced by Blumhouse and released by Universal, Get Out straddled the line between pure horror and social commentary, creating a tense and terrifying world wherein reverse racism influences a middle-class American community. If you haven’t seen it then we won’t spoil it, but the social observations of this special film captured the zeitgeist and made it a commercial hit.

The film was purchased on a pitch and without a screenplay even being written, but Peele was attached to both write and direct from the outset. The biggest name in the cast was Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener, and most of her co-stars signed on because it became a passion project, which allowed producers to keep the cost down to just $4.5 million.

Released on February 24th 2017, Get Out rode exceptional critical buzz to the top of the box office and blew its competition out of the water. It grossed $33 million in its first weekend, followed that up with two more weekends of more than $20 million, and finished its theatrical run 15 weeks later with a North American gross of $176 million. It added another $79 million outside of the U.S. to finish on $255.5 million, but that wasn’t the biggest story.

Get Out became the first horror film to garner an Academy Award Best Picture nomination since 1999’s The Sixth Sense, and Peele became just the third person to get nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for a debut feature. He won the latter category, becoming the first black winner of that award in Academy history.

The critical reception of the film showed that Get Out succeeded not only in entertaining horror fans, but in meeting them on a deeper level. Horror, along with adult films the most corporeal of movie genres, has always had to work harder for recognition. For a first-time filmmaker of African-American descent to gain this notoriety was a watershed.

Peele will follow Get Out with another Blumhouse production, Us, currently slated for release in early 2019. The director describes it as a “social thriller”, so we’re hoping for more of the same genre-bending significance of his debut.

Finally, another first-time horror filmmaker has also hit it big in the genre this year. John Krasinski teamed up with his wife Emily Blunt to star in A Quiet Place, which he also directed. Produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes – their first new horror property since The Purge in 2013 and Ouija in 2014 – the film was a hit at the SXSW Film Festival before receiving a wide release backed by Paramount the following month.

Made on a meagre budget of $17 million, A Quiet Place blasted into cinemas with a $50 million opening weekend in April of this year. Word-of-mouth kept it in the top-two at the box office for the next three weeks, and the film ended up out-grossing all of the films from The Conjuring series as well as Get Out. In fact, worldwide it brought in $332.6 million on the back of critical reception which saw it score a stellar 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. For all the critical buzz surrounding Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary, A Quiet Place actually outranks it on both Rotten Tomatoes (95% vs. 89%) and in cinemas ($332.6 million vs. $79.1 million).

One of the most thrilling experiences you could ever have in a pitch-black cinema, the film succeeds with rarely a word being spoken. It works because its premise is original, its execution is extraordinary, and because the inherent horror is given high regard. I left the cinema feeling rejuvenated that a first-time horror filmmaker could direct, co-write and co-star in a low budget film with such vitality.

Will A Quiet Place replicate the success of Get Out come January’s Oscar nominations? It remains to be seen, but box office and critical success are two of the key ingredients and the film has both. It is intelligent, it is entertaining, and it has people talking.

This string of low budget successes in the horror genre over the last decade have reshaped the industry. From Paranormal Activity’s micro budget to the more prestige Blumhouse, Platinum Dunes and James Wan films, costs have been minimal while grosses have been remarkable.

The average budgetary cost of the top ten highest grossing horror films of the current half-decade has dropped again, this time down to just $15.6 million. The most expensive film on that list – Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak at $55 million – is also the least successful.

Unlike in the 1990s, the recent massive success of It ($35 million/$700.4 million) is not indicative of an impending rise in genre budgets. In fact, It’s larger budget is actually still just a fraction of the excesses of that decade, and these days is an exception rather than the rule.

Horror has typically been owned by the fans, and many of the best examples of the genre come from within the community. An audience’s reaction is not to high-priced stars on the screen or generic computer-generated special effects but is borne from subtlety and honesty in the depiction of fears we all face. Those films that do not ask questions of the cleverness of their audience are doomed to fail.

So often horror has fallen victim to the whims of studio executives looking to cash in on the next big thing. But the boardroom is not a place for subtlety, and teams of script doctors end up harming rather than helping. The most expensive horror film of the last decade is also one of the worst – Joe Johnston’s 2010 atrocity The Wolfman. Conceived by a studio and with hired screenwriters and directors, the end product was stillborn. Horror audiences treated it as such, refusing to allow it the privilege of recouping its massive and misspent $150 million budget.

Creativity-by-committee has a place, of course. Some films and franchises require that they be positioned as generically as possible in order to present them to the largest achievable audience. This is why it doesn’t really matter who directs Marvel’s next three-hundred-million-dollar Avengers film or an upcoming Superman sequel, or even who was behind the camera on the latest Fast and the Furious – because the end result will always be the same. But the direction of horror has traditionally been led by those with foresight and inventiveness, which is why it falls so flat so often when studios intervene.

While we will continue to see franchises made of those horror films worthy enough to find an audience, we must continue to hope that it is at the discretion of the creative minds behind their formation and not of those in suits and ties. The tides have turned, and horror cinema is as essential right now as it has ever been.

Ten highest-grossing horror films since the release of Paranormal Activity (2009)

Film Budget Box Office Gross Critical Rating
It (2017) $35 million $700.4 million 85% (7.2/10)
A Quiet Place (2018) $17 million $332.6 million 95% (8.1/10)
The Conjuring 2 (2016) $40 million $320.4 million 86% (7.2/10)
The Conjuring (2013) $20 million $319.5 million 79% (6.7/10)
Annabelle: Creation (2017) $15 million $306.5 million 70% (6.2/10)
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) $60 million $300.2 million 23% (4.1/10)
Split (2017) $9 million $278.5 million 76% (6.4/10)
Annabelle (2014) $6.5 million $257 million 29% (4.4/10)
Get Out (2017) $4.5 million $255.5 million 99% (8.3/10)
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) $5 million $207 million 69% (6.0/10)

The above chart features two movies with at least 95% critical rating, a further two in the 80s and another three in the 70s. Only two of the ten rate as “rotten”. The lowest-rated film also features the highest budget.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Ten most expensive horror films ever produced

Film Budget Box Office Gross Critical Rating
World War Z (2013) $190 million $540 million 66% (6.2/10)
Van Helsing (2004) $160 million $300.3 million 23% (4.2/10)
Wolfman (2010) $150 million $139.8 million 35% (4.8/10)
I Am Legend (2007) $150 million $585.3 million 69% (6.3/10)
Prometheus (2012) $130 million $403.4 million 73% (7.0/10)
End of Days (1999) $100 million $212 million 11% (3.7/10)
What Lies Beneath (2000) $100 million $291.4 million 46% (5.5/10)
Alien: Covenant (2017) $97 million $240.9 million 66% (6.3/10)
Hollow Man (2000) $95 million $190.2 million 27% (4.4/10)
Hannibal (2001) $87 million $351.7 million 39% (5.1/10)

The above chart features one movie with at least 70% critical rating, and the chart tops out at 73%. Only four of the ten are certified “fresh” with the majority ranking well below 50% positive reviews. 

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

* The First Purge is currently in cinemas; data correct to August 2nd, 2018.