Hollywood rethinks its scare flair

Genre to offer less gore, more lore, milder ratings

If Hollywood is ready to bury the horror pic, it will be a shallow grave.

After what seemed like an unending series of slasher, torture and thriller pics that thrived at the box office, recent titles like “The Hills Have Eyes 2,” “Hostel: Part II” and “Captivity” ended up dead on arrival, but that sure hasn’t stopped the industry from its pursuit of the genre. Instead, they’re going back to the basics, offering less gore and more lore, aiming in many cases not for an R rating but for a PG-13.

“Horror doesn’t die,” says horror vet Clive Barker, whose short story “Midnight Meat Train” is getting a bigscreen adaptation by Lionsgate and Lakeshore. “It only takes one successful movie and ‘It’s alive!’ again.”

The genre is taking new forms. The stories producers think will bring horror back to life will certainly look different from what has been on the screen in recent years.

Upcoming pics will be less blood-splattered.

Development execs are steering away from overly violent projects and want less gore and graphic scenes of characters being tortured or dismembered for the pleasure (or displeasure) of others.

That means fewer “torture porn,” “gorno” and “toolshed” pics, and a return to boogeymen, ghosts and vampires, as well as the psychological and the supernatural. If you can’t see it and it’s still scary, great. If it’s PG-13, even better.

What’s also coming is an injection of humor — think titles like “Scream,” the tongue-in-cheek riff on the horror pics that had come before it.

Rogue, the genre label of Focus Features, has “Hack/Slash,” based on the graphic novel from Devil’s Due Publishing. The project injects a lead character (similar to “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) with quippy one-liners as she travels the country killing off serial killers.

“It’s certainly not ‘Scary Movie’,” says producer Daniel Alter. “It’s still a dark movie. It’s through her personality and the inventive ways that she kills the slashers that provides the comedy and the levity.”

Also in the pipeline:

  • Remakes of ’70s and ’80s horror pics like “Piranha,” “Prom Night,” “Last House on the Left,” “The Tingler,” “Terror Train,” “The Stepfather” and “Evil Dead,” as well as older fare like Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

  • More redos of Asian films like “The Eye,” “The Echo” and “Tale of Two Sisters.”

  • Additional adaptations of Stephen King books, with Eli Roth tackling his latest tome, “Cell,” and Frank Darabont on “The Mist.”

  • The return of iconic boogeymen like Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th,” Pinhead from “Hellraiser” and “Halloween’s” Michael Myers.

  • Makeovers of classic monsters like the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Mummy (in “The Mummy 3”). And, of course, there’s Dracula. The fanged one is the central figure in “Dracula: Year Zero,” “Castlevania” and “The Historian.” Vampires also play key roles in the upcoming “Daybreakers” and “The Passage,” the first of a series of pics based on Jordan Ainsley’s upcoming book trilogy that Fox 2000 and Scott Free want to adapt.

The range proves that horror “is a very broad and rich genre and shouldn’t be assumed to be one thing only,” Barker says, adding that it often gets disguised as something else like science fiction or fantasy. “Is Steven Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’ a horror movie? You bet it is.”

Ever since the silent days of “Nosferatu” and Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” horror films have gone through periods of boom and bust. What was remarkable about the most recent uptick was the sheer number of companies that had gotten in on the act. The perception was that such pics were low-risk bets.

“We have collectively been guilty of making too many and rationalizing that because we made the film, the poster and the trailer, audiences would come,” says Joe Drake, owner and president of Mandate Pictures, which has the horror label Ghost House. “There’s unquestionable saturation.”

Ghost House (which Drake formed with Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert) has the vampire tale “30 Days of Nights” bowing later this year and a remake of “Evil Dead” in the works.

Mandate, along with Overture Films, Atmosphere Entertainment, Summit, Reliant and the Film Department, are among the production and distribution entities newly financed by the influx of Wall Street money. Horror is one of their big bets.

“Even if horror doesn’t stay as hot as it has been, there is still a fundamental audience and a comparably low-risk film investment,” says Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media, when announcing the new company Chiller Films, with partner Mark Canton’s Atmosphere Entertainment.

Other companies are banking on the durability of the genre. On the TV side, Chiller and FearNet are new channels devoted to horror.

And the genre is spawning videogames like Barker’s upcoming “Jericho,” and helping drive the straight-to-DVD biz, like Joel Silver’s “House on Haunted Hill 2” and Mandate’s “Boogeyman 2.”

“By no means is the horror genre dead,” says Silver, whose Dark Castle is pumping out up to three genre pics per year. “It’s a very viable genre. It’s never valid to make a sweeping statement that a type of movie is dead. When I came to Hollywood, people said nobody will see science fiction movies. Then came ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Veterans of the genre say the trick is to not make the same films.

“Whenever there’s a blockbuster, everyone tries to mimic it,” Alter says. “But we’ve learned time and time again that it’s not the way to make films. Audiences change their taste every six months. Releasing three torture porn films in a row won’t work. People want to see something new.”

Coming up with that new project is the trick, though.

“It’s the old story that if a movie works people will show up,” Silver says. “If it’s scary and it’s fun, you’ll have an audience.”

And if studios execs are still freaked out by the horror label, they always have one viable option to rely on: Just call it a thriller instead.

Anne Thompson contributed to this report.

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