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Indie scare tactics

New genre labels are putting major might behind fright

People are up for a good scare — at least that’s what indie producers are betting on. On both coasts and abroad, a number of genre companies have emerged outside the studio system, developing pics at a rate that may rival the teen slasher frenzy of the late ’90s.

On the West Coast, those shops include Ghost House Pictures, headed by veteran producer-director duo of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert in partnership with Senator Intl. And Platinum Dunes, Michael Bay and Radar Films’ low-budget genre label, which produced the latest remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

On the East Coast, Gotham’s Greene Street has launched Raw Nerve, a low-budget horror division overseen by writer-directors Boaz Yakin, Eli Roth, Scott Spiegal and David J. Schow. The company plans on making three to five pics a year. And Exit 5 Entertainment and Belladonna Prods. recently partnered in a side company devoted exclusively to low-budget horror and sci-fi films.

High-powered scream teams are getting started in the U.K. as well: Former Edinburgh Film Fest topper Lizzie Francke heads Ministry of Fear, a horror unit of Littlebird Pictures.

But don’t expect this crop to be full of WB heartthrobs and the ironic nods to the audience that characterized the “Scream” era.

“Films like ‘Scream’ were good at a certain time,” says Amanda Klein, a former USA Films exec, who, along with ex-Par Classics exec Michael Nash, launched Primal Pictures, a production outfit specializing in horror and high-concept comedies, “but now that the tongue-in-cheek films have run their course, horror has switched to being more psychological.” Primal’s current slate includes a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 pic “Suspiria.”

The idea behind Raw Nerve, according to Roth, was to get back to the roots of the edgy low-budget ’70s gore fests. The company plans on starting production on its first film this fall but has yet to announce its slate. “We want to make ‘Evil Dead,’-type movies with R or even NC-17 ratings,” says Roth, whose debut horror feature, “Cabin Fever,” will be released by Lions Gate later this year. “We want to get directors and A-list talent who can do their studio movies and then come to us and do that 18-day, $750,000 horror film.”

Ministry of Fear’s output, says Francke, won’t have so much blood. “I want to focus on what I call ‘girlie’ or ‘chamber’ horror films, stories with a gothic feel geared more to a female audience.” Ministry recently wrapped “Trauma,” which will be distributed in the U.K. by Warners next year, with Myriad selling international rights.

The creative force behind Senator’s Ghost House projects is maverick horror helmer-turned-Hollywood A-lister Raimi. “We want to make what Sam wants to make,” says Senator prexy Joe Drake. “He loves the old-fashioned, jump-out-of-your-seat roller-coaster rides, as well the smart psychological genre films.” The current Ghost House slate includes “30 Days of Night,” “Boogeyman,” and “The Grudge.”

“People are looking at horror films as cash cows because they’re cheap to make and the audience has increased every year,” says Exit 5’s Williams. “The business model makes sense. They also provide a way for filmmakers to explore creative muscles they don’t normally use .”

While the breakout success of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” this summer bodes well for the future of these low- to mid-range genre pics, distribution challenges may prevent some of them from landing a deal. “Horror films are best released in a broad way to a mass audience,” says Artisan EVP Patrick Gunn. “Without big names in the cast to rely on, it’s hard to justify a high level of P&A spending on our part. A low-budget horror film has to be extremely well-made, original and marketable to warrant that kind of commitment.”