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Afterlife spawns horror boutiques

Rash of new co.s rushes to cash in on genre's leggy DVD profit potential

Horror films are like Christopher Lee’s Dracula — just when people think they’re dead, they find another way to rise from the grave.

Lately, big box office and a proliferation of shingles dedicated to horror have it looking like the genre that will never die. Some are the brainchildren of horror vets like Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi, while others bring new players into the field.

Last week Lions Gate signed “Saw” producers Twisted Pictures to a nine-pic deal. The low-budget “Saw” is still cutting a swath at the box office, while “Seed of Chucky” sprouted Nov. 12 domestically, building on a robust year for horror.

Why the sudden interest in launching shingles specifically for scarefests?

Begin with the fact that horror films perform differently than other genres on video.

Horror movies depend more on long-term playability than short-term openability to generate profits. And in today’s opening-weekend-driven biz, focusing on playability means getting away from the studio system.

Says Ghost House’s Rob Tapert: “For ones that work, or for quality product, it has a very long life. Where most films need to be blockbusters to have a 10-20 year life span on video and DVD, a good horror film can generate a steady stream of video revenue even with very little theatrical gross.”

Lions Gate acquisitions prexy Peter Block agrees. “The average life of a movie on video is about six months. But horror films just keep on selling.”

But it takes a special touch to turn buckets of blood to box office gold.

Horror fans know what they like, even when hardly anyone else does. Last year, uber-horror fan Eli Roth’s directing debut “Cabin Fever” grossed $30 million worldwide on a budget of $1.5 million.

The catch is that the pictures have to deliver what they promise. They don’t have to be Oscar-worthy, but they have to be scary. Genre fans will gobble up “good horror” and even “good bad horror,” which delivers cheesy fun, but they will utterly ignore “bad bad horror.”

Also feeding the new horror shingles is the wave of stories from Asia, which has reinvigorated the genre. One of them, “The Grudge,” is the year’s highest-grossing horror pic, at $89 million, while two others have topped $50 million.

Horror filmmakers also draw on the genre’s history.

Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, for example, named their horror company Dark Castle as an homage to horror impresario William Castle.

Silver and Zemeckis have lots of company. Ghost House partners Raimi with Rob Tapert, Joe Drake and Nathan Kahane; Platinum Dunesis making a “Texas Chain Saw” prequel; and Focus’ Rogue Pictures, distribbed “Bride of Chucky” and “Shaun of the Dead.” It looks like the biz is screaming for horror shingles.

Tapert points to cheapie “The Evil Dead,” which launched his career and Raimi’s, as an example of a horror pic that worked.

“It never made a nickel at the box office but continues to sell and has a huge fan base. And new generations keep discovering it,” he says.

Many of the execs in these new shingles echo Silver, whose Dark Castle made “Gothika” and “Ghost Ship.” Silver says that having a separate company helps them make fun pics at a lower price in a genre where the directors are the real stars.

“These movies don’t require movie stars, they don’t require the budgets that go into making big action pictures, so they can be made affordably. I think they come out best when they come from one shingle,” Silver says.

That applies to development and production, too.

Vet helmer Hooper, who recently partnered to start the TH Nightmares shingle, says that with fewer people involved in the process, all of them specialists, there’s a better chance of delivering the thrills the genre promises.

“These things have to come from a pure vision to plug straight into the audience’s head, and the less people involved in jamming those radio frequencies, the better the audience can pick up on the tune,” says Hooper, who helmed the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist.”

When Hooper began his career in the 1960s, schlock shingles often emphasized horror fare in addition to sci-fi and youthsploitation. “It was a very small group, it was Castle, it was Hammer, Roger Corman and American Intl.,” he says.

Hooper’s career took off in 1974 when “Massacre” logged $31 million domestic on a budget of less than $150,000.

Today, Hooper’s TH Nightmares aims to create a brand for the young aud that made the “Massacre” remake a hit. The label plans to release a series of films with versions tailored to broadcast TV, theaters and video.

The shingle isn’t alone in its branding strategy. Bloodworks, which has hooked up with vet goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis and financier Peter Hoffman, is another label that hopes to earn the loyalty of horror fans, whom managing partner Christopher Tuffin compares to heavy-metal rock fans.

“They’re so passionate. It’s a cottage industry,” says Tuffin, who produced “2001 Maniacs” in association with helmer Roth’s horror shingle, Raw Nerve Films. “It’s a very die-hard community.”

Lions Gate’s Block calls genre fans very smart and says that horror-only labels are a good way to reach them.

“They’re looking for something that will question authority in its own way, and its important to send the message that this film isn’t from a Fortune 500 company, it’s from a like-minded fan.”

Fan Web sites like Chud.com and the Horror Channel’s DreadCentral.com have helped those fans develop their own subculture. They can build buzz for a film, good or bad, in ways unimaginable in Castle’s day. So horror shingles had better deliver the goods — or beware.

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