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Horror Works in Any Language at Cannes

Guillermo del Toro didn’t need a snazzy trailer, a visually arresting poster, or an A-list actor to sell buyers at Cannes on “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

In lieu of extra bells, whistles, or shrieking, Bernard Hermann-style violins, del Toro took the stage at the Carlton Hotel armed with his passion for the blood-soaked genre. For roughly an hour, del Toro and director André Øvredal talked about their vision for “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” while dipping into their deep connection to films about monsters, ghosts, and otherworldly elements.

“The presentation he did wasn’t a bunch of dazzle dazzle and movie stars,” said Nick Meyer, CEO of Sierra/Affinity, the sales company hawking foreign rights to the picture. “It was two artists talking about what makes this genre global. It was a master class.”

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” is one of the hottest projects at Cannes. Not only is del Toro an active producer on the film, with Øvredal (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) sliding behind the camera, but the project also boasts U.S. distribution from CBS Films and is based on a beloved book series. Most movies for sale at Cannes don’t have that kind of pedigree.

Del Toro relished the chance to wax poetic about the kind of movies that made him want to be a filmmaker. But the truth is he may not have even needed to make the trek across the Atlantic. Scary movies such as “A Quiet Place,” “Get Out,” and “It” are among the biggest box-office hits and most profitable films that Hollywood produces. They’re also the rare movies that don’t need to be part of a pre-existing franchise in order to succeed, as well as that most endangered of things in a comic book-obsessed industry — an original movie that can go head-to-head with Marvel flicks.

Moreover, films including “It” and “Annabelle” made more than half of their global grosses from foreign territories. And a horror movie doesn’t need the imprimatur of a major studio in order to resonate with U.S. audiences or vice versa. “Let the Right One In,” a Swedish vampire film, and “The Babadook,” an Australian psychological thriller, were big successes the world over.

“Domestic horror films travel internationally and foreign horror films travel domestically,” said Tom Quinn, co-founder of Neon. “There’s no language barrier.”

Del Toro isn’t the only Latin American horror maestro making waves along the Croisette. The region has become a hub for a rising generation of filmmakers looking to scare the bejeezus out of audiences, though many of these genre movies mix in scares with a social conscience.

Argentine Alejandro Fadel’s Un Certain Regard contender “Murder Me, Monster,” for instance, centers on a murder investigation involving a headless corpse, but it uses the genre to skewer ignorance and superstition. It joins the likes of “Terrified,” a haunted house shock fest, and “You Shall Not Sleep,” a stylish psychiatric hospital chiller, among the Latin American genre movies looking for distribution.

But Cannes unspools in France, a country that historically has sometimes faced difficulties finding commercial success in the horror space. That appears to be changing. After hitting a rough patch with underperforming pictures, Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” and Pascal Augier’s “Ghostland” both scored at the local box office. The key here was that they approached their on-screen cannibalism and poltergeist attacks with a certain je ne sais quoi. Several of the French films world premiering at this year’s Cannes fest share these strong genre elements, notably Yann Gonzalez ‘s “Heart + Knife” and Gaspar Noé’s “Climax,” but match them with a strong cinematic touch.

“We’re seeing a renaissance of elevated French genre films which have a real theatrical potential,” said Dimitri Stephanides, the co-founder of Paris-based sales outfit WTFilms. “It’s easy to identify the French touch in genre movies because they’re auteur-driven and explore characters in depth.”

When those elements are in place the results can be a bloody good time and a big payday for producers looking to land distribution.

Elsa Keslassy and John Hopewell contributed to this report.

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