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New Blood, Old Ideas: Horror's Familiar Scripts

By Bridget Byrne
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page N03

Hollywood is gripped by horror.

Opinions are divided as to whether the current glut of movies that fall inside the very porous boundary of classic horror -- with vividly suggestive titles, relatively modest budgets, lack of expensive star names -- is a welcome dose of lifeblood to an industry always in need of a booster shot, or a stranglehold on its creativity.

"Anything that is profitable is good for the business," says Valerie Van Galder, president of TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio that recently released "Boogeyman" and has "The Cave" opening in August.

Isabel Conner, left, and Chloe Moretz in "The Amityville Horror," yet another scary remake. It opens this week. (Peter Iovino -- Mgm)

Less impressed with current attitudes toward the genre is John Landis. "The truth is the modern horror movie is no different than the old horror movie, but it is damaged in the same way that most of the product is now by the corporate culture" at the studios, says the director, who in 1981 wrote and directed the comedic horror trip "An American Werewolf in London."

However unholy the liaison between the corporate and creative limbs of Hollywood, it's clear that both sides are busy capitalizing on a certain segment of the public's taste for blood and gore, spooky stuff, menace and mayhem.

Remakes abound. Dark Castle Entertainment, which in 1999 remade 1959's "House on Haunted Hill," is retreading a similar path with an update of 1953's "House of Wax," to be released by Warner Bros. next month. Another journey into John Carpenter's 1980 spooky "The Fog" is being filmed in Canada for Columbia Pictures release this fall. And MGM's new take on the 1979 hit "The Amityville Horror" opens Friday.

Andrew Douglas, the British director hired for "Amityville," says his redo is as justified as revisiting fairy tales or Shakespeare. But he admits it's also a business decision. "There is a certain kind of commercial cynicism in an industry that is constantly remaking either films that did well in the previous generation, or indeed a film that did well in another language and another geography," he says. An example of the latter: The Japanese "Ringu" was remade in 2002 in the United States as "The Ring," which spawned last month's "The Ring Two."

It may help somewhat, in films aimed at the youth market, to cast cute teen-appeal TV stars as objects of terror. Barry Watson, alumni of "7th Heaven," was in "Boogeyman," Chad Michael Murray of "One Tree Hill" is in "House of Wax," along with the ubiquitous Paris Hilton. Tom Welling of "Smallville" is caught up in "The Fog." But most in the industry acknowledge it's the quality of the villain -- whether human or monster, real or ghostly -- plot twists and the skill of the filmmaker's execution that make or break a horror film.

"It's more important that you have a marketable concept than a recognizable cast," says Peter Block, president of acquisitions and co-production for Lions Gate, a company which he contends "harkened the reemergence of the horror genre."

Lions Gate released "Cabin Fever" in 2002, "House of 1,000 Corpses" in 2003 and "Saw," which cost well under $2 million and grossed more than $18 million in its opening weekend, in 2004 (a sequel is in the works). Overseas acquisitions included Takashi Shimizu's "Ju-On: The Grudge" (which was remade by a different company and starred Sarah Michelle Gellar). Upcoming are six Japanese horror films resulting from a co-production deal with Taka Ichise, who produced both "Ju-On" and "Ringu." The first will be released next month, Masayuki Oschiai's "Infection" (tag line: "Death is just a breath away").

Lions Gate relies heavily on buzz rather than the expensive blanket marketing utilized by major studios.

The fact that "House of 1,000 Corpses' " original financier Universal and distributor MGM dropped Rob Zombie's film because it was "too tough" was a hot topic with fans on the Internet. "You can't buy publicity like that," Block exclaims.

Zombie, whose next movie is "The Devil's Rejects," notes a trend back to "more brutal movies. "Everything got safer and safer and nicer, or down to the end of the line," says Zombie. "For me, 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' -- a guy, who looks like a fisherman, terrorizing Jennifer Love Hewitt -- that's a pretty far cry from 'The Exorcist.' "

Violence was on the mind of "Amityville" producer Brad Fuller, he says, when he and his partners founded their production company, Platinum Dunes, in 2001. They were looking for a reasonably cheap way to "get a lot of bang for our buck." It had been a year since Wes Craven's third "Scream," a successful franchise whose impact was eventually muted by parody (the "Scary Movie" trilogy began that year, too) and dismissed as cliche. "We thought, let's make a really violent horror movie like what was there in the '70s."

They acquired rights to remake Tobe Hooper's 1974 cannibal tale, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

"Everybody told us we were fools, it was stupid, it would never work," recalls Fuller. "That gave us a lot of freedom, because nobody had any expectations. . . . So we went out and pushed the boundaries."

Made for about $9.5 million, their 2003 "Chainsaw" grossed $81 million domestically and an additional $30 million or so overseas, not including DVD sales. The "Amityville" remake, produced in what Fuller thinks is a "more conservative" climate but still rated R, inevitably cost more, but came in under $20 million.

"The horror genre will never die," concludes Larry Cohen, director of "It's Alive!," the 1974 killer baby rampage. "Sitting around in the dark and telling scary stories is something built into the nature of human beings. We are just carrying on this tradition."

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