Horror No Longer Scares Hollywood

The medical photographs on Robert Rodriguez's laptop are, in a word, disgusting. They show real, live human beings afflicted with ... actually, Robert, why don't you explain? "It's this thing called 'necrotizing fasciitis.' It's basically a flesh-eating virus," he says, giggling. "Pretty nasty, huh?" The 38-year-old director ("Sin City") borrowed the photos from a doctor pal and used them to inspire the look of the zombies in "Planet Terror," an 85-minute splatterfest that kicks off "Grindhouse," the outrageous horror-flick double feature that Rodriguez made in tandem with longtime pal Quentin Tarantino. (Tarantino's portion is a chase movie called "Death Proof" about a stuntman with a killer car.) The twin billing is a perverse homage to the craptastic, low-budget exploitation flicks that Rodriguez and Tarantino used to sneak in to in the late 1970s. "These movies couldn't get big stars, so they had to have what they called 'exploitable' elements, lurid material that Hollywood movies couldn't or wouldn't do," Rodriguez says. "The funny thing is we're making 'Grindhouse' in that spirit, but now we can get movie stars to do it."

And not just any old movie stars. Over the next few months, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger—all of them Oscar winners—will topline scary movies. "Grindhouse" features Bruce Willis ("Planet Terror") as well as Rosario Dawson ("Death Proof"). Luke Wilson, known for boyish comedies such as "Old School," will appear on April 20 in "Vacancy," a shocker about a couple marooned with a psycho at a backwater motel. Next month Ashley Judd will star in a movie about flesh-eating bugs. The title: "Bug." Horror has been the trend du jour for a while, but it was largely confined to the industry's fringe. Now Hollywood has turned into Horrorwood, and the reason is simple: money. "People want to be part of movies that are successful—sometimes it's as simple as that," says Joel Silver, producer of Swank's "The Reaping." "And lately these movies have been very lucrative."

The pursuit of bloodstained dollars, though, is a tricky two-step: studios and stars want the easy payday, but not the unseemly baggage that often comes with it. Around Hollywood, the word "horror" still has a stench to it. It's a thriller, thank you very much. "To me, 'horror' means slasher movies," says Clint Culpepper, president of production for Screen Gems, the Sony division behind "Vacancy." "It makes me think of Freddy Krueger and 'Friday the 13th'—movies where it's really all about the body count." Which "Vacancy," he says, is not. "It's a Hitchcockian thriller." Last year Screen Gems had a minor hit with "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," but according to Culpepper, it wasn't a horror movie, either. "It was a courtroom drama," he says.

Ironically, the presence of a big name in a horror movie can actually hurt its chances with horror fans. "Let's face it, when you see Sandra Bullock or Hilary Swank up there on screen, it lets you know that this is gonna be one of those PG horror movies," Tarantino says, laughing. "Those tend to be horror movies for people who don't like horror." In fact, "The Reaping" is R-rated, but his point remains: the horror crowd can smell a soft R from a mile away. Usually, a film's marketing provides a clue, hence those nasty billboards for the new horror flick "Captivity," which appeared to show a young woman being brutalized. Tarantino knows the terrain, so he doesn't play word games with "Death Proof." It's a horror flick, he cheerfully admits—"a slasher movie," to be precise, "only my killer uses a car instead of a knife." Sounds like one mean ... courtroom drama.