Horror Show

Once the credits roll and the theater empties, movie marketers go to the same place as the rest of us: the bathroom. Only they go to eavesdrop. "That's where you hear the good s--t," says Tim Palen, co-president of marketing for Lions Gate Films. Four years ago, after a test screening of a nasty little horror movie called "Cabin Fever," Palen was lingering in the men's room when he heard two pals dissecting the film. "I liked it," one said. "I just wish it was bloodier. " Palen made a mental note: gore is good. He played up the carnage in his ad campaign, and "Cabin Fever," about a flesh-eating virus that chews through a group of friends, earned 15 times its budget and put first-time director Eli Roth on the map. When Roth finished his next film, about a pair of sex-starved American backpackers in Europe who wind up in a torture chamber, Palen didn't blink. "Hostel," starring no one you've heard of and featuring some of the most brutal violence in any mainstream film, debuted atop the box office in January and made nearly $50 million. A sequel is planned for early 2007. "We're now a big believer in blood," says Palen.

In a risk-averse town like Hollywood, the high church of horror has become the one sure bet. Since last fall, seven horror movies have topped the box office. Lions Gate's "Saw" franchise, the genre's current kingpin, has rung up $250 million worldwide; a third film is planned for Halloween. Three more creepfests are scheduled for the next month, starting with Universal's "Slither" this Friday. Even Disney has gotten into the act with the PG-13 flick "Stay Alive," which, alas, is not about the systematic slaughter of disco fans. "In 1990, I had to pull my hair out just to find a movie to put on the cover," says Fangoria magazine editor Tony Timpone. "There were only three or four major horror releases a year. Now there's three or four a month. We're like pigs in slop."

Every decade or so, horror gets hot in Hollywood. This latest shockwave, though, is larger--and much more grotesque. You could sew together a whole new person from all the severed body parts in the "Saw" movies, "Hostel" and Fox Searchlight's remake of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes." It's not jokey violence, either. "Filmmakers now have the ability to put viewers directly into the shoes of the victims going through these horrible things, in an almost documentary way," says Bob Weinstein, whose "Scream" franchise for Dimension Films launched the last horror fad in 1996. Some critics--smart ones like New York Magazine's David Edelstein, not just nervous Nellies--argue that the trend verges on "torture porn." Even people within the industry are torn. "It's not the violence that bothers me so much as the tone. A George Romero movie was so political and funny and subversive," says Picturehouse Films president Bob Berney, who marketed "The Passion of the Christ." "To me, these newer movies are purely sadistic." Then again, he adds, "I remember my parents saying stuff like this, and I ignored it. They wouldn't let me see 'A Clockwork Orange,' and I went 25 times."

No one's stacking "Saw 2" alongside Stanley Kubrick, but it is true that such films tend to look smarter with the passage of time. It's practically a cliché that you can tease out a generation's subconscious fears just by watching its horror movies (sidebar). Craven, the man who created Freddy Krueger, says horror movies are "boot camp for the young psyche." (Sixty-five percent of the audience for "Hostel" was younger than 25, which is par for the genre.) "I don't think it's an accident that it's always average kids who come to these movies," Craven says. "They're wondering, 'Just how violent is this adult world?' " Asked if he's got any theories about why sadism is in vogue, he laughs and says, "Because we're living in a horror show. The post-9/11 period, all politics aside, has been extremely difficult for the average American. We all know what's floating around out there. That's big stuff, and it comes out in a million ways, from people drinking a bit more to kids going to hard-core movies."

Maybe it's pure coincidence that "Hostel" became a hit after two years of headlines about Abu Ghraib and the rise of anti-Americanism in Europe. But here's the tip-off that the director, at least, knew exactly what he was doing: his two protagonists are jackasses of a specifically American, "what happens in Bratislava stays in Bratislava" variety. You'd want five minutes alone in a room with these knuckleheads, too. Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes" in 1977 was about atom-bomb testing in the Southwest; if you didn't know that the remake (directed by a Frenchman, natch) was a broader critique of U.S. aggression, the moment when the hero jams an American flag through a mutant's neck really spells it out.

Right now, no one has better fingertips for this material than the people at Lions Gate. The studio just won the top Oscar for "Crash," but its executives make no apologies for the bloodier side of their business. "Have I no shame? Is that what you're asking?" says president Tom Ortenberg. "When we see a void in the market, we do our best to fill it. And we didn't feel that there were enough, or really any, R-rated, balls-to-the-wall horror films out there." Without the yoke of a parent company, Lions Gate is free to unleash its inner provocateur, whether that means putting a pair of severed fingers on its "Saw 2" poster--which even Berney, a competitor, calls "a classic"--or playing up the fact that people passed out during previews of "Hostel." "I feel bad that some people had such an extreme reaction," says Palen, "but as a marketer, it was an opportunity to alert people who relish that kind of movie that we've got one for them."

There may not be many more. "The impulse to make these films gets less and less pure as the box office goes up. That's the pattern," says Craven. "A series of original films comes out, often quite furious in their energy, and they find a big audience. Then suddenly everyone wants to make one." And ingenuity takes a nosedive. Screen Gems' remake of "When a Stranger Calls" took in plenty of money last month, but horror-fan hangouts on the Web like Bloody-Disgusting.com gave it two severed thumbs down. "It was like a TV movie of the week," says Fangoria's Timpone. Upcoming titles like "Snakes on a Plane" don't inspire hope, though horror fans will appreciate New Line's decision to add more gore to the film after an early version received a measly PG-13. Palen has no delusions about the future. "Like anything else," he says, "this will run its course." If horror films have taught us anything, though, it's this: you can kill them, but they never stay dead.