Film

Afraid Of The Dark: Is There An Audience For Horror Movies In Australia?

There’s something special about watching a great horror movie in the cinema. Sitting in the dark with a room full of strangers. Sharing the nervous silence of anticipation — and embarrassed laughs, when that noise turns out to just be a cat. And, of course, those beautiful moments when someone just can’t resist letting out a terrified scream.

It’s a shame, then, that these opportunities for Australian audiences have been few and far between. Outside of one-night-only screenings of Aussie zombie flick Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, the first chance we’ve had to see a horror film in the cinema this year has been It Follows, an independent American film which opened here last week, more than a quarter of the way into 2015. To some extent this is explained by the paucity of horror releases worldwide; if we ignore minor movies like Zombeavers and REC 4: Apocalypse, the only significant horror flicks released in the US have been The Lazarus Effect, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, and It Follows itself.

But another contributing factor for the lack of big screen scares is the prevailing perception that Australian audiences just don’t like horror. It Follows is an excellent film – terrifying and thoughtful in equal measure – but we were lucky to get our hands on it: for a long time it looked as though it was only going to screen to film festival devotees.

But after playing both the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, and the Gold Coast Film Festival this year, the film slinked its way into a limited national release thanks to a concerted social media campaign from its Australian distributor Rialto (though its healthy US box office haul can’t have hurt). In the weeks leading up to its April 16 release, Rialto’s Twitter account encouraged horror fans to entreat their local cinemas to play the film, under the hashtag #DemandItNow.

Mike Vile, General Manager at Rialto, admitted that getting the film into theatres wasn’t easy – in large part because it’s a horror movie. “It’s a tough genre to get out there, that’s for sure,” Vile says. “Generally the first thing you get from [cinemas] – which is pretty much backed up by a lot of results as well – is that horror doesn’t work in Australia. There have been some horrors that work; obviously Wolf Creek, Paranormal Activitys and [others] have taken off … but it’s just not seen as a successful genre from the server side of things.”

Alexandra Donald, the programmer of a chain of Queensland commercial cinemas, confirmed that the genre was seen as a hard sell. “Nine times out of ten, horror films are going to have an MA or R rating, which automatically rules out the two demographics that most consistently turn up to the movies: young teenagers and senior citizens. Add on top of that the fact that horror isn’t a genre that appeals to a lot of people, and you’re really restricted in terms of who’s going to turn up before the film’s even opened.”

The idea that Australians don’t go to see horror films is taken as a truism by many in the industry, but it’s not completely supported by recent figures. Box office grosses don’t tell you the whole story, but the performance of last year’s horror releases suggest that Aussies are more than happy to be frightened at the multiplex. Annabelle, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and Deliver Us from Evil all performed reasonably well, taking home $5.2 million, $3 million and $2.4 million respectively. When comparing the US top 100 box office to Australia’s equivalent list, you can see that the latter two films actually performed comparatively better down under, albeit in a smaller market (placing 71st and 85th versus 88th and 93rd in America). And Wolf Creek 2 – which didn’t make it to American cinemas – earned some decent coin too.

With figures like that, why aren’t we seeing more horror films in Australia? Of course, it’s hard to fault the decision to keep The Woman in Black 2 out of our theatres when its predecessor’s paltry six-figure Australian take was dwarved by its $55 million domestic gross, but films like Ouija, The Purge: Anarchy and Oculus – one of the best horrors of last year, in my book – earned big bucks in America, yet never even got a chance here. With a larger audience base, the US can afford to carpetbomb cinemas with horror movies that don’t always succeed (for example, both Stage Fright and The ABCs of Death 2 had theatrical releases in the States, but couldn’t crack five figures at the box office) — but that’s no reason for market-proven horror films to bypass our theatres entirely.

Except, perhaps, in the case of The Babadook. Last year saw Australian-made The Babadook lurch to a disappointing $256,000 locally, despite the critical praise showered on the film (which culminated in an AACTA win for best Australian film, shared with The Water Diviner). The Babadook is somewhat anomalous, in that it was released by Umbrella Entertainment, a smaller distributor who doesn’t have the marketing clout to attract big numbers to independent films. Critical praise is one thing, but The Babadook didn’t have the TV ad campaign of Annabelle behind it; in fact, its Brisbane screening was promoted by a “poster” cobbled together from loose flyers. The film made comparatively big money in Europe (US$3 million or so), but it also cost big money in Europe, with a marketing campaign of reportedly £1 million. Whatever the reason for the film’s disappointing performance locally, it’s understandable that cinema managers – who surveyed sparsely-attended screenings of a well-reviewed horror film – would be reluctant to book scary movies.

Another possible explanation for the diminishing representation of horror in Aussie cinemas is that people are simply settling in for some scares at the living room; VOD and streaming services are perfect platforms for low-budget horror film-makers, and their recent abundance in Australia provides ample opportunities for those wanting horror at home.

Ben Buckingham is an avid horror fan, and a film theorist who’s worked at a number of Melbourne film festivals and venues. “[Horror fans] don’t feel locked into traditional ways of viewing,” he says. “[Outside of It Follows], the best horror films I saw last year were not even screened at festivals; they were all straight-to-DVD. Combined with a strong interest in viewing the vast back catalogue of horror films, [that] means that what’s showing in the cinemas doesn’t have as great a significance.”

Some distributors continue to push forward. Universal Pictures, for instance, have a solid batch of horror on the cards for 2015, including Unfriended, which reinvents I Know What You Did Last Summer for the cyberbullying generation; Gremlins-esque horror-comedy Krampus; and M. Night Shymalan’s The Visit. “We are fortunate to have such a strong genre slate this year, and expect all of them to connect positively with audiences,” said Mike Baard, Universal’s Managing Director  – an optimistic take compared to last year, when Universal had distribution rights for The Purge: Anarchy and Ouija, but released them straight to DVD.

As long as people keep making smart, scary horror movies like It Follows, the audience will be out there; last week, it topped the weekend box office at both Melbourne’s Cinema Nova and Sydney’s Dendy Newtown. Hopefully, distributors and programmers will continue to recognise the potential in the genre, and ensure that the concept of sitting down in a cinema for a horror film isn’t going to going to become another antiquated activity for horror devotees — like scouring old pawn shops for obscure videos. A future where horror films bypass the big screen altogether is a frightening prospect indeed.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance writer who spends way too much of his time watching movies. He tweets from @ccpopculture.