Horror movies have always made bloody fortunes, dating back to the days when Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Boris Karloff were skulking around darkened theaters in Halloween costumes. Along the way there have been the campy (Creature From the Black Lagoon) and the classy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and the in-between, chiefly the British imports from the Hammer Films of the 1950s through the 1970s, when comedy crept into the crypt with Christopher Lee. (Indeed, it's the Hammer Films that have influenced Raimi and Ghost House Pictures to emulate their corporate agenda. Says the director, "No one will ever consider them works of art, but as a kid I was crazy about them. The producers must have loved horror films and really wanted to give the kids - and I feel like they're made for kids - a steady diet of what they loved about horror movies.")
Then came the zombie renaissance of the late 1960s, led by Night of the Living Dead director George Romero; the all-guts-mo'-gory period of the 1970s that included The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; and the biggest, baddest stomach- (and head-) turner of all time, The Exorcist. The scary movie has been malleable enough to allow for social commentary (the Romero movies, even John Carpenter's best works) and self-satire (the Scream series), for gross-out thrills (the zombie gore-fest Braindead, directed by Lord of the Rings kingpin Peter Jackson) and the genuinely thrilling (say, Psycho-era Hitchcock or Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist).
They're inevitably profitable because horror films are relatively cheap to produce, with budgets often ranging between $10 and $30 million, and easier to market with over-the-top trailers featuring ominous narrators promising terror over quick-cut flashes of shadowy specters with bad intentions. ("The subjects of some movies are so disturbing that those who experience them will never be the same again," moaned the voice of White Noise's trailer.) They offer the promise of fear, and if they don't deliver, well, there's always next week's entry in the chills-and-thrills sweepstakes, which may be why these movies often do well on opening weekend but watch their profits fall dramatically come the next Friday.
"This is one of those genres - ironically, along with family films - that has done consistently strong business, especially for the last six months," Dergarabedian says. "Films like The Grudge, Resident Evil, Seed of Chucky, Saw, White Noise, Hide and Seek -seemingly every one out of the gate is performing. These are not films looking for good reviews. In fact, it's rare that you see one with a good review. This is a genre, and people just wanna be scared, freaked out, whatever. It's a mainstay of cinema to have movies that thrill and enthrall the audience."
But for an actor like Michael Keaton, who'd never made a creepy-crawly till signing on to do this year's White Noise, the appeal transcends cheap thrills or easy scares. After all, he says, scary movies never scared him, save for The Exorcist or Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby: "Bring 'em on, I'll kick their [butt]," he says. "I don't mean that literally, but movies don't scare me." The self-proclaimed "scarily choosy" actor signed on to White Noise, based on the real-world theory of Electronic Voice Phenomena in which the dead allegedly reach out from the beyond using untuned radios and TV sets, because, he says, who wouldn't want to talk to a dead wife or father or son if given the chance? It's about heart, he insists, not merely the racing heartbeat.
"I haven't seen all the movies in this genre - and it seems like there's one every other week - but I've seen enough and know what they're about," says Keaton, who plays an architect whose wife dies in an apparent accident and begins speaking to him through a television's static. "The thing I thought that was interesting about White Noise was how it goes from, here's a guy who's in the prime part of his life, who's happy and has found a woman he loves and they're gonna have another baby and business is great, and when it goes you feel like it's all lost. Now you're with a guy who, I chose to believe, was a nonbeliever, a cynic, and is now in a really vulnerable spot … . That kinda scared me, and I thought it had the potential to pop. It was like when I first saw Batman. I said, 'Wow, this really works, or I'll look really bad in the suit.' "
White Noise pocketed some $24.1 million before disappearing a few weeks later. It wasn’t terribly well-reviewed; indicative of its reception was The New York Times’ assessment that the “problems with this would-be thriller are rooted … in the silly, thread bare plot,” a damnation that could apply to many of these movies, which begin to look as generic as a bar code as they pile up on the sticky googolplex floor. But studios will keep making them as long as they make money; thus far they’re the closest thing Hollywood has to an ATM. And then there are filmmakers like Raimi, who may have once loathed scary movies but have since grown to love them — to, you know, death.
“After I started making them, I appreciated the craft some people put into them,” he says. “When we started Ghost House, I wanted to make films that had something different or cool about them. They can be cheesy like Hammer or fancy like Polanski, but they have to have something that speaks of the filmmaker’s love for scaring people.”