Graham: Horror movies have the box office screaming

In a year where ‘It’ and ‘Get Out’ are raking in millions, horror is a hit. But why?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

A demented serial killer enacts his twisted brand of revenge on a group of individuals whom he feels have committed crimes against society that have gone unpunished for too long.

Hey, it beats real life.

Last weekend, “Jigsaw” — “Saw” No. 8, if you’re keeping score or planning an all-day “Saw” marathon — opened at No. 1 at the North American box office. It wasn’t a breakout success, and its $16 million debut was the second lowest in the “Saw” series (whose last installment, “Saw 3D,” was released in 2010).

But it was another scary movie topping the charts in what has been a record-breaking year for horror fare.

September’s “It” has become the highest-grossing horror film of all-time, pulling in $324 million and counting at the domestic box office, and an additional $346 million overseas. It stands as the year’s fifth highest grosser, behind a remake of a beloved film (“Beauty and the Beast”) and three superhero movies (“Wonder Woman,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming”). With a budget of just $35 million, “It” is the year’s most profitable smash.

Earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s social horror experiment “Get Out” pulled in $175 million and stands at No. 11 on the list of the year’s top grossers. Two more horror films, January’s “Split” and summer’s “Annabelle: Creation,” crossed the $100 million mark, and the horror-comedies “Happy Death Day” and “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” managed to top the box office during their opening frames. With two months to go, 2017 is already the biggest year ever for horror films at the box office.

Meanwhile, reality-based dramas are tanking in theaters. In September, the Boston Marathon bombing picture “Stronger” was leveled at the box office, pulling in just $4.1 million, despite positive reviews and a lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. It was the year’s second Boston Marathon bombing movie to underperform; in January, the Mark Wahlberg-starring “Patriots Day” stalled out at $32 million, $13 million below its estimated budget.

Also in recent weeks, a pair of fact-based films starring Miles Teller stiffed at the box office. “Only the Brave,” about a group of firefighters in Arizona, has made just $12.8 million, and “Thank You for Your Service,” which follows a trio of soldiers home from Iraq, opened last weekend at No. 6 and made just $3.8 million in its debut frame.

Are horror movies becoming preferential to real life? That’s one read on the numbers. We live in scary times: we’re on the brink of nuclear war, Mother Nature is whipping up meaner storms than ever, and you never know what kind of Twitteruption you’re going to wake up to from the president of the United States. A few hours with “Jigsaw” or a sewer-dwelling, razor-toothed clown are a break from the 24-hour news cycle, while films like “Stronger” and “Only the Brave” are like living out today’s headlines.

But horror movies aren’t just a way to check out, they’re an outsize reflection of ourselves and our fears, and “It” and “Get Out” expertly tap into our frayed modern collective mindset. “It” follows a group of bullied outsider kids who call themselves “The Losers” whose nightmares are manifested and individualized by Pennnywise, a killer clown with a thing for red balloons. He attacks the group members one by one and gets them to turn on one another, a division which mirrors the way many Americans feel today. “It” is adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling 1986 novel, but its themes of homegrown horrors and its mistrust of authority figures rings ever-true in 2017.

“Get Out” is a horror film based around the evils of racism, another theme that is extremely prominent in our country today, as racial tensions are as thick as they’ve been in years.

While horror pulls from real life — even the current season of “American Horror Story” used the 2016 presidential election as its jumping-off point — it dresses it up in a package of fantasy that allows us to engage our fears without facing them head on. Of course, Pennywise (or Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers) isn’t real, but what he represents to us is. And a good scare helps us cope.

Another factor is that horror movies are getting better. For years fright flicks were the dregs of the cinema world, and while plenty of shlock horror is still produced — just try finding a good horror movie on Netflix — films like “It” and “Get Out,” which scored 85 percent and 99 percent fresh, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes, are raising the bar for quality horror.

Our reality, meanwhile, is steadily raising the bar for the horror world. Scary times call for scary movies. No wonder Jigsaw is back for more.