Why are there so many bad horror movies?
While I was researching my undergrad thesis, my supervisor suggested that I watch Halloween and Get Out.
While I certainly find horror intellectually stimulating, I hadn’t actually seen too many horror films because I am (to use the proper terminology) a scaredy-cat. But I found my courage and started watching more horror films for research purposes. And in my quest for knowledge, I found something truly horrific.
I watched The Nun.
It’s a confusing, shallow, and messy film. Fear is created in one of two ways; demons creating illusions, and mentally ill people. The plot and characters are either lifted from superior horror films or are one-dimensional archetypes, and I imagine Catholics and heathens alike will be distressed at the heavy use of iconography and folklore in this film. I found that my experience was echoed in the reviews. Bilge Ebiri from Rolling Stone called it “…insistent, overdetermined and soulless,” while Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian states that the film doesn’t contain “…a genuinely frightening or interesting moment.” Of course, the reason I sat down to watch the film with my family was not to watch a horror masterpiece. It’s called The Nun- I knew it was bad. But the film has more to offer than quality alone. Screen Daily’s Sarah Ward discusses the films penchant for falling into “…inane, illogical, almost-amusing B-movie territory”- and so, if you also like horror films that make you laugh instead of scream, then this is a classic. I don’t think I’ve had more fun in a horror film than I did when I witnessed the titular holy woman zoom across a body of water like a speedboat in an attempt to catch up to the protagonist. It’s the kind of moment that demands respect.
But The Nun, and other films like it, sometimes spark outcry as audiences and critics think about what has led to the existence of the speedboat sister in our society. How did we get here?
Why are there so many bad horror movies?
If you google this question, you will find articles and video essays that touch on the same points. CGI is bad, the plots are contrived, the studios don’t really care, and jump scares are ruining the genre. A lot of commentary will refer to films like The Nun, those spin-offs of sequels that exist simply to make money. The reasoning is usually the same- horror was better in the good old days. What has happened to make mainstream horror bad?
I had a theory, but wanted to test it in the non-abstract arena of stats and facts. And so, I went ahead and made a table.
I took a list from Wikipedia of notable horror movies released in 2019, then I checked their budgets, box office revenue, and Rotten Tomatoes scores (both critic and audience).
Where I had hoped to see some patterns emerge, I instead found chaos.
For a sample, I took a look at the box office returns of the five highest grossing horror films of 2019 (according to my highly sophisticated research technique of using Wikipedia)-
As you can see, these films not only made plenty of money, but cost close to nothing to produce. This is a trend that goes back to the original myths of horror- gruesome, lowbrow, and even lower budget. A film like It Chapter Two, a highly anticipated sequel with expectations to live up to, is an outlier with its $79 million budget. Horror films, even terrible ones, can easily bring in double, triple, or quadruple what studios are investing in them.
Taking the financial matter into account, it's worth considering how these films fare in the cultural arena as well. This is how the top five stack up in terms of audience and critic satisfaction-
Ideally, the most-watched horror films of last year would be very artistically successful. It makes sense- the film is of a high quality so audiences flock to see it. However, that doesn't seem to be the case. These films, despite comparative financial success, receive wildly different reviews and ratings. There isn't even a clear consensus between audiences and critics- look at the difference in scores for Us. There seems to be no clear alignment in data to suggest that 'good' can be quantified in dollars or star rating systems.
One trend I did notice was that films with high critic scores but more avant-garde or niche premises tended to score significantly worse with audiences. It seems that audiences (or at least those that vote on Rotten Tomatoes) don't critique objectively, but instead react on a more abstract basis. Audience opinions rest on more than reviews, popularity, and monetary success. Do most people think Us is a mediocre film? Or are people judging it more harshly than the critics are because it wasn't as good as the filmmaker's previous efforts? Is the film Sweetheart bad? I wouldn't know- with a 94% critic rating, a 51% audience rating, and no cinematic release, it's not a film that played to many people. Not all films make it to the cinema to rake in millions of dollars. Some of the highest rated horror films of last year- Bliss, Colour Out of Space, and Harpoon- only played in select cinemas for a few days.
What I learned from my number-crunching and graphing is that it's very hard to determine what 'good' means when it is easily contradicted by another measure. If the film did well financially, it probably flopped critically. If it did well with audiences, that does not guarantee a profit for the studio. I think the outcry around 'bad' horror may be missing a key aspect of the genre that has been one of its defining features since the early 20th century. Something that transcends time, money, or cultural relevance.
There has always been bad horror. There will always be bad horror.
We are not living through a new age of horror where most of it is terrible. Look at any period in the history of the genre, and you will see plenty of bad characters, contrived plots, and cringe-worthy special effects. Take a look at the top highest grossing horror films of all time- Jaws, Alien, and The Exorcist share that list with Jaws 2, The Deep, and The Amityville Horror. Comparing box office with Rotten Tomatoes here gets you the same result as comparing 2019's horror releases. Audiences don't care about critic opinions or the death of a genre- we will never truly understand what motivates a horror audience. That's a deep dive for another time.
The only real question I see left is this- does it matter?
Do these bad horror films leave a mark? Do they actually ruin the genre and taint its reputation? Will future audiences really go back to watch Escape Room, or The Curse of La Llorona, or The Deep expecting a masterpiece?
Money drives art, and horror movies make money. But most horror films don’t have the benefit of built-in expanded universes or endless TV and game spin-offs. Even the most lucrative properties fall out of fashion in the end. The powers-that-be are constantly looking for new artists and ideas to spark the next franchise. Hollywood isn’t stupid- it’s the law of diminishing returns. Sure, Jaws will get you a few sequels, but once that well is dry it’s time to innovate again.
Artistic integrity is abstract, but money isn’t. Horror is bankable and it will innovate if there are more profits to be found in innovating. I would endure The Nun again if it guaranteed me a future Conjuring. It’s trial and error, and it’s capitalism, and it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator; no one could argue against that. But is there any actual cultural danger in letting this process, that has been the process for decades, continue to churn out more films?
Horror is a genre of low budgets, high ambition, and emerging artists. It’s the genre that introduced the world to Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and plenty of talented and successful actors and writers. The door has always been wide open. Little-knowns and auteurs can find their way to huge audiences via this genre. The newest big name in horror is probably Ari Aster, and he has only made two films. We can't shut the doors now and put the hopes of an entire genre on the shoulders of one director. There is something beautiful about how egalitarian it can be. When we start gatekeeping horror, we lose sight of what makes it so consistently groundbreaking. Is it really worth blocking a potential Exorcist (with 87% on Rotten Tomatoes) from cinemas in fear of creating Exorcist II: The Heretic (and its terrifying 13%)?
Horror isn’t about prestige. It’s about corn syrup, greasepaint, shaking cameras and filming in your mum's house. It's first drafts, first acting gigs, and first attempts at new ideas. And bad horror is inextricable from that magical process.
What do you think? Why are there so many bad horror films?
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Bean, T 2019, 'The highest-grossing horror movies of all time', Forbes, 3 Oct <https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbean/2019/10/03/the-highest-grossing-horror-movies-of-all-time/#60a9ce64e4d3>.
Bradshaw, P 2018, 'The Nun review – a clueless Conjuring cash-in that summons zero scares', The Guardian, 7 Sep, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/07/the-nun-review-conjuring-franchise-prequel>.
Ebiri, B 2018, '‘The Nun’ review: ‘Conjuring’ prequel is an unholy mess', Rolling Stone, 5 Sep, <https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-nun-movie-review-718609/
Fletcher, R 2017, '7 megastar directors and the tiny horror films that started their careers', Digital Spy, 28 June, <https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a831903/megastar-directors-and-the-tiny-horror-films-that-started-their-careers/>.
The Conjuring behind the scenes © still Fractured FX
The Nun still © Warner Bros. Pictures