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'Creep-out' versus 'gross-out': horror movies at the Australian box office.


Australia is a difficult market for horror movies. Particularly in recent years, Australia has been regarded as a graveyard for many horror films released theatrically. (1) This is not to say that Australians have not enjoyed the occasional scary movie on the big screen. But what types of horror films have been popular with Australian audiences at the box-office remains poorly understood.

Horror films revolve around monsters, the fear of death and the transgression of boundaries, and they aim to scare audiences through 'gross-out' or 'creep-out' factors (some combine both). The former refers to shocking and graphic portrayals of gore and violence-as seen in the sadistic torture of backpackers in Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005), which depicts limbs being hacked off and eyes being cut from nerve endings. The latter refers to the crafting of fear through mood and suspense without explicit bloodshed, achieved brilliantly in The Sixth Sense's (M Night Shyamalan, 1999) chilling encounters with 'dead people'. In creepout films, it is often what viewers don't see that is most disturbing.

Using an analysis of the top fifty films each year at the Australian box office from 1992 to 2012, (2) this article identifies the most successful horror movies over this period to ascertain what types of horror movies-with reference to creep-out and gross-out factors-have been most popular with domestic audiences. (3)

Horror movie cycles

Horror movies make their way onto our screens in cycles. In terms of global trends, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the genre dominated by explicitly violent slasher movies, with masked madmen stalking and butchering teenagers-prominent examples are the Halloween (1978-2009) and Friday the 13th (1980-2009) series, with Michael Myers wielding a knife and sporting a white mask in the former, and Jason Voorhees behind a hockey mask and brandishing a machete in the latter. By the mid 1980s, audiences had become tired of this formula and slasher films became less profitable.

Horror made a resurgence in the mid 1990s and early 2000s with two prevailing subgenres. The first heralded the return of the slasher film, popularised by Wes Craven's Scream franchise (1996-2011) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997). A hip cast, a twist as to the slasher's identity and tongue-in-cheek references to horror cliches ('Let's split up to find the bad guy') were essential ingredients. The second subgenre comprised suggestive horror films that traded more on creep-out factors than explicit gore. Typified by The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), such films were far more restrained in their portrayal of violence, offering audiences uncanny occurrences, ghostly apparitions and spine-tingling suspense.

In the mid to late 2000s, the horror genre consisted mostly of 'torture porn' movies, best exemplified by the gruesome Saw (2004-2010) and Hostel (2005-2011) franchises. Such films depicted the worst deaths imaginable-heads crushed in bear traps, bodies hacked apart and jaws ripped from their sockets, to name a few. In other words, they attempted to repulse an audience through grisly depictions that left nothing to the imagination.

In recent years, there has been a return to atmospheric horror-as represented by the haunted-house tales Mama (Andy Muschietti, 2013), Insidious (James Wan, 2010) and The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013), which are underpinned by dark visual styles and lurking supernatural terrors.

The Australian marketplace

For horror filmmakers and distributors, the size of the Australian market is a major impediment to commercial success. Australia's population currently stands at around 23 million, while some 317 million people live in the United States. The problem for horror is that the genre captures only a comparatively small slice of an already small Australian market. On the one hand, horror films garnered on average 4.5 per cent of the American box office from 1995 to 2013. And although there is limited box-office data by genre for the Australian market, the findings of a 2010 report revealed that horror films failed to figure in the top ten highest-grossing movies per annum in the Oceania market (comprising Australia, New Zealand and Fiji) from 2002 to 2009. (4) Yet the genre accounted for 1 to 5 per cent of the highest-grossing movies in Asia, Latin America and Europe. (5)

What this means is that, due to the genre's small Australian fan base, high-profile international horror films that perform well in theatrical markets around the world have a tendency to underperform or perform poorly here. Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror film Prometheus was the highest-grossing horror movie at the Australian box office in 2012, but it generated only US$18.7 million-4.5 per cent of its worldwide theatrical returns-in that market. Of the remaining four horror films that earned over US$100 million in worldwide ticket sales in 2012, Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman) generated US$7.9 million (5.5 per cent of its theatrical gross); Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov), US$2.5 million (2 per cent); and The Devil Inside (William Brent Bell), US$1.7 million (1.6 per cent). The Possession (Ole Bornedal) failed to secure an Australian release despite it amassing over US$85 million worldwide, and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)-which had initially been relegated to a direct-to-DVD release in Australia-made a pitiful US$263,084 (0.4 per cent of its global takings) when it was released on seven screens following calls from a vocal minority of fans. (6)

Horror that Australians like

As illustrated in the sidebar, a mere forty-five horror films from a total of 1050 movies-equating to just 4 per cent-feature in the top fifty highest-grossing films each year from 1992 through to 2012 (7) Although this is a small number, it still provides an interesting snapshot of what types of horror movies have been most appealing to Australian audiences during this period. Most importantly, in terms of the distinction introduced earlier, this article finds that horror movies that can be classified in the creep-out category tend to be more successful in Australia than gross-out films.

In the 1990s, the most popular horror films in Australia were a diverse bunch. In the cases of Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992) and The Lawnmower Man (Brett Leonard, 1992), the drawcards were arguably comedy and an all-star cast led by Meryl Streep in the former, and science fiction oddity in the latter, more so than slow-burn terror or buckets of blood. Nevertheless, Australian audiences were enticed by several high-budget gross-out movies-the creature features Anaconda (Luis Llosa, 1997) and Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), and the gory sci-fi horrors Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992), Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997) and Species (Roger Donaldson, 1995), which revolved around characters ripped apart or aliens bursting from their hosts' chests. Violent slashers revelling in high body counts, including Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and their sequels, also performed well.

But these franchises, gore movies and creature features aside, a significant number of the decade's hit horror flicks traded on atmosphere, mood and implied horror. In 1999, in particular, three of the four most popular horror movies in Australia-in line with international horror film cycles-were The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and The Haunting (Jan de Bont), which generated fear through atmosphere and depicted minimal violence. The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996), a teen-goth tale about witchcraft, the serial-killer movie Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) and the tense werewolf thriller Wolf (Mike Nichols, 1994), starring Jack Nicholson, also erred on the side of creep-out horror even though they contained instances of graphic violence. Gothic horror Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999) likewise showed some gore but was most renowned for its gloomy visual style.

In the 2000s, the strong preference for creep-out films continued. Several action-based Hollywood horrors made the top fifty list, including I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), Prometheus, Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), and AVP: Alien vs. Predator (Paul WS Anderson, 2004). There were also a handful of torture flicks, as well as the bloody musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007). Otherwise, moody horror-thrillers were by far the most popular style of horror film during the decade. Earlier on, the eerie supernatural thrillers What Lies Beneath (Robert Zemeckis, 2000), The Gift (Sam Raimi, 2000) and The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001), starring Nicole Kidman, performed well. Towards the mid 2000s, the creepy Asian-inspired supernatural tales The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002), The Ring Two (Hideo Nakata, 2005) and The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2004) reeled in audiences, while psychological thrillers tinged with horror like Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002) and Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) also flourished.

From 2006 to 2012, viewing patterns followed the same creep-out-dominated trend, as seen in the success of four Paranormal Activity films (2007-2012) and the horror-thriller Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In a throwback to late-1990s spook stories, the Paranormal Activity franchise capitalised on clever filmmaking and a fear of what is not shown. Interestingly, of the deluge of torture films released worldwide, only Saw II (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005), Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006) and Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005) (8) made the Australian top fifty lists; major torture films such as Hostel and some of the Saw sequels failed to draw in large Australian audiences.

Dominant international horror-film cycles have had a significant influence on what becomes popular in the Australian marketplace. And even though the odd high-budget gross-out horror has lured local audiences to cinema screens, Australian audiences have been more inclined to enjoy star-driven horror-thrillers that embrace mystery and suspense than films drenched in hardcore gore and splatter. In line with the worldwide penchant for creep-out movies, evidence to date suggests that Australian viewers' taste for suggestive horror continues. Notable examples include The Conjuring, which earned almost US$8.2 million at the 2013 Australian box office, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Christopher Landon), which took over US$3 million in 2014, compared to gross-out remakes Carrie (Kimberly Peirce) and Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez), which managed just US$1.6 million and less than US$400,000 in 2013, respectively.

As history has shown, when audience sentiment for creep-out fare wanes, new gross-out cycles emerge-though what impact this will have on Australian viewing patterns is nevertheless hard to predict. But for now, we can expect atmospheric horror to dominate for some years to come.

Horror at the Australian box office

Below are the titles that made Screen Australia's annual list of the fifty best-performing films (based on reported gross earnings) at the Australian box office from 1992 to 2012.


1992   Alien III, The Lawnmower
       Man, Death Becomes Her

1993   Dracula

1994   Wolf

1993   Interview with a Vampire,
       Species, Se7en

1996   The Craft

1997   Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Anaconda

1998   Scream II, I Still Know What You Did Last
       Summer, Alien: Resurrection

1999   The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project,
       The Haunting, Deep Blue Sea

2000   What Lies Beneath, Sleepy Hollow, Hollow Man

2001   The Others, Hannibal, The Gift

2002   The Ring, Red Dragon, Insomnia

2003   (n/a)

2004   The Village, The Grudge, A VP: Alien vs. Predator

2005   Constantine, Wolf Creek, Saw II, The Ring II

2006   Saw III

2007   (n/a)

2008   Cloverfield, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber
       of Fleet Street, I Am Legend

2009   Paranormal Activity

2010   Paranormal Activity 2, Shutter Island

2011   Paranormal Activity 3

2012   Prometheus,
       Paranormal Activity 4


(1) Tim Kroenert, 'The Rocky Horror Picture No-show', Inside Film, no. 135, September 2010.

(2) Screen Australia, Top 50 Films in Australia Each Year since 1992, Ranked by Reported Gross Australian Box Office as at 31 December Each Year', 2013, < research/statistics/wctopfilms.aspx>, accessed 22 June 2013.

(3) This analysis focuses on how often horror titles appear in the top fifty list rather than box-office earnings.

(4) Film Victoria, 'Genre and International Box Office', 2010, < AA6_Genre_and_lntenational_BO.pdf>, accessed 20 May 2013.

(5) ibid.

(6) All Australian and total box-office figures from Box Office Mojo, <>, accessed 18 February 2014.

(7) Screen Australia, op. cit.

(8) Based on the Peter Falconio and the Belanglo State Forest backpacker murders, Wolf Creek was arguably popular more so for the notoriety of these true crimes-which elicited creep-out responses-than for the type of gruesome scares it offered viewers.

Mark David Ryan is a lecturer in film and television for the Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. He is an expert on Australian horror films and genre cinema.
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Author:Ryan, Mark David
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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