Horror filmmakers have a new goal for audiences at Sundance this year: laughter.
After a decade of torture porn (“Saw”) and found footage films (“Paranormal Activity”), a new wave of producers, writers and directors want to inject levity and character into a genre Hollywood often derides as second-tier.
“The extreme horror stuff of ‘Saw’ and the found footage movies played themselves out a little,” Simon Barrett, writer of horror hits such as “You’re Next” and “V/H/S,” told TheWrap. “If there is a next wave of horror, there’s going to be some humor and some self-awareness without being campy. We’re going to see horror movies become a lot more enjoyable.”
That shift is evident at Sundance, where “The Guest,” which Barrett wrote, is one of several movies that defy recent genre conventions. A tongue-in-cheek joke and a character-driven subplot complement every scream-inducing moment.
Aubrey Plaza plays a zombie ex-girlfriend in the comedy “Life After Beth”; Ryan Reynolds talks with two murderous pets in “The Voices”; and Indonesian action reaches new heights in “The Raid 2: Berendal.”
None of those movies are playing in the midnight section, a sign that the collection of genre films at Sundance this year is particularly strong.
That’s welcome news to Elijah Wood, who describes horror as a “marginalized genre.” He is quick to tell a story about Billy Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” who insists to this day that the 1973 staple is not a horror film. Horror films are shlock. “The Exorcist” is an exploration of “the mystery of faith.”
“Horror kind of gets a bad rap,” Wood told TheWrap.
Wood and production partners Josh Waller and Daniel Noah brought two movies to Sundance that defy the common perception of horror — “Cooties,” a horror comedy that Lionsgate paid between $1 million and $1.5 million to distribute, and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” a black-and-white Iranian vampire western.
“It occurred to me it would be wonderful to start a production company that focused on horror films, but the kind of horror films we love that are less reliant on exploitable elements and more reliant on character and story,” Wood said. “We travailed this path and expanded into other genres as well. Our main mission is to push the boundaries of what one considers horror.”
In addition to producing “Cooties,” Wood stars in the film as a teacher whose students are transformed into bloodthirsty monsters by a mysterious virus. Wood initially wanted the film to be an earnest horror movie, but writer Leigh Whannell persuaded him a movie called “Cooties” could not take itself too seriously.
Whannell and co-writer Ian Brennan injected plenty of wry humor, casting comedic stalwarts Rainn Wilson, Nasim Pedred and Jack McBrayer. The film drew as many laughs as gasps at its premiere at the Egyptian Theater over the weekend.
That was welcome news to Whannell, the co-creator of the “Saw” franchise. That film premiered at Sundance 10 years ago, spawning six sequels ushering in a new phase of horror. Though “Saw” made Whannell’s career, he said it was nice to be back at the festival “with something that’s better than that ‘Saw’ shit.”
Distributors are already bidding top-dollar for many of those movies, eager to replicate the success of films such as “Saw,” “Insidious” and “The Purge.” All of those movies cost $5 million or less to make, and all of them grossed upwards of $65 million at the box office.
Yet those are the very movies filmmakers at Sundance are trying to put in the rearview mirror.
“There’s a tidal shift happening where genre is creeping into the mainstream in a way it hasn’t in a long time,” Wood said. “I find it really exciting; some of the most exciting filmmakers are working in the genre.”