Hollywood is remembering horror-movie mastermind Wes Craven, who died Sunday at age 76. The writer and director of 1984’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” helped define the teen slasher genre that he later mocked in the “Scream” films.
That first Freddy Krueger movie broke ground by offering a surreal twist on slasher films, all while establishing Craven as an innovator whose movies made big money on small budgets. With little need for pricey stars or locations, the horror genre’s cost-effectiveness has long made it appealing to Hollywood execs.
“There’s literally no relationship between the cost of a horror movie and how successful it can be at the box office,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, which measures audiences. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money, and that’s why horror films are among the most profitable films of all time.”
Horror films grossed $403 million in 2014 domestic box office, according to Rentrak data. They were led by “Annabelle,” which cost a mere $6.5 million to make and raked in $84 million domestically.
That’s a fabulous profit, but some horror movies do even better. Famously made for around $15,000, “Paranormal Activity” grossed nearly $200 million worldwide and spawned popular sequels.
In a digital age where studios and theaters fret about losing young audiences to bootleg downloads, horror movies may have an advantage.
“One of the things you’ll hear theater owner tell you is that horror itself is one of those pirate-proof genres,” says Tatiana Siegel, senior film writer at the Hollywood Reporter. “People don’t want to sit in their home and watch a movie like Paranormal Activity. It’s too scary.”
Most classic horror movies, particularly slasher flicks, are filled with unknown actors. They’re anonymous, good-looking cannon (or ax, or chainsaw, or machete) fodder for the movie’s real stars — your Michael Meyerses, your Freddie Krugers, your Jason Voorheeses and so on. The low-budget horror movie is something of a rite of passage in Hollywood, and a select few go on to become superstars. Here are Craven’s unknowns-done-good. Fair warning: Some of these clips are pretty bloody.
Three years before “21 Jump Street” and six years before “Edward Scissorhands,” Johnny Depp’s first movie was “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” He was a supporting player but had the movie’s most notable death: after dozing off, Freddy sucks him into a hole into the bed before gushing an absurd amount of blood all over the ceiling.
Today she is winning Oscars and starring in police procedurals, but Patricia Arquette’s first role was also in a “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie — the third installment, “Dream Warriors.” Unlike Depp, Arquette’s character lived through the movie, only to be recast (and killed) in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.”
Gerard Butler’s first big movie role wasn’t a victim but a monster — he played the titular role in “Dracula 2000,” produced by Craven. In a twist, the vampire was also Judas Iscariot — like, from the Bible. The movie couldn’t be resurrected.
Technically, Sharon Stone’s first film was a small part in “Stardust Memories,” but her first starring role was in a lesser Craven work, “Deadly Blessing.” The New York Times called the movie, about the horrors two friends from California find when visiting a religious community, “better than average.”
A few years before his breakout role in “Zombieland,” Jesse Eisenberg starred in Wes Craven’s werewolf movie “Cursed.” It was a box office bomb, and many critical pans focused on the poor special effects. Critic A.O. Scott wrote the werewolves looked “rendered by computer-generated imagery and a few trips to post-Halloween party-store sales.”