Scary Times: How widespread popularity of horror films is sparking a new level of prestige
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TORONTO — Horror films were never a predisposition for director David Gordon Green, yet after 20 years of making movies he's wading into the genre that was once dismissed by his peers.
With countless loyal fans nitpicking his every move, the man behind the Jake Gyllenhaal drama "Stronger" will embark on a new chapter of the beloved "Halloween" horror franchise.
"I'm always trying to do something that's a little outside my comfort zone," said Gordon Green, whose past work includes acclaimed films "George Washington" and "Undertow."
"I want to tell stories both meaningful, abstract and absurd."
"Halloween" is just one of several languishing horror projects that's been resuscitated with a prestige filmmaker — a trend which coincides with an explosion of popularity in scary movies at the box office.
Driven mostly by the stunning success of Stephen King's "It" and "Get Out," which have raked in $300 million and $175 million respectively in North America, it's suddenly fashionable for esteemed directors to consider making horror.
Even lower-profile titles like "Annabelle: Creation" and M. Night Shyamalan's "Split" are overshadowing non-horror films that would have once been major draws, giving movie theatre owners reason to urge Hollywood to bulk up their slate of chillers.
Such enthusiasm will almost certainly have movie executives shelling out for larger budgets designed to attract filmmakers with definitive visual styles.
Already some of the highest-regarded directors of modern art house cinema are making forays into a genre often viewed as career poison.
Luca Guadagnino is putting the finishing touches on a remake of 1976 Italian horror film "Suspiria" even as his tender European love story "Call Me By Your Name" attracts Oscar buzz.
There's also Darren Aronofsky, who captured his idea of lingering paranoia with "mother!" — a film that divided critics and disgusted audiences with heavy symbolism amid nods to classic horror like "Rosemary's Baby."
"Battle of the Sexes" co-director Jonathan Dayton isn't surprised that horror is drawing audiences back into theatres.
"Horror is a great shared experience," he said. "It's the model achievement of a fun ride."
Dayton credited filmmakers like Jordan Peele for elevating horror by stoking conversation with "Get Out," which carries a subtext about race in America. While he admires those projects, he said that hasn't necessarily convinced him or his co-director wife, Valerie Faris, the genre is suited for them.
"Right now reality is a horror movie," he added. "I don't need to go to a theatre to be scared. I want to escape."
Fellow director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon can relate to the challenges of dabbling in the horror world. With the 2014 remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" and 12 episodes of TV series "American Horror Story" under his belt, he feels like he's paid his dues in that corner of cinema for now.
His latest film "The Current War" is anything but scary, putting its focus on the relentless competition between electricity titans Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
"Some of my favourite films are horror films like 'Don't Look Now' — real relationships, real couples and real problems. Those can be the most terrifying — when you see yourself in them," Gomez-Rejon said.
"But I did so much of it. You want to try having a little more lightness in your life."
Making horror movies also carries a huge responsibility to deliver the goods to ardent fans who come with certain expectations. Sullying the legacy of an iconic character or franchise can spell doom for experienced directors who don't understand the genre.
Nearly 15 years after "Boys Don't Cry" took the awards season by storm, director Kimberly Peirce took a swing at horror with a remake of "Carrie." It was savaged by critics and dismissed by audiences.
Fumbled attempts are the genre aren't lost on Gordon Green, who considers himself a passionate fan of the "Halloween" series.
He's working closely with John Carpenter, the creator of the original 1978 film, in hopes he can avoid pitfalls in the legend of serial killer Michael Myers and babysitter Laurie Strode, whose role will be reprised by actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
"(Carpenter) is a huge inspiration of mine so it's cool to be able to collaborate and test myself," he said.
Other acclaimed films with horror elements are also on the horizon.
Guillermo del Toro's upcoming "The Shape of Water" borrows the spirit of Universal monster movie "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and collected several awards at this summer's Venice Film Festival. The director rejects the film being slapped with a horror label.
"I don't care about a genre or another, I just do what I want," he said.
But the filmmaker threw his support behind the horror genre at the same time, pointing out the ebbs and flows of the industry.
"Every five years somebody says 'Horror is dead' and then every five years somebody says 'Horror is more alive than ever,'" he added.
"In reality, horror has been a staple of movies."
— With files from Neil Davidson and Lauren La Rose
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