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Blood and Guts Give Way to Subtler Film Frights at Box Office

Producer Jason Blum
Jason Blum, co-producer of the "Paranormal Activity" films. Photographer: Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Gore-free horror is attracting a younger generation of movie fans weary of torture films spawned by the success of “Saw” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Studios will release as many as eight horror films featuring more subtle scares in 2011, beginning Jan. 28 with Warner Bros.’ exorcism tale “The Rite.” The films forsake axe-and chainsaw-wielding crazies for ghosts and demons that inhabit their victims, not cut them into pieces.

“For the generation of people who grew up with ‘Saw,’ this is a new thing,” Jason Blum, co-producer of the “Paranormal Activity” films, said in an interview. “Obviously, you need a terrifying concept, but after that, you need to believe in the story, and that’s what makes the movie scary.”

Horror doesn’t cost much when the special effects are minimal. “Paranormal Activity 2,” released in October by Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, was made for about $3 million and generated $169 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo, an industry researcher. “The Last Exorcism,” made for $1.8 million and released in August, had sales of $66.5 million.

“From a financial point of view, it’s one of our favorite genres,” said Xavier Marchand, distribution chief for Montreal-based Alliance Films Inc., a partner in pictures ranging from the British royalty drama “The King’s Speech” to the supernatural thriller “The Woman in Black,” scheduled for release this year. “It’s a genre where you can pop at the box office and then do very strongly in DVD.”

Fewer Slashers

The latest run in supernatural movies, which have more in common with classics like “The Haunting” and “Rosemary’s Baby” than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” began with the original “Paranormal Activity” in 2009.

Distributed by Los Angeles-based Paramount, the film about a family investigating demons in their home cost $15,000 and generated $193.4 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo, based in Sherman Oaks, California.

“The Blair Witch Project,” a movie about three film students who disappear during a shoot in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, may be the most successful in the genre. The 1999 release cost $60,000 and took in $248.6 million.

Hollywood has cut back on slasher and torture films, producing a total of three last year and seven in 2009, including remakes and sequels, according to Box Office Mojo.

“The Rite” stars Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as a maverick priest whose behavior takes a sinister turn when he is asked to train a seminary student to perform exorcisms. Some of the film’s biggest scares are generated by off-camera sound effects and slight changes in Hopkins’s facial expressions.

Exorcist in Training

“Sometimes less is more,” Hopkins said at a press conference in Beverly Hills, California, to promote the film. “It’s only a look. I know it scares because I can sense what it does to people.”

Hopkins, 73, relied on similar techniques in his portrayal of the cerebral killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the role that won him the Academy Award for best actor.

“The Rite” is based on Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book about an American priest who undertakes exorcism training at the Vatican.

Other 2011 films that follow the less-is-more approach include “The Woman in Black,” featuring “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe as a young lawyer who tries to unravel a mystery that haunts an isolated English village.

The movie, from Alliance, Cross Creek Pictures and Hammer Film Productions in London, is based on the Susan Hill novel. It was made for an estimated $27 million, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Violence Still Sells

Violent, effects-laden films can still do well. Warner Bros.’ remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” made for $35 million and released in April, took in $115.7 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. “Saw 3D,” the seventh in the franchise from Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., had $130.2 million in ticket sales on a production cost of $20 million.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the 2003 remake from Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros., and the original “Saw,” released the next year, started the subgenre of films featuring graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment. Imitators included Lions Gate’s “Hostel” films and “Turistas” from News Corp.’s Fox. A “Chainsaw” sequel was released in 2006.

“There’s an audience that wants to be frightened but doesn’t want to be offended by the brutal violence of some movies,” said Guy East, co-chairman of Hammer parent Exclusive Media LLC, based in London. “That’s the market that we’ve been aiming at.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael White in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at

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