With Paramount's in-development adaptation of Max Brook's zombie novel World War Z now looking to be the second case in recent weeks - after Universal aborted Guillermo del Toro's At The Mountains of Madness - of skittish studios abandoning ambitious horror projects in the face of cost concerns, one has to wonder if big budget horror has any future at all.
For the most part, I'm actually sympathetic to studio execs for not having the nerve to back a project as expensive as ATMOM. While it was practically a lock to have been a great movie - I think del Toro and producer James Cameron would've ensured that it lived up to all expectations - I doubt that it would've been profitable. Fans eager to see that project realized can proclaim that it would have been a guaranteed hit - but to be a hit as huge as it would've needed to be to justify a $150 million production cost? I don't know. And $125 million for World War Z seems damn high as well. But if - as reported - Paramount is aiming for that film to be PG-13, maybe it's just as well if that project fails to continue (although, to be fair, The Walking Dead gets away with as much gore on basic cable as I really need to see in a zombie movie these days).
Whatever the commercial chances of these two films, they were definitely projects that fans were hoping would raise the bar of artistic ambition on the current genre scene. Now that it looks like they're going to be shelved - likely permanently - it may be a clear sign that big budget horror is dead in Hollywood and that's a shame. While the lifeblood of the genre has always been found in independent cinema, big budget, studio-produced horror has its own vital legacy - as seen in The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, John Carpenter's The Thing, and other classics.
As much as I love the raw, scrappy likes of The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project and the resourcefulness that they embody, I also love it when filmmakers get to make a horror movie with real money and top-shelf talent (both in front of and behind the camera). The Birds, for instance, couldn't have been done without groundbreaking FX work; Gore Verbinski's remake of The Ring took excellent advantage of its expanded resources without ever becoming crass; Zack Synder's Dawn of the Dead remake delivered apocalyptic sights that no other zombie movie had before; and I'm forever grateful that Cannon Films gave Tobe Hooper the money to make his sprawling, messy, utterly daffy Lifeforce.
That last example, of course, is one reason why studios won't automatically foot the bill for a lavish horror picture - because the risks can be catastrophic. These days, to play it safe, high-end horror films either have to be action/horror hybrids (like this year's Priest) or they have to be Twilight movies (or wanna-be Twilight movies like Red Riding Hood) and even those aren't nearly as pricey to produce as ATMOM or World War Z would've been. Which leads me to ask - why do those two films have to be so insanely costly? I know the price of everything is going up these days but $150 million for ATMOM? Really?
I admire del Toro for not wanting to compromise his dream Lovecraft project but isn't the history of horror - the history of filmmaking - largely defined by compromises? Many would say the fact that the mechanical shark in Jaws wasn't good enough to withstand more than the most limited of screen time helped that movie be the classic that it is. And in making The Shining, Stanley Kubrick had to substitute a hedge maze in place of hedge animals when it was determined that the special effects technology of the time couldn't successfully bring that element of Stephen King's novel to life but yet that maze proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of Kubrick's film.
If del Toro can't make ATMOM for less than $150 million, I'd love to find out what kind of ATMOM adaptation Stuart Gordon would be able to make with, say, a paltry $50 million. Somehow I bet he'd prove it could be done. I mean, I'm sure he would've loved to have had more than just under $5 million for Dagon but that movie still kills. He made it work, rubbery fish faces and all.
But del Toro thinks big and - in the horror genre, especially - that kind of grandiose vision has to be admired. It's just too bad there may not be many more opportunities for that kind of vision to flourish. I'd like to think that we won't be forever deprived of any ambitious, big-budget horror projects in the future but when a film like Paranormal Activity can be made for $15 million and make back almost $200 million, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the best kind of scare will always be a cheap scare.