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The Summer Blockbuster – A History of Horror Cinema

Friday the 13th There is a period in cinema – roughly May to September – that is well known as the summer blockbuster season. This is the time of the year that studios vie for release dates against other studios to unleash their tent-pole movie that will hopefully clean up at the box office and ensure a healthy profit margin that will appease their shareholders and ensure that the studio can stay afloat. The advertising and marketing budgets on these films alone dwarf the complete budgets for most films, drowning out newspapers, bus stops and advertising breaks on television with an unrelenting assault on the synapses that screams at us, telling us that we must go and see that film.

It seems that every year, there is another release that eclipses the records set the year before. This year has seen The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble if you’re in the UK, because you know us Brits would’ve been so confused with that title being the same as the British television series with Steed and Peel) become the fastest film to clear the near mythical figure of $1 billion at the box office and the recent past has seen similar success stories. However, can you name any successful summer releases over the past three decades that have come from our favourite chosen genre? We think you’d struggle. Although isn’t this all a bit weird?

The cinematic summer season is a pretty recent ‘invention’, coming in the mid-70s with Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws causing a big splash when it was released in 1975. We don’t need to tell you about what that film is all about, but it basically coined the idea of the summer blockbuster. Suddenly, Hollywood realised that they could concentrate their efforts to get behind a big project and have it ready for the following summer. It really began to hit the ground running in the 80s, with high concept films the choice du Jour, green-lit with reckless abandon by executives seeing dollar signs spinning in front of their eyes.

Considering Jaws was the Godfather of all this, why don’t we see more horror pictures moving into the season? Surely if a film is good enough and the studio feels that they want to back it, we shouldn’t have to put up with another over budgeted sci-fi/superhero/CGI disaster movie? Well, if we look back, maybe it’s not as unbalanced as it first appears, but only just.

Nearly every year since Bruce the shark scared the crap out of audiences and put a whole generation off of taking a dip in the ocean, there has been at least one cocky horror film that has managed to sneak into the multiplexes via the back door. Here’s a rundown of the biggest horror related films of each year to present that were released during those summer blockbuster months, although we have kept sequels out of the equation. There’s hope after all.

(Some release dates are for US, some are for UK – these are just to give a rough idea of how many horror films are released during the summer months.)

1975 Jaws

1976 The Omen

1977 The Hills Have Eyes

1978 Piranha (Dawn of the Dead didn’t get a proper cinema release until 1980 and Halloween was released around the appropriate date)

1979 Dracula (directed by John Badham)

1980 Friday the 13th

1981 An American Werewolf in London

1982 The Thing, Poltergeist

1983 None of note

1984 The Company of Wolves

1985 Day of the Dead, Fright Night, The Return of the Living Dead

1986 The Hitcher

1987 Hellraiser, The Lost Boys

1988 Maniac Cop, The Blob

1989 Child’s Play (made in 1988, released in the UK June 1989)

1990 Buried Alive

1991 Misery, Silence of the Lambs

1992 Sleepwalkers

1993 None of note

1994 Wolf

1995 Species

1996 From Dusk Till Dawn

1997 Scream, Event Horizon

1998 None of note

1999 The Haunting

2000 Final Destination

2001 Session 9

2002 Dog Soldiers, Eight Legged Freaks

2003 Underworld, Wrong Turn

2004 Van Helsing

2005 The Descent, House of Wax

2006 Pulse, Snakes on a Plane

2007 Captivity, Dead Silence, Halloween

2008 The Mist, Eden Lake

2009 Drag Me To Hell

2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street

2011 Fright Night

As you can see, not exactly rich pickings and there are more than a few remakes over recent years, but we can put that down to the fact that, as known franchises, the studios knew they would see a return on these and therefore there was little risk in releasing them during the summer season. Of course, if you look at the release schedules for October of each of these years, you’ll find a rich yield of horror. After all, horror is only to be enjoyed at Halloween isn’t it? Just like watching a Christmas movie at any other time of the year would be considered insanity!

It’s all down to the bottom line, movie making is a business and they have to turn a profit, so we’ll see a lot more of the likes of The Avengers before we see a deluge of terror befall the cinemas in summers to come, unless the public votes with their feet. But that’ll never happen…

Oh well, at least we have October, eh?


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