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Shock Wave: scary movies take over the box office

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This year, dinosaur films roared, ’70s-nostalgia flicks hustled in, and alien pictures landed. But here’s a chilling thought: In terms of box office sizzle, 1997 was really the year of — horrors! — the scary movie.

At the beginning of the year, the genre-revitalizing smash Scream conquered America’s multiplexes. Since then, many of the year’s surprise hits have been horror films (see sidebar). Heading into Halloween, the three top-grossing movies last weekend were the teen slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer ($15.8 million), the hellish thriller The Devil’s Advocate ($12.2 million), and the gothic chiller Kiss the Girls ($7 million), which had held the No. 1 spot for the two previous weeks (besting, among others, Brad Pitt‘s Seven Years in Tibet). In other words, over half of the moviegoing public last weekend went to get the bejeebers scared out of them. As media analyst Stuart Rossmiller of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell says, ”There’s money to be made in getting people to scream in the dark.”

This current reign of terror is different from the slasher-flick era of the ’80s: no Jason’s Really Final Nightmare! here. As Kevin Williamson, screenwriter of Scream and Last Summer, says, ”You can’t do the same old tricks anymore.” So what goes into today’s formula for fear?

For one thing, a body count with street cred. Previously, horror films were populated with anonymous shriekers. But today, the key to a good scare is to fill your film with hot Gen-Xers … and then kill them off. Scream‘s crew included Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and Drew Barrymore — a cast custom-designed to lure in the Fox-network crowd. ”The under-25 set is a staple of the movie audience,” says John Jacobs, marketing president of Mandalay Entertainment, which smartly handed leads in Last Summer to Party of Five‘s Jennifer Love Hewitt and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar. ”And the key to this genre is nubile teens in jeopardy.”

The other difference in today’s scary films is quality. Unlike the assembly-line B movies of yore, today’s thrillers are top-shelf. ”When a horror movie is done really well it becomes an instant classic,” says Mimic star Mira Sorvino, who went from Oscar winner to bug chaser in a year. ”There’s something psychologically powerful about these movies that when they’re done with great artfulness you never forget them.”

More evidence of how serious the fear business has become: Last April, Sony filed a grievance with the MPAA against Miramax, claiming Scream‘s title was too similar to its film Screamers. Miramax later paid Sony an undisclosed amount to continue using the title. Now Miramax is fighting back: On Oct. 15, it filed suit against Sony over their Last Summer ads, which tout the Williamson-penned film as ”from the creator of Scream.” Miramax has cried false advertising, claiming the ”creator” title belongs to Scream director Wes Craven. ”We’re going to pursue this aggressively for damages,” says Neil Sacker, Miramax’s exec VP of business and legal affairs. ”To imply [Williamson] created their movie is bulls—. People will think it’s another Scream.” Sony has no comment.

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