You know, maybe there is something to Bill Goldman’s famous adage that nobody knows anything. I never thought that applied to me, because I’m right so much of the time. But today I am happy to announce that I was, in point of fact, wrong about something.
I predicted some weeks ago that with the piss-poor opening of The Return, we were seeing the end of Asian filmmakers’ influence on American horror films. For those who don’t recall, I pointed to that obvious retread of The Grudge, the actual Grudge 2, and Pulse as all opening so poorly that studios were going to get the wrong kind of heebee-jeebees whenever a director or screenwriter pitched their script as being in the vein of The Ring. But along come the Pang brothers- Oxide and Danny- with their film The Messengers, which tops the weekend box office with $14.5 million, a decent $5.7k per theatre, and, God willing, a reprieve for supernatural horror for at least another year.
All of which begs the question: is Oxide Pang the coolest name a director has ever had?
Of course, that isn’t really the question this opening figure brings to mind. The fact is that a $14 million opening is hardly revolutionary, but two things strike me as important about the figure. First is that the film is budgeted at a paltry $16 million. While the opening doesn’t go as wildly into the black as The Grudge‘s did ($40 million on a $10 million budget!), even with a predictably steep decline in its second weekend, Messengers will almost certainly make good money for Sony. And as long as it’s making money, someone’s going to make more of it.
The second thing is that the marketing borrowed an awful lot from Universal’s campaign for White Noise, which attempted to connect the film to a genuine phenomena, in this case the ability of children to sense supernatural occurrences. This is an age-old marketing technique with horror films- see any movie that claims to ‘based on a true story’- but was here, as in Noise and, more successfully, The Blair Witch Project, applied to a purely fictional story. And good for them. Keep your budget under control, hire good actors (Dylan McDermott, Kristin Stewart and John Corbett) and angle your ads in a way that connects them to reality (arguably the most important element of truly frightening horror films), and you’ll make money. God bless Sam Raimi, whose Ghost House subsidiary produced this as well as The Grudge, because the man knows scary and recognized the Pang brothers’ knack for it.
I realize that I’m able to drone on for many paragraphs about horror films, but I ask that you indulge me just a few more lines. I didn’t get to see The Messengers this weekend (I was busy catching up on Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, and the first season of Angel), but I definitely will, because I had the good fortune to catch a little Hong Kong horror film the Pangs did called The Eye.And what’s fascinating about it is that it is very much a retread of The Sixth Sense- a girl can see dead people after a corneal transplant. But where Shyamalan’s emphasis is on character and story, the Pang’s focus almost solely on frightening the audience with the visions of the dead. For this reason, the third act falls apart almost entirely, but my memories of the film are of a couple of scares that are so bizarre and perfectly crafted that they stick in my subconscious like barbed wire. By all accounts- and a dreadful 17% rating on rottentomatoes.com- the Pangs’ American debut suffers from the same problem: the scares are there, but the story is not, which is interesting in its similarities to the famous Italian horror films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava. Like the Pangs, they paid little attention to their scripts, or even their audio mixing (the dubbed dialogue always pulls me out of these films), but focus almost solely on providing a context for frightening and disturbing images. I call attention to this because it strikes me as important for horror fans to notice that something like The Eye, or even The Messengers, could be regarded the way Suspiria is in twenty years. Disagree if you will, but I think Oxide Pang put it best when he said: “With a scary movie, when the audience comes out of a theater, all that matters is whether it’s scary.”
So, thanks for indulging my horror-movie-loving rant, but enough about that. In second place this weekend was Because I Said So with $13 million and a $5k average. The Diane Keaton/Mandy Moore pic was well-placed counter-programming to the Superbowl, but worse reviews than The Messengers make me think Keaton deserves better. Epic Movie fell to third with $8 million, a 55% drop, making the total $29 million. Night at the Museum brought in another $6.7 million, falling just 29% In spite of losing 200 theatres. Total stands at $225 million, and the teaser for the sequel should be out any day now.
Smokin’ Aces fell a steep 56% to $6 million(word of mouth on this one is baaaaaad), making the total a still-profitable $24 million. Stomp the Yard was sixth with $4.2 million, still showing decent legs and bringing in $56 million so far, making it the first real sleeper hit of the year, for better or worse. Dreamgirls continues to have a tough run of it, still adding theatres and pushing all those Oscar nods in the marketing, but bringing in just $4 million to land in seventh place. The real kicker is a per screen average of just $1.4k, though the $92 million total is still decent. Any thoughts on why this isn’t doing more business?
Pan’s Labyrinth had the best hold in the top ten, falling just 23% to $3.6 million and bringing its total to $21 million. The Pursuit of Happyness came in at number nine with $3 million and a $157 million total, which bodes well for Will Smiths upcoming films, especially I Am Legend and Tonight, He Comes (an interesting take on superhero movies from director Peter Berg). The Queen was in tenth with $2.7 million, and an impressive $45 million in the bank.
The rest of the Oscar nominees were clustered together outside the top ten, with The Departed hanging on at number twelve with $2.3 million, then Notes on a Scandal, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Babel each taking in about $1.7 million, followed by The Last King of Scotland and Children of Men with about $1.2 each. Is it me, or are the nominations just not pulling people in like they usually do?
So that’s it for this week. Keep your eyes peeled for reviews of all the Best Picture nominees as the powers that be test my commitment to laziness, and tune in next week when MGM gives new meaning to the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ by releasing Hannibal Rising and Eddie Murphy squanders all of his Dreamgirls goodwill by following it up with Norbit.