Like Jason, horror flicks don't stay dead and buried, but keep on rising

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Hollywood is gushing horror movies, with dozens of thrillers, ghost stories and serial-killer flicks in the pipeline, more than at any time in recent memory. And while the films are drenched in red, studio executives see green in the cheaply-produced, high-profit-margin projects.

The horror genre was long the province of specialty divisions and independents, but has become a priority for the major studios. Universal Pictures will release "Land of the Dead" from zombie-movie mastermind George Romero this summer after a successful remake of "Dawn of the Dead." Sony plans "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" for the fall, while Paramount Pictures will release two horror remakes, "The Eye" and "The Crazies," next year.

SCREAMING PROFITS

"All of us are being asked to justify the business rationale behind the films we choose to make," said Adam Fogelson, president of Universal Pictures Marketing. "The potential box office of these movies is tremendous, as is the upside in home entertainment."

The jackpot is a long-term franchise, along the lines of the three "Scream" movies from Miramax's Dimension Films, which pulled in more than $500 million in worldwide box office before becoming massive DVD hits. New Line created a cottage industry of its "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" series. The studio's licensing partners have created everything from books to inflatable lawn figures based on the Leatherface and Freddy Krueger characters.

Recent successes like "The Ring Two" and "Saw" have sent a raft of horror films into development, including a bloody "Saw" sequel. Among the projects are "Dark Water" from the Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures, "The Devil's Rejects" from "House of 1000 Corpses" creator Rob Zombie and another "Exorcist" prequel. A number of classic horror films will be remade, including every babysitter's nightmare, "When a Stranger Calls."

"We're coming off the zenith of the comic-book trend, and now horror is dominant," said Brandon Gray, president of tracking service Box Office Mojo. "It's the movie equivalent of reality TV."

Studios are using a number of traditional and alternative means to market these flicks, including a Paris Hilton Podcast and behind-the-scenes specials on MTV to promote "House of Wax."

Universal Pictures credits the massive opening weekend of last year's "Dawn of the Dead" remake to a 10-minute preview shown on USA Network. The movie opened in the top spot with $26.7 million domestically on its way to $102 million in worldwide box office.

Horror films appeal to avid moviegoers, those most likely to head to theaters on opening weekends and most interested in the communal experience of being scared with an audience. In another plus for the genre, audiences are split nearly evenly male and female, which means studios can market to the date crowd as well as young males.

"The audience has definitely widened," said Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, which is dedicated to the genre. "Studios are releasing so many PG-13 horror movies where 60%-65% of the audience ends up being female."

no bad reviews

Those movies aren't the slasher flicks hot in the `80s, but more psychological stories with strong female characters. Core loyal horror fans, usually young males, are not alienated by the somewhat softer PG-13 thrillers because "they know they'll see the director's cut or the unrated version on DVD later," Mr. Timpone said.

Horror flicks are also immune to bad reviews. Some studios don't make them available for preview by critics before their release. It doesn't seem to matter, though, as in the case of "The Amityville Horror," which was roundly panned, and opened to $23.3 million, quickly making back its $19 million production budget.

The question is how much is too much. "The genre is over-played," said Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks SKG, the studio behind "The Ring." "There may be audience exhaustion setting in."

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