It’s true, I haven’t been to the movies in over three weeks, since my birthday on August 11th. And even then, just choosing something to see was difficult to do. It’s been a really crappy summer for movies (I don’t care what you say; superhero/comic book movies are boring), so let’s hope the year improves as studios start rolling out their prestige pictures, their awards bait. But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I would like to comment on the overnight success of The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012), which is all set to win the Labor Day weekend box office—with an unimaginative title and poster to boot. According to Pamela McClintock of The Hollywood Reporter, Lionsgate estimates that the exorcism film-story will bring in $21.3 million for the mini major, making the movie the second highest grossing Labor Day weekend box office winner ever recorded on the books (in inflated dollars, of course).
That a horror film, even during summer (or the last days of it), can scrounge up so much money isn’t surprising (McClintock reminds us that 2007’s Halloween, directed by Rob Zombie, currently holds the record for the biggest box office overhaul for any Labor Day weekend with $30.6 million in tickets sold). I’m just wondering why audiences have, for lack of a better word, “flocked” to see this film. Admittedly, I am biased against pictures that revolve around exorcisms (and, while we’re at it, horror films in general) and would never in a million years pay to see this in the theater, but I read Bilge Ebiri’s review of The Possession, anyway. You can click to read it yourself; he doesn’t spoil anything. And that’s exactly the point: you can’t spoil what happens in any of these formulaic movies. As Ebiri notes, “Demon-possession movies are now so ubiquitous that we don’t really expect any dramatically new shocks from them.” Granted, he seems to have liked this one more than he was expecting to, for dramatic reasons that have little to with the scary, climatic scenes.
This being a think piece that aims to ask questions about genre and audience appeal, I still want to know why The Possession is on track to actually exceed studios’ expectations. Is it because there’s really nothing else out there worth seeing? That can’t be, for Mike Birbiglia won’t stop tweeting about all the dozens of Q&As he’s hosting around the country for his directorial debut Sleepwalk with Me (2012). Is it because, for a change, The Possession centers not on a Catholic-tinged Satan overtaking a family’s young daughter but on an ancient Jewish demon entering the same kind of girl? A premise, it should be noted, that isn’t alienating Hispanic viewers as Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo predicted it would. (McClintock reports, “The film also is over-indexing in Hispanic Catholic markets.”) Is it because Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae musician, plays the exorcist? (I know that alone would draw my brother in.) If it’s not quite clear, I am being facetious. I know why horror movies, no matter how generic they are, are so “ubiquitous” (to borrow Ebiri’s term) and wildly popular. In short: they’re cheap to produce (not too many stars demanding hefty paychecks), and they reliably offer the spectator a sort of interactive thrill ride, complete with jumps in seats, shouts at the screen, and peeks at the screen through fingers laced across faces. In fact, it’s these kinds of conventions that ensure the genre’s popularity, and word-of-mouth has a lot to do with it (this is undoubtedly the case for The Possession, too).
Besides, Sam Raimi produced it. For the horror fan, that might lend it some credibility. More pertinently, however, I wonder what the appeal of this particular film is for the young women who went to see it. McClintock writes that the audience this weekend is mostly female: “[Women] made up 59 percent of the audience, while 54 percent of those buying tickets were younger than 25.” Which means the production company’s marketing strategy that McClintock alludes to (ie. targeting girls and young women) has paid off handsomely. Is it typical for exorcism movies to be marketed toward this demographic? I really have no idea what the advertising campaign consists of, and McClintock doesn’t clue me in, but I am curious about this. For horror films have, historically speaking, been either geared toward young men or toward neither sex in particular (once studios realized women like these kinds of scares, too!). Though I haven’t seen it, I understand that Jennifer’s Body (2009), as devised by screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, was supposed to be a feminist-inflicted mash-up between demon possession movies and slasher flicks. I guess I should see it to find out why this film tried to reach a diverse audience—but especially women, I would think—and failed. Wait, don’t tell me. It probably has to do with Megan Fox, right?