The horror film, from the traditional zombie epic to that old vampire-in-castle standby, has always been a bloody affair. But traditionally, creators of blood-and-guts flicks reserved the most sensational stuff for the darkened theater, preferring advertising that suggested – rather then spelled out – the scare.
No longer. Studios are now cranking out new horror flicks in unprecedented numbers. Profits are up. Big stars such as Jim Carrey ("The number 23") and Hilary Swank ("The Reaping"), are diving into the action. And those subtle posters of yore, spurred on by competition from YouTube and the video-game culture, have given way to gory trailers, billboards, and magazine campaigns.
The trend reached a new peak with the recent four panel campaign for "Captivity," the latest from film provocateur Roland Joffe, depicting the capture, torture, and death of a young woman. In an unprecedented move, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) demanded the campaign be taken down and added sanctions. Compliance with the MPAA is strictly voluntary, but the organization gave the move some teeth when it suspended the film's rating process for a month (it opens May 17) – a serious hit, as most theaters will rarely book an unrated film. It also required that all further ad materials as well as their potential location be approved.
However, longtime industry observers doubt the MPAA moves will stanch the flow of movie blood into public ad spaces. In an era of media saturation, the forces impelling such gruesome graphics can't be easily reined in.
"We are in a world of constant media bombardment, 24/7, with an immediacy to even the worst events in the world, from hurricane Katrina to the latest bombing in Baghdad," says Paul Cohen, a filmmaker and Florida State University professor. "The pressure for visual images to stand out in that kind of environment is overwhelming."
In these days of online social networking, shocking images or graphic depictions also serve another purpose – generating buzz prior to a film's release.
"Even if people don't appreciate the graphic nature of the scene that they saw," says Barbara Bickham, CEO of TechGenii, a new media strategy firm, "it still gets people talking."
Executives at After Dark Films, the distribution company behind "Captivity," say the posters were a mistake; a "communications error" with the printing company. The posters have been taken down and replaced with less salacious ones.
But, given that the MPAA had viewed and disapproved the incendiary "Captivity" campaign before it went up on both coasts, some suggest that the buzz generated by the controversy was the intention all along. After Dark created more controversy (and, consequently, publicity) last month when it unveiled a campaign for a nonhorror film titled "Wristcutters: A Love Story." Posters for the movie include illustrations of road signs depicting various forms of suicide.
"After Dark is a tiny company without the budget to compete against a Paramount or Warner Brothers," says Mr. Cohen, who has distributed movies such as "Bad Lieutenant" and "Enigma." "They couldn't hope to compete dollar for dollar to get their small film seen, but you can't buy this kind of free attention to your movie."
Don't look for the trend toward the extreme to slow anytime soon. The move toward increased advertising for the horror flick is going strong, says filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, who directed "Midnight Clear" starring Stephen Baldwin. "Horror films with no stars have made money," observes Mr. Jenkins, "so the thought is that a horror film with a star could make even more."
Cohen predicts such campaigns will become more intense. "These days, the campaign for the film's theatrical opening is merging with the DVD release, so you just have one long campaign around the globe supporting both releases."