If this summer’s blockbuster movies have been overwhelming disappointments, there have been a few quiet successes among the smaller movies, at least from the perspective of the studios and their bottom lines. One such success has been The Heat, in which Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock team up for a buddy-cop movie, with McCarthy playing the unhinged, Mel Gibson-in-Lethal Weapon character, and Bullock playing the straight gal to both her antics and some truly obnoxious (but possibly accurate) Boston accents.
This summer’s runaway hit, however, has been the horror flick The Conjuring, which has nearly septupled its budget (and is still going). While that’s certainly not as profitable as some of the summer’s ‘big’ movies (Despicable Me 2 and Iron Man 3 each made significantly more money), the rate of return on the studio’s investment is pretty impressive (7x and counting!). So while it appears that much of America may view this as the summer in which Despicable Me 2 was the biggest hit and Johnny Depp’s career hit the skids, the studios may remember this as the summer in which horror trumped action movies.
I seldom go to see horror movies, but I watched The Conjuring last weekend, and it reminded me of something I learned in seminary. Not a theological truth, mind you, but rather a sociological curiosity. You see, although I attended a conservative evangelical seminary, I still convinced one of my professors to let me write a major research paper that hinged on an evaluation of 1970s Blaxploitaion cinema. I won’t bore you with the details of the paper (it had to do with Black Theology, the 1970s cultural milieu, and the limitations of Marxist Analysis, which I admit made it rather out of place in an evangelical context), but for those of you unfamiliar with the Blaxploitation films, there was a 5 or 6 year window covering the late 1960s and early 1970s in which Hollywood discovered that if they made grindhouse films starring African Americans and explicitly incorporated the racial anxieties of the moment into those (typically) violent films, African Americans would hand over stacks of mammon to watch them. And so the world was given Shaft, Foxy Brown, Superfly, Blacula, and a host of other films with influence that has lived on in American culture, even among many who’ve never seen them.
[Also – and this is a bit of a digression, but I feel like it needs to be said – these films are controversial for several reasons, most of which are predictable (they’re violent, they’re often racy, the language is filthy), but one of which is far more uncomfortable. Life in America is always complicated by race, and films that deal as explicitly with race as these do raise questions, particularly when they’re funded and/or directed by white people, as many of these were. Grindhouse films are exploitational by definition, but the idea that one could/should exploit race for profit should make you squirm a little bit, and that’s before we ask whether these films were offering an outlet for simmering anger or playing to animalistic stereotypes in that quest for money from one particular race. Like I said, it’s a digression, but it needs to be said.]
At any rate, I bring this up to say that one lesson I learned in the course of researching that paper was the fact that many people attribute the death of Blaxploitation cinema to the release of another surprise horror hit: The Exorcist. Even though the brief Blaxploitation moment made studios a fair amount of money, and even though the movies made have lived on in American cultural memory, the whole movement trickled to a halt within a year or two of The Exorcist’s release, and many people see a connection. The argument goes something like this: studios made Blaxploitation films so they could make money from African Americans, but African Americans showed up in droves to see The Exorcist, just like everybody else. So studios learned they didn’t have to make movies a certain way to reach certain races, which meant they didn’t have to cast non-white actors at all anymore. Instead, Hollywood just started making horror films and ceased production of the Blaxploitation niche films altogether. So The Exorcist killed Blaxploitation.
The Exorcist was released 40 years ago this December. As such an important film (it not only killed Blaxploitation, but it was the first ‘modern’ horror film), I assume most of you have seen it, so I’ll limit my summary to noting that it tells the story of the demon possession of a child and the subsequent (and difficult) exorcism of that demon by a pair of Catholic priests. Grounded as it is in the realm of the possible – the Catholic church really does perform exorcisms, and many people (including me) really do believe in demons and demonic possession – The Exorcist resists the unreality of later horror flicks (Freddy Krueger may be a terrifying character, but dreams don’t kill, amiright?) and never becomes so farcical as to be funny rather than scary. Simply put, it’s not frightening so much for what it is (a movie about disturbing stuff) as for what it could be (an experience you could conceivably witness in person) and what it says about you (there are invisible, terrifying, and malevolent forces in the world that are vastly more powerful than you).
Without spoiling the plot, almost all of this is also true of The Conjuring, a fact that I assume correlates to The Conjuring’s Exorcist-like box office surprise. Alike in their emphasis on the spiritual (The Conjuring even ends with a quote from the man whose story it tells that is essentially a call to faith in God), these two movies demonstrate that while virtually everything else about the movie business has changed in the last 40 years, people will still pay to be frightened by a depiction of spiritual warfare.
That being the case, The Conjuring made me wonder (and remember, I’m not expert on horror flicks). Would The Conjuring or The Exorcist have been remotely as successful if evil triumphed in the end? There’s a certain ambiguity involved in the endings to both movies, for what it’s worth (so I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything), but ultimately, both stories end with wins for God (or at least, for a sensationalized Hollywood take on God), and I think that matters. After all, a scary story rooted in unreality is simply a scary story, and the final outcome probably doesn’t matter too much. But if a scary story is rooted in reality and evil wins, isn’t it essentially a celebration of the demonic? And doesn’t that celebration come pretty close to a form of worship?
It’s a moot point, I suppose, in the case of The Conjuring or the Exorcist, because of how they end. But now I’m curious. How much of the success of either depends on their respective endings? Does the American movie-going public care about the ending? What does it say about them/us if they do not? Would most people be just as happy to get a scare from a movie celebrating a triumph of evil forces that actually exist? I’m not sure I want to know, but it’s definitely been on my mind.