A good horror movie offers a thrilling experience that no other genre provides. However, many people find the violence, tension and dread too much to handle, so horror remains a bit of a cult genre.
What defines a horror film? There’s more to it than just a spooky atmosphere and a machete-wielding psychopath in a hockey mask. Horror carries a broad definition, and it can be almost anything, as long as it provokes a feeling of fear, dread or tension in the viewer. That leaves a lot of room to blend with other genres, so it’s not uncommon to see movies with elements of science fiction, romance or action in the horror section of the video store.
Many filmgoers are put off by violence and gore, so despite its broad definition, horror generally appeals to cult followings. However, some horror movies have escaped cult status and connected with audiences on a large scale.
Click ahead to see the 15 movies that found large mainstream audiences and became the highest grossing horror movies of all time, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
By Daniel BukszpanPosted 27 Oct 2010
Worldwide gross: $209,947,037
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $259,020,000
The Others is a 2001 psychological horror film starring Nicole Kidman. A spooky affair with none of the violence associated with modern horror cinema, the film instead favors a dreary atmosphere accentuated by lots and lots of fog. It cost $17 million to produce, a very low budget for a major Hollywood film with an A-list star.
The Others was very highly regarded by critics and audiences, and it owes much of its success to good word of mouth. When all was said and done, this low-key horror sleeper earned over $200 million at the box office, an unquestionably successful haul for such a low-budget movie.
Worldwide gross: $206,071,502
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $270,230,000
Based on the classic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow was released in 1999. Directed by Tim Burton, the man who brought us the recent version of Alice in Wonderland, the movie is heavy on splatter and beheadings, so much so that the director had to defend his film in an interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine.
Despite criticisms about the level of violence, Sleepy Hollow received mostly positive reviews, including one from Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who praised the bloodshed, claiming that it suited Burton’s style. Audiences responded positively to the movie as well, and they came out to see it in numbers that earned it over $200 million in ticket sales, nearly three times its budget.
Worldwide gross: $211,989,043
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $277,970,000
Arnold Schwarzenegger was still a big star in 1999, but the mega-popular blockbusters like The Terminator and Total Recall had become a thing of the past. He had also starred in a couple of movies that he would have done well to avoid altogether, such as The Last Action Hero and Batman and Robin. However, with his services still in demand, he took the role of a depressed former cop in the big-budget supernatural horror thriller End of Days.
The movie stars Gabriel Byrne as the devil, on a mission to sire a child with a young woman whom the “Austrian Oak” protects from evil minions. While there’s some excitement in the movie, it was a commercial dud in the United States and made back only two thirds of its $100 million budget. But thanks to Schwarzenegger’s enduring international status, its worldwide take exceeded $200 million. In 2003, Schwarzenegger put acting to the side entirely, and became the 38th governor of California.
Worldwide gross: $249,348,933
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $302,710,000
The Ring is, without a doubt, the most terrifying movie ever made about a haunted VHS tape. Based on a 1998 Japanese film of the same name, it had a somewhat complex premise, wherein any person who watched the videotape in question would receive a phone call notifying the viewer that they would die in 7 days. And you thought campaign robocalling during dinner was annoying.
Despite its esoteric plot and convoluted ending, audiences lapped it up, and the movie made over $249 million, more than five times its budget. It spawned a sequel, The Ring Two, in 2005, and another sequel is reported to be in development, this one in 3D.
Worldwide gross: $223,664,608
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $329,720,000
Interview with the Vampire was a 1994 film based on the Anne Rice novel. Starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, it followed the story of two immortal 18th century vampires as they drink the O-positive of their victims across the centuries.
Despite receiving reviews from Time magazine and the Washington Post that ranged from lukewarm to hostile, audiences responded positively to the film, and it opened at number one at the US box office, taking in over $36 million in its first weekend. It went on to earn $224 million, nearly four times its budget.
Worldwide gross: $215,862,692
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $336,140,000
After making the much-maligned The Godfather Part III in 1990, director Francis Ford Coppola went to older source material for his next film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Transylvanian count has been the subject of innumerable film adaptations, which have ranged from the classic 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi to the outright ridiculous, such as Scream, Blacula, Scream. Coppola’s version, however, was the most commercially successful of the lot, and it earned over $200 million worldwide.
The movie was not without its problems. The story focused on the vampire as a tragic, romantic figure, angering hardcore horror audiences who wanted more “Boo!” and less “Boo hoo.” It also featured a miscast Keanu Reeves, with a phony English accent However, audiences overlooked these particulars, and the movie is considered one of the better adaptations of Stoker’s novel.
Worldwide gross: $300,257,475
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $347,260,000
Van Helsing was released in May 2004. Based on the vampire-hunting character in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, it starred Hugh Jackman in the title role, a break from tradition. Previously, older actors with maturity and gravitas, such as Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, had portrayed the character. However, the much younger Jackman played him as a crossbow-wielding action hero, the better to tie in with a video game adaptation that was being rolled out at the same time.
The movie received uniformly bad reviews. Richard Roeper called it “one of the dopiest movies of the year” and Rex Reed referred to it as a “moronic abomination.” However, the gamer kids all came out to see it anyway, and by the time the last stake was driven into the last monster’s heart, Van Helsing had earned over $300 million.
Worldwide gross: $392,616,625
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $398,320,000
Released in 2008, Twilight tells the story of seventeen-year-old Bella, a sullen teenage girl who meets a smoldering and pouty "emo" boy named Edward. Everything is not as it seems, however. It turns out that Edward is a vampire. However, he’s one of the good ones, which means that he only dines on animal blood and he suffers pangs of guilt over his status as a supernatural predator. However, the movie ends on a happy note when Bella and Edward find love and go to the prom together.
Most critics openly mocked the movie, characterizing it as childish and inane. However, the movie’s target audience of 13-year-old girls felt differently, and hordes of them flooded the multiplexes, quickly driving receipts to almost $400 million and kicking off what would ultimately become the most successful horror franchise of all time.
Worldwide gross: $408,247,917
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $495,650,000
Signs was the last M. Night Shyamalan movie to receive mostly positive reviews. It was also the last movie to feature a pre-scandal Mel Gibson as an actor. Both the director and the actor had some very challenging years ahead of them, but at the time of Signs they had the Midas touch, and the perception that they could do no wrong was reflected in the film’s worldwide take of over $400 million.
Gibson plays a former priest who has lost his faith after the death of his wife in a car accident. Now he’s a farmer, hoping to enjoy agriculture and lost faith in peace . But crop circles have begun appearing on his land, while turning up in the rest of the world too. The film is notable for featuring Shyamalan in a supporting role, as well as starring a very young Abigail Breslin, who would go on to great success in Little Miss Sunshine a few years later.
Worldwide gross: $585,349,010
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $616,630,000
The sci-fi horror film I Am Legend was a 2007 Will Smith vehicle. The movie is based on a 1954 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson, which had served as the basis for the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. In the 2007 version, Smith plays a man who has survived a virus that has wiped out most of humanity and turned survivors into cannibalistic zombies. But rather than the traditional, slow-moving zombies of George A. Romero films, these predators are fast-moving and supercharged, and even display limited intellectual capabilities.
Typically for a Will Smith movie, I Am Legend opened at the top of the box office when it was released, taking in over $77 million in its first weekend. It eventually earned over $585 million worldwide and received mostly positive reviews. However, the December 14, 2007 edition of Popular Mechanics took issue with it, scientifically debunking various events in the movie, such as the spread of the virus and the collapse of the Brooklyn Bridge in one of the movie’s more spectacular scenes.
Worldwide gross: $690,131,507
The commercial juggernaut known as the Twilight film saga kept rolling in its third installment, Eclipse. In this episode, Bella and Edward are going steady, but he refuses to turn her into a vampire until they’re married, just like real teenagers. Bella, in turn, worries about getting married so young. Apparently, condemnation to eternal darkness is not as big a commitment as a joint checking account or buying a condo. While they hash all this out, a new army of vampires gathers, and a werewolf falls in love with her.
Eclipse was slightly less successful than the second installment of the films, New Moon. However, it still made a killing, and it grossed over $690 million worldwide, setting the stage for the next installment, Breaking Dawn, which will be split into two parts and released in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Worldwide gross: $709,827,462
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $722,710,000
The second and highest-grossing installment of the Twilight saga was New Moon, released in 2009 to the rapturous delight of its worldwide fan base. Upon its release, it broke multiple existing domestic box office records, including highest-grossing midnight screening and opening day domestic gross, and it also had the third highest domestic opening weekend in seven years. By the time its first weekend in theaters was over, it had taken in almost $143 million.
The movie was exponentially more popular with filmgoers than with critics. But as long as the movie provided shirtless brooding from its male cast members, its swooning target audience kept buying tickets. That audience also bought over 6 million copies of the DVD, 4 million of them in its first weekend of release.
Worldwide gross: $672,806,292
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $882,150,000
In the summer of 1999, a psychological horror movie called The Sixth Sense was released. It was a subtle, character-driven film that drew in viewers with its deceptively simple plot, and it provided a stark contrast to the other horror movies that were released that year, such as the massively-budgeted CGI spectacle The Haunting and ill-advised sequels like The Rage: Carrie 2.
The film starred Bruce Willis as a child psychologist and a young Haley Joel Osment as his patient. The boy claims to be able to “see dead people” hanging around among the living, but to reveal anything more than that would compromise the film’s famous twist ending. Audiences lapped up the film, which became a hit through word of mouth and very positive reviews. It earned over $670 million, and it did it pretty much by being a clever, high-quality film that credited its audience with intelligence.
Worldwide gross: $470,653,000
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $1,911,140,000
The premise of Jaws couldn’t have been any simpler. It boiled down to “There’s a shark out there, and he’s going to eat you.” Material like this could have yielded something of I Eat Your Skin quality in lesser hands, but the movie was directed by a certain rookie filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, who made it a tour de force horror classic. The movie so terrorized filmgoers that it did for swimming at the beach what The Shining did for riding Hot Wheels around deserted hotel corridors.
Jaws changed the way movies were released. In the past, movies opened gradually in large urban areas, allowing good reviews and positive word of mouth to spread before it reached smaller markets. Jaws was the first movie to open in wide release on hundreds of movie screens at once, with a simultaneous nationwide ad campaign, an unprecedented practice at the time. The end result was a box office smash like nothing before, with a worldwide gross of over $470 million.
Worldwide gross: $441,071,011
Adjusted for inflation (2010): $2,170,120,000
The Exorcist is the highest-grossing horror movie of all time .Almost 40 years have passed since its initial release, and even after all that time, it’s impossible to hear its main theme, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” without getting a little nervous. For those who don’t know, the movie is about an innocent 12-year-old girl named Regan who becomes possessed by a demon. The demon makes her commit various atrocities, not the least of which is to ruin a very expensive oriental rug.
To say that the film was popular is an understatement — it was a cultural phenomenon. Anecdotal lore about its effect on theater audiences took on a life of its own, as people were reported to faint in the aisles and theaters supplied air sickness bags, rebranded as “Exorcist Barf Bags.” Critics were split on the film, with some hailing it as the new gold standard for horror films, and others dismissing it as an ultra-disgusting piece of exploitation. Whatever the case, the film went on to earn over $440 million, and its status as one of the greatest horror films of all time.