Here's why R-rated horror movies are making a comeback on the big screen

Key Points
  • "Jigsaw," which opens this weekend, may be a test of the staying power of R-rated horror movies.
  • "It" and "Get Out" have signaled that audiences still want old-fashioned blood and guts on the screen.
  • Experts told CNBC that horror movies with key themes at their core often resonate with viewers.

A still from the movie "Jigsaw."
Source: Jigsaw

This year, moviegoers appear to have a bigger appetite for gory, R-rated fare than they've had in years. That's potentially encouraging news for "Jigsaw," the seventh installment in the "Saw" horror franchise which opened this weekend.

According to early estimates, "Jigsaw" is expected to take in approximately $20 million in its opening weekend. If the blockbuster reception of "It" and the surprise success of "Get Out" are anything to go by, the film could exceed these modest expectations.

For much of the past decade, most of the successful horror films have carried PG-13 ratings. The "Twilight" saga led the pack, with the 2010 installment "Eclipse" earning $300 million at the domestic box office. While admittedly not a horror film in the traditional sense, the series — and others with the same rating — spared the gore and courted a wider, younger audience.

In 2017, however, PG-13 horror fare landed with a thud. Tom Cruise's vehicle, "The Mummy," was the first installment in Universal Pictures' "Dark Universe" franchise of rebooted classic monster movies, but under-performed with a domestic haul of only $80 million. The planned next installment in the franchise, a remake of "The Bride of Frankenstein" was postponed not long afterwards. [Disclosure: Universal Pictures is owned by Comcast, the parent company of CNBC].

No more 'nanny cam horror'?

Flashpop | Getty Images

Enter "It," the movie based on the Stephen King novel that's already the fifth highest grossing movie of 2017, with a domestic box office take of $321 million. "Get Out" is the 11th highest grossing movie of the year, with a $175 million domestic take that was more than double what "The Mummy" took in.

There are many reasons why horror with a harder edge are getting a second look from filmgoers. Jackie Jorgenson, an actor and filmmaker, suggested that PG-13 thrillers that were so consistently popular for the past few years may have peaked.

"Audiences tired of the nanny-cam horrors a year or two after the success of 'Paranormal Activity,'" she said. "They are ready for something new, even if that means reinventing an old favorite genre."

Scary movies provide a more acceptable form of release to the terror that we otherwise fear from the real world.
Andrew Selepak
professor, University of Florida

In a news cycle that's seen no shortage of bad news, it seems counterintuitive that audiences would flock to scary fare. Experts say there's a good reason behind the move.

"While it seems like going to a scary movie would be the exact opposite of what someone would want to do in times like this, there is also a cathartic release of fear that can be accomplished in a movie theater that is not possible in real life," said Andrew Selepak, a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida.

"Scary movies provide a more acceptable form of release to the terror that we otherwise fear from the real world," he added.

"Given the glut of current real-world horrors, people are responding more to gory, horrific films as a means of escapism," said Amie Simon, creative marketing director at Smarthouse Creative, a Los Angeles-based digital marketing and media firm.

"It's a blood-soaked environment they can leave behind at the theater, that will hopefully allow them to stop thinking about reality, at least for a short period of time," Simon added.

However, rather than providing escapist scares that are left behind when the credits roll, other experts said well-received movies like "Get Out" are successful because of a core theme that resonates with moviegoers.

"'Get Out'… is not so much a horror film as a must-see portrait of racism, American style," said Rob Edelman, a lecturer at the University of Albany's College of Arts and Sciences. "It is one of the best films I've seen this year, and this goes way beyond its horror content."

Stephen Kent, an entertainment contributor to the Washington Examiner, said that "Get Out" succeeded precisely because it was political.

"'Get Out' was heralded as a commentary on the unspoken racism that continues to exist in communities all around America, and that word of mouth propelled it to a $253 million [worldwide] haul," Kent added.

Evidence of moviegoers' changing tastes isn't just at the multiplex. Ryan O'Connor, a marketing coordinator at Costume Supercenter, said the trend is also evident in Halloween costumes. "We've noticed a big spike in sales of characters from R-rated and gorier films this year," O'Connor told CNBC.

Pennywise — the terrifying clown that haunts the protagonists of "It"— has emerged as one of the season's most popular costumes, according to a recent survey by Fandango.

Along with 2016's "Deadpool" (an R-rated superhero sleeper hit), Pennywise garb "has been one of our most popular costume themes. We're already sold out for the season," O'Connor added.