This article contains spoilers for Split.
It feels as if the more expensive a film is, the fewer risks the studio will allow. There are perks to having a bigger budget, but often, a low budget either allows or forces filmmakers to be more creative. As tentpoles and franchise properties fill up the movie calendar, producer Jason Blum’s company Blumhouse Productions has reintroduced a little risk into Hollywood with its tried-and-tested production model.
Blumhouse is primarily known for horror films, but they dabble in a number of different genres, producing independent films on budgets of no more than $10 million, and usually under $5m, and then distributing them through the studio system. They emerged with the massive success of the micro-budgeted Paranormal Activity series and they’re also known for Sinister and The Purge, but they’re delivering sterling work outside of franchises too.
Their films are guaranteed to make their money back, certainly, but they usually prove to be massive hits too, which has earned them a ten year first-look deal with Universal Pictures. Already this year, Blumhouse has given us M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, the first horror film to top the US box office for more than a week in years, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which arrives in UK cinemas today on the back of universal acclaim and a $100m worldwide take so far.
Peele, one half of the comedy sketch duo Key and Peele, has written and directed a horror film about a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents and discovering a terrible truth about the community where they live, which tackles social issues in a way that studio horror movies hardly bother with any more.
Heck, it’s hard to think of another film that has tacked racism head-on, as Get Out does, without a historical buffer or concessions to white audiences. It’s a true original, and at least part of the pleasant surprise with which it has been greeted must be down to the recent lack of truly edgy genre films coming out of the studio system and the disappearance of the mid-budgeted wide release.
Blum told us in an interview last year that Blumhouse looks for original properties that can be produced inexpensively, “because the more expensive movies get, the more watered down the storytelling gets and the more they have to be like other movies. But if you make movies inexpensively you can experiment a bit.”
Thus, Blumhouse has maintained its indie cred while also signal boosting films like Get Out and Split. The latter of these marks the second step in the company’s unexpected revival of Shyamalan, who was briefly diverted from the quirky, spooky thrillers that made his name into big-budget studio fantasy films The Last Airbender and After Earth. Both of those films were enormous in terms of budget, but neither of them were enormous hits.
Happily, the progression from indies to tentpoles needn’t be a straight line, and Shyamalan has enjoyed something of a return to form in partnership with Blumhouse. 2015’s nuts and bolts found-footage thriller The Visit was more recognisably Shyamalan’s film, and with Split, he essentially got to make a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, which likely would never have happened inside the studio system, given his diminished popularity in recent years.
Another example of Blumhouse working with an established director to get a found-footage project made is 2012’s underrated horror The Bay, which was directed by none other than Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. He worked consistently before and has carried on doing so since, but his work has mostly included comedies and dramas and when he chose to use his research on an aborted documentary about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay to make a horror film, Blum’s company proved to be a perfect fit for what turned out to be a contagiously frightening pandemic thriller.
Blumhouse has dabbled in the usual franchise filmmaking with their own properties, but they usually experiment with each follow-up in some way or another. As mentioned, they usually start a film off on less than $5m, but each of the sequels they’ve made thus far have had an uptick in their budget, within that $10m bracket, without sacrificing the creativity that went into the first one.
After a disappointing introduction into the world of The Purge, that franchise really came to life and made some interesting political parallels in the sequels Anarchy and Election Year. Director Mike Flanagan, who made Oculus and Hush for the company, took the reins on Ouija: Origin Of Evil, a 1960s-set prequel that was better than the original in every conceivable way. And although Paranormal Activity 3 was the only good sequel out of five in that particular series, they at least made a concerted effort to go as wild as possible with each sequel while still staying true to the franchise formula of nothing happening.
If none of this franchise building seems especially risky, put it in the context of mainstream horror right now. The cheap production model has been taken up enthusiastically since the success of Paranormal Activity, but with less thought going into it. We’ve seen a long succession of horror films that cost about a fiver to make and are feel as if they’ve been designed to make their money back on opening weekend before they get murdered by word of mouth. As seen with Split more recently, Blumhouse’s releases have a little more staying power, and that’s at least in part due to them going against the grain and surprising the audience.
That said, their commitment to doing new stuff, even with sequels, pays off more in their original works in other genres. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a gripping drama about performance and obsession, which bagged Blum his first Oscar nomination as a producer when it was up for Best Picture. In the same year, Joe Carnahan’s berserk crime drama Stretch, which played like Crank meets Collateral, was a distinctly Oscar-unfriendly film that was still a lot of fun and looked like nothing else coming out of the studio system.
As well as The Visit, 2015 delivered a double whammy of unexpectedly interesting films in a summer with no short supply of attention-grabbing tentpoles – supernatural Skype chiller Unfriended, which used the typical Blumhouse mould to deliver a thoughtful exposé of teenagers’ reliance of social media, and Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift, an exceptional work of suspense that proved Edgerton as a formidable triple threat. Looking ahead, they’re also behind the mad-looking action horror The Belko Experiment, written by James Gunn, which opens in the US just as we’re seeing Get Out on this side of the pond.
With films like these, and most recently with Get Out, Blumhouse has really set out their stall for original filmmaking without either overspending or being stingy on their productions. Even if you don’t like their franchises, it’s testament to their approach that their upcoming Halloween reboot has the original director and long-time holdout John Carpenter on board as an executive producer. It may be the house that Paranormal Activity built, but Blumhouse isn’t so haunted by the commercial cynicism that has overtaken the modern horror landscape, and though the risks they take are small, they usually pay off massively.