Return of the living dead to a cinema near you

With 'Scream' raking it in at the box office, are we about to see another renaissance of the horror film? asks Tim Cornwell

Every few years, Hollywood rolls out an old formula and dusts it off for a new generation: westerns, science fiction, Shakespeare. This Hallowe'en, horror movies have become newly fashionable and there is talk of a horror renaissance that will turn gut-slashing madmen into some of the biggest box-office draws of the year.

The last golden era of horror began in 1978 with the film Halloween. It petered out about 10 years later, with a sigh rather than a shriek. Three competing horror titles - Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th - ran into so many sequels that they became cliched to the point of self-parody, driving the genre into the ground.

"It just ran out of steam," says Jack Sholder, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, one of the best of the series, who is now in talks on another horror film. "They pretty much chopped off everything they could chop off and impaled everything they could impale."

But this year's hit horror, Scream, laden with sly references to the genre and leavening the killing with comedy, has earned more than $100m on a budget of $14m, a profit margin that has made studios sit up and take note. With Scream The Sequel out in the US this December and a third preparing for production, Scream has not only established what promises to be another lucrative horror series, it also threatens to revive the teen scream slasher across the board.

New Line, the company responsible for many horror classics, is now planning Jason vs Freddy, a film that pits Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th against Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. I Know What You Did Last Summer, a tale of terrorised teens in the classic mould, is the biggest film at the American box office this autumn. Author Kevin Williamson, who also wrote the screenplay for Scream, has now signed a $20m deal with the Miramax studio.

Also in production or planned are a prequel to The Exorcist and at least two Vampire films. Several companies are said to have shown interest in buying the rights to old Hammer horror titles. This month, Alien Resurrection opens in the US, the latest in the Alien series, likened to good old-fashioned horror set in a spaceship rather than small town USA. The virtually inescapable Ewan McGregor will appear next year in Nightwatch, set in a morgue.

Horror films have always been a bastard son of Hollywood, it is said. The "talent" - directors, actors, writers - have traditionally come young and cheap, although film-makers like to have one name actor to carry a movie. Production costs were low in a genre that embraced crude cinematic techniques and was largely scorned by the critics but was a solid money-spinner. Typically, these films cost very little to make - three or four million dollars or less - and went rapidly to video distribution, but were more or less guaranteed to make a profit.

The problem Scream has created for some small horror productions is that it has set the standard too high, by being too clever and slick. "Scream has really upped the ante," says Jamie Dixon, director of Shadowbuilder, a low-budget but stylish Satanic chiller that is awaiting a US distribution deal. "They have really heightened the expectations of the studios and the audience for that type of picture."

In a curious development of this new love affair with horror, Wes Craven, the veteran director of Scream, is being lionised with lifetime achievement awards and appearances on Good Morning America. Craven has become a brand name for horror over a long career, but his elevated stature is an unusual twist. He was best known for the Nightmare series and, in particular, making Freddy Krueger, with his scarred grin and knives for fingers, a lasting horror icon.

The new breed of films has the same hook as the old - the anticipation of waiting for someone to be killed. They are "date movies", aimed chiefly at 15-25 year olds. Like roller-coasters, the aim is a scare that makes your girlfriend jump in your lap.

There are differences, however. The contemporary products of the genre are hip and self-aware. The characters are better developed and more street smart, less likely to wander off alone down dark alleys. Villains, so far, have not been supernatural so much as the boy next door, the new face of American crime.

It remains to be seen how long the horror renaissance will last. Few expect a return to the halcyon days of the Seventies and Eighties, but Patrick Lussier, a seasoned film editor of scary titles from Scream to the recent Mimic, says horror is now "safe to like".

"It never really went away, but now it's cool to like it," he says. "Everyone is talking horror at the moment, where before they turned up their noses."

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