Don’t Call It That: Horror’s Peculiar Method of Selecting Titles

How often have you wasted the night away trying to decide on a movie to watch?  I remember spending hours as a kid perusing the shelves of the local mom and pop video store with my buddies in search of the perfect title to bring home. Finally, someone would say, “Here’s one that sounds good!” Nowadays we scroll aimlessly through Netflix.  “What should I watch…?”

Titles can do many things. They can convey themes or tones and provide narrative clues before a single frame of film is played. Mostly, they try to draw viewers in: they compel audiences to see a picture. Selecting the precise set of words to market a movie is a daunting task. What reads as promising to one may come off as less assuring to another. 

Hollywood’s creative juices have been evaporating for some time. The predictability of the movie industry even extends to the practice of naming films. The bottom line is profit, and Hollywood will exploit any strategy that promises success.

Below are a few peculiar methods used by horror filmmakers to name their movies. How many do you find annoying?

MOVIES THAT LEAN ON FAMILIAR LANGUAGE

On occasion, horror filmmakers take the path of least resistance, incorporating familiar language into their titles that has proven dependable within the genre.

Horror writers owe salt to George A. Romero and his masterstroke of horror cinema Night of the Living Dead. Like a celestial umbrella, the movie hovers over imitators aiming to channel its strengths, one of which is its title.  By assimilating “Night of the…” into their names, they are jumping off from a position of power. Movies like Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps ride their dreadful titles to decent effect. Others don’t really have a “Night” to speak of, they just hang the sign on the door in hopes of getting someone to stop by. 

Films like Night of the Living Dead resonate with audiences. They make impressions that last well beyond initial viewings. You can’t hear the word “exorcist” in any form without recalling The Exorcist. Movies with “massacre” in their title immediately evoke memories of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Newer releases mimic familiar monikers to import the success of established classics by reasserting their titles. Like exploiting the redundancy that comes with movie sequels, they aim to recapture the noteworthy achievements of their predecessors. Essentially, the makers of Night of the Demons are declaring the movie the umpteenth sequel to Night of the Living Dead, not with zombies but with demonic spirits; Mountaintop Motel Massacre implies a continuation of the narrative of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a mentally unstable woman replacing the cannibalistic family.

Like the practice of product placement, filmmakers that utilize familiar language in their titles are dressing their movies up in a package that is appealing to potential viewers. Audiences are led to believe they are choosing to invest in a movie when really, they’ve been duped by the attractive housing.

SEQUELS THAT AREN’T REALLY SEQUELS

Halloween is one of the most popular franchises in horror history, but its appeal hit a wall with the release of its second sequel. When commissioned to produce a third Halloween film, creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill took a shocking approach, developing a story that did not continue the narrative of the titular slasher killer established in the first two entries. Instead, the movie told an unconnected tale about a psychotic toymaker and his plan to use mystic Halloween masks to kill the children of the world. Audiences felt deceived. The Michael Myers-less story has since developed a cult following (I, for one, adore it), but the negative response of fans in 1982 led to a six-year hiatus for the series.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. We all hold dear films we saw at a young age, pictures that became part of our individual cultures. Filmmakers often pawn their movies off as relatives to successful franchises to express a sense of comfort. Our affection for a preexisting work causes a sentimental, if unwarranted connection to the new material. Just as Stranger Things uses nostalgia for the Decade of Decadence to appeal to prospective viewers, so to does Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation form an unavoidable association with its infamous predecessor released some six years earlier.

Sequels come with built-in audiences. Obtaining financing, nailing down a big-name star, and selling tickets on opening night is easier when you have an established title.

Producers of 10 Cloverfield Lane implemented a wisely ambiguous advertising campaign when marketing their unexpected sequel to the smash success Cloverfield. They were keen to not reveal too many plot details about the picture, which shares only a tonal connection to its predecessor. In the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane rode the popularity of its title to the tune of over $110 million at the box office.

MOVIES CLAIMING TO BE THE LAST IN A SERIES THAT AREN’T

Friday the 13th endured as the red-headed stepchild of Paramount Pictures for years. Embarrassed by the success of a franchise centered around a knife-wielding maniac who preys on promiscuous teenagers, the production company limited their promotion of the series. When it was proposed that Part 4 be the final installment in the franchise, they not surprisingly jumped at the idea. Dubbed “The Final Chapter” in an effort to ensure its expiration, Friday the 13th Part 4 rolled a two-million dollar budget into a thirty-two million dollar gain at the box office. With the promise of more money to come, Paramount saw no choice but to continue the saga of the masked slayer.

In similar fashion, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was marketed as Freddy’s last romp through the Freudian dreamscapes of Elm Street’s youth. Ardent fans gave their favorite serial murderer a lucrative send-off, spending upwards of $35 million dollars to witness his demisea marked improvement from the previous entry in the series. Despite being impaled by his own steel-tipped glove and blown up by a pipe bomb at the conclusion of the picture, Freddy returned to invade the nightmares of teens only three short years later.

The violent worlds of horror cinema provide dangerously cathartic experiences for fans. One of the major appeals of a horror sequel is the prospect of rekindling a relationship with a celluloid monster. Sequels lean on well-rooted properties with great influence within the industry. As long as they offer the promise of financial gain, producers will continue to return to the well. Let’s not forget, Jason was proposed dead at the start of the original Friday the 13th film.

Ernie Rockelman

Ernie loves movies. He's not so great talking about them, but he's pretty okay writing about them. He worked as a critic for the Press of AC for a number of years. Now he teaches film to high school kids and occasionally makes movies that nobody sees.

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One thought on “Don’t Call It That: Horror’s Peculiar Method of Selecting Titles

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    August 25, 2019 at 6:49 pm
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    This was an interesting article on a subject that I haven’t seen explored before. The exploitation of the audience through the use of film titles. And in horror, this is certainly at its height. How about Zombi 2 serving as a sequel to Zombi, a re-edited Italian release of George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead film! And wasn’t Evil Dead dragged through the “fake sequel” ringer?! Thanks for sharing! A great article, per usual!

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