Horror movies have proliferated in recent years for a very simple reason: They make a lot of money. More specifically, they’re cheap to make and sell a lot of tickets. Jason Blum has built the Blumhouse empire on micro-budget, expertly executed thrillers and supernatural scare-fests. But add a little bit of humor and all bets are off.
There have been only a handful of horror-comedies released to wide audiences in each of the last few years, and they’ve often come in the form of campy Z-movies or ever-more-exhausted sequels to franchises like Scary Movie. A few filmmakers have carried the torch in recent years: Edgar Wright, who pivoted to straight action with Baby Driver; Jordan Peele, who made his directorial debut with the hit Get Out; and Kevin Smith, who has dabbled with flops like Yoga Hosers.
And then there is Eli Craig, who made his directorial debut with the 2011 cult hit Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, shot a Zombieland TV show pilot, just premiered the Adam Scott-led horror-comedy Little Evil, and is working on yet another film in the genre, this time with Blumhouse and Ben Stiller. Few are as devoted to the genre, which he loves in part because the mountain-climbing, one-time sherpa son of Sally Field has spent his life working to subvert assumptions.
“Both Tucker and Dale and Little Evil use tropes and the cliches of what can be hoped for in horror movies to reverse people’s expectations,” Craig told SYFY WIRE. “I think that because so many horror movies have those strict rules, it provides fertile ground to upend those rules and expectations. And for me at least, there’s kind of a loving or meaningful message underneath the movies, but it’s not told in a really heavy-handed way.”
Craig spoke to SYFY WIRE about his unique path to making movies, why he loves horror comedies, and why it can be very difficult to make them these days.
What got you into horror movies?
I actually grew up being one of those kids that was either blessed — or unfortunate enough — to have older brothers and a father that didn’t really care what we watched. I was the 6-year-old watching The Body Snatchers, which will stay with me forever. A Nightmare on Elm Street was a big one for me. A lot of those old movies like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, the classics, they frightened me to death. I think I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when I was 11 years old. I was not equipped emotionally to see those movies. Nobody that age should watch them.
So did that damage you?
I think they seeped into me a little bit. I always loved comedy, and we would in college sit around and watch Evil Dead over and over and over. All of my buddies, we would laugh at it. Those are the movies we would always come back to. Army of Darkness, those fun horror movies.
But you did comedy first, right?
When I was doing comedy, I went back to film school at USC and I started to do some real straight comedy. It wasn’t until Tucker and Dale that I thought I want to merge the comedy and the horror. After that one got a big following, I decided I wanted to try to do it again.
Did you have other ideas?
I, for some neurotic reason, felt like I had to make this film [Little Evil]. This film had to be my second film. I wrote it right after Tucker and Daleand I tried to find financing for it independently, as a smaller film. It was a little bit of a bigger budget than Tucker and Dale, and the financing fell through. Then Universal bought the script, so I was like, “Great. Let’s do it with Universal.” But it spent three years there in development, in total hell. It wasn’t until Netflix looked like they had an interest in making features, I was able to take it to them, and they bought it back from Universal.
Why did it get stuck in development for so long?
I think it’s just really hard for the theaters. I used to be very up in arms about it and not understand why exhibitors and the studios don’t like horror comedies, because when they hit, I think they hit really well. The problem is, is that they just don’t … The marketing machine isn’t set up for these cross-genre things. They just really want to be able to point to something quickly and say, “This is horror,” or “This is comedy.” Their jobs are always on the line, and they’re always nervous about putting a movie out that doesn’t prolong their job.
Horror movies make a lot of money.
There’s so many horror movies. A lot of them just follow the same exact pattern. Which, I think, ultimately, is a lot of the fun of people going to see a horror movie. When a horror movie upends people’s expectations, sometimes they’re upset. I actually think, for me, that’s my job.
It’s fun to piss people off a little bit.
Right now, we live in a consensus-driven society. There’s the studios … God bless him, I was talking to one of the producers on Guardians of the Galaxy. They test the movie until they get 100% positive response in the theater. 100%. And you’re like, wow. I mean, that’s fantastic that not one person walks out thinking, “I didn’t like it.” But I also think it’s kind of a problem. I think there should be some disagreement around films. I think it’s important to have that.
But as you said, distributors like consensus.
Tucker and Dale really started out that way, too. We couldn’t get a distributor. They really weren’t sure what to do with it. A lot of people thought, “Wow, this is a funny film, but it’s too stupid.” It took a while for people to look beneath the covers and go, “Oh, this isn’t really that stupid.” This film is ultimately about prejudice and challenging our social norms. I don’t know, I guess that’s my take on it. It’s something where there’s layers to a movie beneath what people initially see.
Did Netflix try to change the script?
They just let us do our thing. Netflix really didn’t … They had suggestions. This was out of the lower budget metrics division, so I think they were, in the end, very happy with it. They promoted it a fair bit. I don’t know, I can’t tell.
Did they give you any indication of how it’s doing?
A very weird thing about Netflix is they’ll say, “Oh yeah, it’s doing really well for us. We’re really happy.” But you don’t know what the real numbers are. I’m happy with the film. I’m happy with a lot of the response around it. They did tell me that it performed in the top 10 movies the first week it was out globally.