The Oscar for Best Zombie Goes To . . .

Published: April 30, 2005

When Joel Silver, the film producer, decided some years ago to join the director Robert Zemeckis in grinding out lower-budget horror flicks for their Dark Castle label, he wasn't exactly counting on Oscar-level casts. But the genre's raging success has led to some almost frightening developments of late.

"You'd be shocked at who's calling and wants to be in these movies," said Mr. Silver, whose most recent effort, "House of Wax," will be shown tonight at midnight as the TriBeCa Film Festival draws to a close. "Agents call and ask, 'Do you have one of these for Hilary?' "

"Hilary" would be Hilary Swank, the winner of this year's Academy Award for best actress, and indeed he did have one for her: she will star in the next Dark Castle film, "The Reaping." And an earlier film in the series, "Gothika," featured Halle Berry the year after she picked up her Oscar in 2002.

"House of Wax" makes do with Elisha Cuthbert, of "Old School" and "Love Actually," and a spectacularly terrorized Paris Hilton. But the picture's showcase position at TriBeCa and expected wide release by Warner Brothers a week later make clear that horror - a bit déclassé, even after "Scream" revived the genre in 1996 - is now very much on filmdom's stylish inner track.

"People want to be in these movies because being in a commercial movie is fun," said Mr. Silver, who is perhaps best known as producer of action blockbusters, including the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" series.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and produced by both Dark Castle and Village Roadshow Pictures, "House of Wax" is a reimagining of Warner's 1953 original, which starred Vincent Price. It puts the proverbial young people inside a desolate small town after they have car trouble. What follows is the delightful, logic-defying mayhem we expect when they are foolish enough to investigate the House of Wax museum at the top of the town's hill.

The strong feminine presence in Dark Castle's films - though of a piece with movies like Columbia's recent hit "The Grudge," which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar - marks something of a departure for Mr. Silver, whose trademark action pictures did not always give actresses much to do. Indeed, Ms. Berry once portrayed a prostitute who is shot and quickly discarded from the plot of the 1991 Silver-produced action picture "The Last Boy Scout."

"We realized we were getting a strong response from young females," Mr. Silver said of the horror genre and its appeal to top-tier actresses.

Audience response has proved strong; "Gothika" took in almost $20 million at the domestic box office when it opened in 2003. Still, Warner Brothers was initially reluctant when Mr. Silver proposed to build on his experience as a co-producer of the "Tales From the Crypt" television series in making "House on Haunted Hill" (another Vincent Price remake) in 1998.

The studio eventually relented, and the movie opened on Halloween, at a time when that release date was virgin territory.

"The rule of thumb was that people don't go to movies on Halloween," Mr. Silver said. "So we kind of carved out a weekend for ourselves."

The movie took in $15.9 million at the box office that weekend.

Though internal doubts were said to have been expressed about the repercussions of Warner Brothers' going into the decidedly unprestigious horror business, it turned out that it only added to the company's bottom line and created a whole new audience.

To Jeff Robinov, who was a Warner Brothers senior executive when Mr. Silver ventured into big-screen horror and is now the studio's production president, the decision to farm out the horror genre to Dark Castle only made sense.

"Our risk to say yes to Joel was never that great," Mr. Robinov said. He explained that all Dark Castle movies have been, to borrow a phrase from the action genre, "container movies," in which the action is confined to one location - in effect, transposing "Die Hard" to a "haunted house" model. This can save a lot of money on otherwise costly movie productions.

"He's done all of them from a very fiscally responsible point of view," Mr. Robinov said of Mr. Silver and his movies.

Still, some in Hollywood are beginning to see signs of a horror glut, especially as some companies try to broaden the genre to milder PG-13 territory, as Columbia did with "The Grudge." (The horror, violence, sexual content and language in "House of Wax" have earned it the typical R rating.)

For people who want to make horror films, "there is a natural saturation point when they realize there is another movie right on its heels," said Peter Bloch, president of acquisitions and co-productions for Lions Gate Films, the maker of the recent gorefest "Saw," which was bolstered largely by its shock value and word of mouth.

"If we go broad, we have to spend more on the movie, and if we do that, we've lost the one thing that gives us a leg up, and that's publicity," added Mr. Bloch, whose company has the horror film "Premonition" in the TriBeCa festival, and is already getting ready to make "Saw 2."

Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who was production president of Warner Brothers and recently produced its fantasy-horror film "Constantine," said he thought horror would continue to be popular, as long as the culture at large felt the uncertainty that comes with war and troubled times, and relished the comfort of a more domesticated kind of horror. "There's this sense of overriding fear," he said, "and what's going on in the marketplace is that people are finding out they've been underserviced in that area."

And Mr. Robinov, who said he "grew up with" "The Last House on the Left," Wes Craven's 1972 camp classic, said the genre would continue to appeal not just to audiences but to performers as accomplished as Ms. Swank and Ms. Berry as well, if studios were smart enough to keep the films fresh.

"There's an appetite for it, as long as you can keep distinguishing the films," he said, "as long as people don't start to feel genre fatigue."