The nights are drawing in, Halloween is approaching and cinemas are back to full capacity. This can only mean one thing: horror movies, hordes of them. In recent years it feels as if the autumnal horror wave has become a year-round tsunami. Horror is everywhere on our screens these days, and if there’s one person to blame, it might well be Jason Blum.
The 52-year-old producer seems to have cracked the code when it comes to low-budget, high-profit, endlessly sequelisable horror product. His 2007 breakthrough, the camcorder freakout Paranormal Activity, set the tone. Made on a $15,000 (£11,000) budget, it took nearly $200m at the box office worldwide. Blum has churned out a steady stream of hits ever since: The Purge, Insidious, Sinister, Happy Death Day, Split, Get Out and Us to name a few. His company, Blumhouse, is also custodian of vintage horror properties such as the Halloween franchise (2018’s revamp took more than $250m worldwide; its follow-up, Halloween Kills, is out now), and Universal’s monster gallery (after last year’s The Invisible Man, a Ryan Gosling-led Wolfman and a Karyn Kusama-directed Dracula are in the works). These are just edited highlights of Blum’s sprawling empire, which also includes dramas, streaming miniseries, documentaries and podcasts. According to IMDb, he currently has more than 30 titles in the pipeline.
“I keep very busy, it’s true,” Blum laughs. Tanned, healthy looking and easygoing, he looks the exact opposite of a Lord of Darkness. He apologises if the sunlight is too bright in the Malibu home he’s Zooming in from. It doesn’t melt his flesh so he’s definitely not a vampire.
“I was very deliberate,” he says of his spectacular run of success. “I knew I always wanted to create a machine that would help me realise my crazy dreams. I always was interested in creating a place where I could look at a book or a script or a pitch and have my own apparatus to turn it into a movie or a show. I’ve wanted that since I was 25 years old. It’s definitely a dream come true.”
Today’s horror boom is not entirely Blum’s own doing. Many have looked at his formula and emulated it. And he does have a formula. He summarises it as “low cost, high concept”. Rule one is a tightly controlled budget. “It started as $1m,” he explains, “Insidious [from 2010] was $1m. Then we were kind of at $3m, like the first Purge movie. Now we’re more like $5m or $7m, like for Get Out.” For sequels or “known IP” such as Halloween, that might go up to $15-20m.
But fiscal stinginess is combined with creative generosity. “On the film side of the company, almost every director we work with has final cut,” Blum says. “When you relinquish control, the director isn’t staying up all night thinking: ‘How am I going to get my way?’”
As such, many current horror players have worked with Blum: Jordan Peele, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, M Night Shyamalan, Eli Roth. And he’s giving a leg up to many more. His current Welcome to the Blumhouse series on Amazon gives space to female and non-white first-time film-makers, whose stories take in Black vampire slayers and Latina grannies battling gentrification. In part, Blum is atoning for injudicious comments in 2018, when he sought to explain Blumhouse’s lack of movies made by women by suggesting there weren’t many female directors “inclined to do horror”. He quickly apologised.
Blum’s approach to artists is closer to the European system than Hollywood. Growing up, he was not a horror obsessive (though he loved Hitchcock). He cut his teeth on New York indie cinema in the 90s. Before going it alone in 2000 he worked for Miramax then Paramount. The first movie he produced was 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, the debut of Noah Baumbach, his former roommate and fellow student at New York’s Vassar College.
What is surprising within this mass-market model is how political many of Blumhouse’s projects have been. Get Out pulled no punches when it came to race. The Invisible Man, led by Elisabeth Moss, updated an overfamiliar classic into a #MeToo-era study of male toxicity and female paranoia. The Purge series, which hinges on the premise of a night of state-sanctioned lawlessness to preserve the peace, takes gun-toting US law enforcement to its illogical extreme. Blum also produced the miniseries The Loudest Voice, with Russell Crowe as former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, and has made documentaries on gay conversion therapy and the Ku Klux Klan. Nobody could accuse Blumhouse of subtlety, but in an age when commercial success often depends on wide appeal, this could be seen as risky business.
“Some of them are just fun, good, scary movies, but it’s more interesting if they have something to say underneath the scares,” he says. “I’m drawn to political things so I think that may be why, but I think oftentimes people bring their own politics to what they’re watching.” He cites The Purge as an example. “People who think there should be more guns in the world are like: ‘Go Purge!’ It’s not what James [DeMonaco, the writer-director] wanted. He’s very anti-gun, and he was making it as a cautionary tale.”
Blum’s horrors pretty much unerringly lean progressive, though, don’t they? “Yeah, I think that’s fair,” he acknowledges. “I guess my own politics, there are some things that I’m very progressive about. Gun control, for instance. I think the UK has it right and the United States has it upside down and backwards. Gun control certainly is something close to my heart that drives me insane.” He is also catering to a younger, more progressive audience, of course, which skews slightly female, he points out.
This is the challenge for Blum and other purveyors of horror. Real-world horror is hardly in short supply, what with extremism, the pandemic, climate apocalypse and so on, yet much of the current horror film output feels familiar and generic, including, it must be said, some of Blum’s work. For every Get Out or Split there’s a forgotten flop such as his Fantasy Island or Area 51. Does horror need to up its game? “Well, the second world war was no picnic,” he says. “I think that events in the world have been pretty brutal since the beginning of time. But I do think that the audience gets more sophisticated, and so you have to find new and different ways to get under people’s skin.”
Having said that, 50% of Blumhouse’s movies these days are sequels. Insidious is on part four, The Purge part five and Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, due later this month, is the seventh instalment. “That’s completely true,” he says. “Everything that I’ve just said to you applies to original movies; sequels are completely different. And if we have a big successful movie, I always want to make a sequel, obviously, for commercial and financial reasons.”
Other avenues of the Blum empire are producing interesting non-horror work these days. Building on successes such as Whiplash and BlacKkKlansman, Blumhouse has put out some interesting miniseries lately, in particular the Amy Adams-led murder mystery Sharp Objects and last year’s underrated The Good Lord Bird, with Ethan Hawke on fiery form as a pre-American civil war abolitionist preacher. Maybe the indie producer in Blum is trying to get out,…