How Barbenheimer Became One Horror Movie’s Worst Nightmare

Samuel Bodin’s "Cobweb" proved to be the main casualty of this year’s biggest movie phenomenon

August 14, 2023 6:23 am
Why would any other movie dare compete with these two?
Warner Bros./Universal

Barbenheimer may now have surpassed Tom Cruise as the modern-day savior of cinema. But there’s at least one industry figure cursing the marketing genius that somehow recognized a neon pink Mattel spinoff and a three-hour theoretical physicist biopic had monumental crossover appeal. And he also no doubt cursed the marketing fool who decided to release his haunted house horror on the very same day.  

Cobweb director Samuel Bodin hasn’t had much luck of late, period. Despite near-universal strong reviews, his nightmare-inducing series Marianne became another victim of Netflix’s ruthless culling system in 2020. However, the Frenchman looked to have bounced back when Lionsgate tapped him up to helm a big screen chiller co-produced by Seth Rogen and starring genre regulars Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr. 

The tale of an eight-year-old loner tormented both at school and by the malevolent noises that suddenly emerge from his bedroom walls, Cobweb wasn’t quite as critically lauded as Bodin’s one-season wonder. Still, its 61% Rotten Tomatoes rating is nothing to be sniffed at, with Variety summarizing that it “departs from stock slasher conventions just enough to make for an entertaining if unexceptional scarefest” and Deadline praising its “haunting atmospheric tone.” It’s the kind of mid-tier horror, therefore, screaming out for an October release a la 2021’s Antlers and 2022’s Prey for the Devil. It’s even set during the lead-up to Halloween! 

Yet for some unexplained reason, studio execs decided to bury the film in the middle of summer during the most titanic box office fight of all time. While Barbie hit 4,200 theaters across North America and Oppenheimer 3,600, Cobweb had to make do with just 310. And while Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces posted first-week domestic grosses of $162 million and $82.5 million, respectively, Bodin’s feature-length debut posted, well, a big fat zero: Lionsgate — seemingly hellbent on doing the bare minimum — didn’t share any numbers, effectively making it the first major studio horror to miss the Top 10 in forever (it was projected to rake in $450,000).  

Its weekend of release wasn’t exactly crying out for more counterprogramming, either. Sure, a significant cross-section of cinemagoers have enjoyed both sides of the Barbenheimer coin, and for those content to spend at least four hours 54 minutes in a multiplex, as a double bill, too. But the gargantuan difference in subject matter, tone and age range meant that others already had two diametrically opposed blockbusters to choose from. And if Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb detonation or Barbie’s existential crisis wasn’t unnerving enough, then you still had the relatively fresh supernatural sequel Insidious: The Red Door and a new re-release of outlandish 2016 slasher Terrifier to satisfy your thirst for scares.  

And yes, the forthcoming October slate is packed with horror movies. There are new chapters of Pet Sematary and The Exorcist, the long-awaited video game adaptation Five Nights at Freddy’s and the latest Twitter thread to get the big-screen treatment, Dear David. The tenth installment of the seemingly immortal Saw series will also still be making audiences squirm in their seats, too. Nevertheless, all will inevitably find a sizable audience, and currently Cobweb would have had the week of October 20 all to itself.    

Don’t forget, horror fans are nothing if not repeat customers. Last October, Smile became only the third R-rated movie since the pandemic to gross more than $100 million domestically, Terrifier 2 sparked a media semi-panic while making its meager $250,000 budget back more than 60 times over, and Halloween Ends topped the box office chart despite being released simultaneously on Peacock. Throw in other streaming hits such as Netflix’s creepy coming-of-age Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, Hulu’s Hellraiser reboot and Shudder anthology V/H/S/99, and it’s clear competition around Halloween can be healthy.  

Cobweb, which according to Box Office Mojo has at least posted takings of $2.2 million elsewhere, isn’t the only horror that’s been severely hampered by its release date this year, however. Walt Disney certainly dropped the ball on The Haunted Mansion, a remake of the 2003 kid-friendly spookfest, which has yet to claw back even half of its ridiculously colossal $150 million budget.  

Based on the same-named theme park attraction, the original was mauled by critics during a period when an Eddie Murphy billing drew groans rather than laughs. Yet fondness for the film has grown over the past 20 years, and with many of the tweens and teens who saw it first time round now parents themselves, a reboot should have been a home run. Instead of returning to Gracey Manor while youngsters were gearing up to trick and treat, though, Disney bosses served up the gateway horror in the first week of August.  

With the Barbie machine still in full flow, the hot weather to contend with and the small matter of a SAG-AFTRA strike restricting the promotional trail to a single appearance on Celebrity Family Feud, The Haunted Mansion Version 2.0 failed to surpass its predecessor’s opening weekend tally (and that’s the unadjusted for inflation amount, too!). A 63 percent fall in its second week only added to its misery.  

Admittedly, the Mouse House couldn’t have foreseen the labor dispute that forced its red-carpet premiere to rely on classic Disney cosplayers rather than the A-list cast. It should, however, have learned from the mistakes of Hocus Pocus — now a much-loved classic, yet thanks to its August 1993 release date a commercial disappointment — that summer isn’t particularly conducive to the kid-centric horror. And unlike the crowded adult-oriented market, there’s nothing remotely similar due to hit cinemas in October.  

Then there’s the bloodbath of April 14-16, a weekend in which three new releases (four if you lived in New York or Los Angeles) all vied for horrorphiles’ attention. Russell Crowe’s Vatican-bothering The Pope’s Exorcist emerged victorious with a modest $9 million gross. But like Dracula comedy Renfield ($8 million), Christian indie Nefarious ($1.3 million) and to a lesser extent, a limited IMAX run for Ari Aster’s mindfuck Beau Is Afraid ($320,000), it would surely have benefited more in a much less competitive week.  

The overperformance of another solid if unspectacular Stephen King adaptation The Boogeyman ($42 million), which went up against Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and a second week of The Little Mermaid, proves the concept of counterprogramming can work when deployed correctly. And the money-spinning success of Scream ($108 million, 18th in the domestic chart of 2023), M3gan ($95 million, 20th) and Evil Dead Rise ($67 million, 23rd) shows the genre is still very much in rude commercial health. Expect to see word-of-mouth hit Talk To Me ($22 million, 41st), which just posted A24’s highest first-week gross since 2019’s Midsommar, and Jason Statham schlockfest Meg 2: The Trench ($37 million, 34th) achieve impressive final totals, too.  

Bill Maher Hated the “Barbie” Movie for the Stupidest Possible Reason
The host called the movie “preachy, man-hating and a zombie lie”

Of course, Hollywood has also badly fumbled the scheduling of several non-horrors over the past eight months. 65’s “dinosaurs in space” premise looked set to compensate for last year’s lumbering Jurassic World Dominion. But a behind-the-scenes crisis in confidence (multiple postponed release dates, limited press screenings, next-to-zero promotion) and clash with a rejuvenated Scream franchise meant its first-weekend figures were barely in the double million. 

It’s also hard to see the thinking behind releasing the impenetrable Knights of the Zodiac just a week after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3, a much starrier and bigger-budgeted live-action fantasy designed for all the family (bar all the harrowing animal cruelty and grisly face peeling, obviously). The Celine Dion-worshipping treacly rom-com Love Again should have also thought twice about going up against the Marvel property that draws the biggest female crowd. And Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, arguably this year’s most pleasant surprise, would undoubtedly have avoided a crushing 63 percent second-week drop if it hadn’t premiered just before the all-conquering The Super Mario Bros. Movie.  

To be fair, even the best-laid release plans occasionally go awry. The inventive animation Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, for example, can consider itself mightily unlucky to have followed the only Pixar movie that could be described as a slow burner, with the third week of Elemental no doubt impinging on its disappointing $5.5 million opening haul, the lowest in Dreamworks history. Yet in the field of horror, in particular, it’s been much harder to give the benefit of the doubt.  

Thankfully, this year’s remaining scary movies should avoid becoming victims of bad timing. Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is released six days before — who’d have thought it? — actual Thanksgiving. Starring Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield and Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, possession movie All Fun and Games has been given a week to reel in gorehounds before more bankable sequel The Nun II arrives. And cross-cultural supernatural tale It Lives Inside also gets a seven-day run ahead of Jigsaw’s improbable return, and the “Saw Patrol” stunt certain corners of the internet are desperately trying to engineer.  

It’s difficult to imagine anyone going straight from watching R-rated torture porn to G-rated cuddly pups or vice versa, nor is either likely to generate a huge buzz outside their usual fanbases. But whenever the next Barbenheimer-style battle does occur, studios with other potential hits on their hands should do much better — as Bodin would undeniably concur — to avoid getting them caught in the crossfire.  

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