The entertainment world was stunned. Oscar nominations, announced Jan. 31, stirred a flurry of media attention for the trophy-tipped films, particularly frontrunner “Brokeback Mountain.” But calls of victory were short-lived when box-office figures began to filter in that weekend. Which of the prestigious, laurel-laden dramas made it to the top of the charts?

Jessica Boullion
Amanda Andrade

In truth, while Hollywood stood mired in obsequious self-congratulation ceremonies, America catapulted the horror remake “When a Stranger Calls” to the number one spot with just more than $20 million.

But stunned was just the beginning. So triumphant and unexpected was the film’s success that it prompted a deluge of outrage from the legitimate film community. An anonymous letter published in the New York Times called for the public burning of all reels of the horror film as well as the legally mandated political exile of its cast and crew. According to Jake Gyllenhaal, the manifesto boasted a remarkably similar syntactic signature to that of his collaborator, Heath Ledger. Gyllenhaal took a more pragmatic view of the situation by renouncing art films and expressing his commitment to play only archetypal serial killers in the future. Ang Lee even camped out in protest in front of an L.A. multiplex, vowing never to eat or sleep again until his epic cowboy love story conquered the box office.

OK, so none of that actually happened. What’s true is that when every movie website, newspaper and film geek was speculating over the Academy Awards, a babysitter harassed by a psychopath topped the box office. What’s not true is that anyone cared.

The allure of mindless horror is simply too well documented an aberration to surprise many people today. For decades, the movie industry has embraced the profit-yielding merits of films starring attractive, non-threatening young women getting any combination of scared, killed and/or doused in water.

The more recent renaissance of the brainless bloodbath drew protests at first, but these too fell away. True, film junkies still sigh every time a film like “Stranger” finds its way into America’s heart rather than onto the video-store shelves where it belongs. But for the most part, horror remains the poor, bastard cousin of a Henry James Hollywood – disruptive, tragic, ignored.

But if neither the industry nor the media care to dwell much on horror films, nodding at their impressive populist appeal before turning to the business of real movies, the American public has proven that it just doesn’t agree.

The success of a film like “Stranger” – in which an unknown starlet (Camilla Belle) purrs vacuously into a phone receiver while a masked serial killer stalks her in a cavernous house boasting architecture more compelling than the film’s plot – speaks to that continued loyalty. And because horror films are such astoundingly low-risk, high-yield ventures, movie studios have no incentive to stop producing them.

Take this past weekend. The number one film in America was Steve Martin’s comedy remake of “The Pink Panther” with an estimated $22 million, showcasing the comedian’s considerable skills in an $80-million ensemble event. “Final Destination 3,” the low-budget thrill ride following the escapees of a death-by-roller-coaster incident, came in less than $2 million behind and actually claimed a higher per-screen average. Incidentally, that put it far ahead of superstar Harrison Ford’s actioner “Firewall” and, for that matter, “Brokeback Mountain.”

Situations like these lead to two unavoidable conclusions: One being that America has very poor taste in movies. But the other is not so much an indictment of the country’s cinema sickness as it is the simple fact that horror films, for all their unmerited success, have a permanent place in our nation’s soul.

The triumph of terrible horror has too long been the dirty shame of Hollywood, newspapers nodding to American tastes like parents placating their cake-chomping fat kid. But movies are the ultimate populist medium, and denying respect to the public’s choice is irrational. There’s a place in pop culture for the celebration of such pulp pleasures: It might fall, for example, somewhere between Mariah Carey’s Grammy wins and the persistent popularity of Coldplay.

– Andrade thinks “Scream 2” is the bomb. E-mail aandrade@umich.edu.

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