Saw Came and Conquered

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Tobin Bell plays the notorious killer Jigsaw in Saw III.

The packed house at the Regal Union Square Theatre in Manhattan was stoked for the midnight screening of Saw III. The crowd of predominantly young men, some with dates, lent sympathetic attention to the trailers for Turistas (American kids trapped in the house of a Brazilian madman) and The Messengers (the Pang brothers' monster house movie). A collective laugh greeted the opening seconds of the Borat trailer. Then came a trailer in, of all languages, German (subtitled in English): a guttural voice observing that in the U.S. 10,000 people are killed each year, most of them by guns. "Americans," the voice sneers, "they have no imagination." The title came on — Hostel Part II, a sequel to the horror hit about an abattoir for unwary humans — and the audience erupted in cheers.

McKinsey & Company couldn't have picked a better focus group for last night's world premiere of Saw III. And these 800 or so people paid $11 each for the privilege. The movie had them before the first victim had slashed his own tendon.

You know the Saw series, and if you don't, some teenager in your family does. The first movie, released two years ago this weekend, was the one with two guys in a room, and to keep his wife and child alive one of them is told he has to kill the other one, and to do that he must saw off his foot. And their disturbed jailer is a master strategist who mistreats them the way an angry kid does his toys. When Jigsaw, their torturer, says, "I want to play a game," it's a game of life and death.

Just hearing that plot precis must have given parents the cold sweats. Another slasher movie to desensitize their young sons: to demonstrate acts of self-mutilation beyond the dreams of Jackass, and teach them that the world offers only two options: kill or die.


Two things happened that opening weekend just before Halloween 2004. The first was that Saw made a ton of money, instantly cueing a sequel. That in itself wasn't news: horror is the most profitable genre around, earning big bucks on a pittance. Each new film can almost be guaranteed a large slice of the teenage-boy market, the last demographic devoted to spending Friday night at the movies. And where there's a market, Hollywood will rush to satisfy and sate it.

So far this year, 18 horror films have received a wide release, and 10 of those opened as their weekends' top grossers. Granted, to get that number into double figures I'm including V for Vendetta, which is after all about a defaced creature in a cave who plots violent revenge on his enemies, and Saw III, which would require a blackout on 3,000 screens to keep it from being declared #1 on Sunday. But the very first weekend of January, Hostel emerged triumphant over King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia. Two and four weeks later, Underworld: Evolution (a sequel) and When a Stranger Calls (a remake) reigned. In April, Scary Movie 4 giggled its way to $40 million, and the next week Silent Hill made $20 million.

Jan. to Apr. and Sept.-Oct., slow times for prestige movies and blockbusters, are the big seasons for horror films. Scare cinema opens at its peril in the summer: Snakes on a Plane won its weekend, but did only about $15 million, much less than predicted. Come September, though, The Covenant took the top slot, and The Grudge 2 was #1 two weeks ago. Other horror pictures, Final Destination 3, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Beginning and The Hills Have Eyes (a sequel, a prequel and a remake) weren't their weekends' champs, but each took in more than $15 million — or about 50% more than Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers did last week.

And Flags cost $55 million to make, plus another $35 to market. That's not a lot for a prestige epic, but it's in the Superman Returns empyrean compared to many horror films. Hostel, for example, was made in the Czech Republic for a pinchpenny $4.5 million and grossed 10 times that in North America alone; its worldwide take was $80 million, and we haven't even got to the video revenue, where horror movies clean up.

The original Saw made an even more impressive return on investment. Costing only $1.2 million, the picture did $55 million domestic and another $48 million abroad. Its sequel, made for $4 million, took in $87 million at home and another $57 million offshore. (The take is lower over there in part because European and Asian rating boards often restrict violent films to those over 18.) Those first two films earned nearly $250 million at the box office: that's a lot of Saw bucks.

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