When teens go to Halloween movies, they're looking for tricks, not treats, and the Saw series has delivered. On the final weekend in Oct., every year since 2004, Jigsaw and his sadistic minions have wreaked their creative carpentry on a couple dozen screaming victims. In three of the six previous Halloween periods, this Home Depot handyman horror series slashed its way to No. 1. Now, for the promised finale of the franchise, Saw 3D made it four out of seven. It topped the weekend box office in North American theaters, according to early studio estimates, with a crimson $22.5 million, and relegated last weekend's subtler horror foray, Paranormal Activity 2, to second place.
As distressing as the success of the Saw movies may be to fretful parents, it has a tonic influence on Hollywood moguls, who rely on junky series like this to bring in big money on a small outlay. For their investors, the R-rated exploitation-film winners of the last three weekends have played a beautiful cash-register symphony: first Jackass 3D, which in 17 days has earned more than $100 million domestic on a $20 million budget; then PA 2, which cost a mere $1.3 million to make and has pulled in $65 million in 10 days.
The first six Saw films cost its distributor, Lionsgate, just $46 million to produce, and have earned a spectacular $727 million in theaters worldwide, plus untold riches on DVD. Prolonging the series was simply good business, even if later installments had diminished the revenue stream and exhausted the content. For old times' sake, the Saw team brought back Cary Elwes, as the guy who had to saw off his foot in the first movie which was kind of like Jon Stewart, at yesterday's Rally to Restore Sanity, calling on Tony Bennett to sing "America the Beautiful." And, with the 3D format proving an effective lure for horror films, it made sense to spend a little more ($20 million) and go out with blood spurting all over the audience. The ploy worked: Saw 3D earned 92% of its weekend largesse from viewers paying extra for the goggles.
Yes, adult-themed films can also be hits; the season's top grossers after Jackass 3D are Ben Affleck's The Town ($87.6 million) and David Fincher's The Social Network ($79.7 million), and the alterkocker spy caper Red has done well enough ($58.9 million) that it may prove a franchise commodity for stars Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. But each of these films cost two or three times as much to make as any of the Jackass, Paranormal or Saw pictures. The expense is much greater, the chance of boffo returns far riskier. If it weren't for Oscar ambitions, and the occasional gnawing of a studio boss's conscience to produce movies his friends might want to see, films like Affleck's and Fincher's might not be made at all.
Over in indie-film land, another violent revenge film topped the charts, as the tattooed hacker Lisbeth Salander took a lesson from Jigsaw and applied a nail gun to the instep of one of her torturers in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. This final chapter in the Swedish trilogy based on Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium novels opened on 153 screens and grabbed an imposing $915,000. The two previous episodes had grossed $170 million worldwide, a lofty sum indeed for films not in English; and the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is now being Americanized in a remake directed by Fincher.
In North America, the Swedish Dragon Tattoo and the second film in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, are the top two foreign-language earners since the 2007 La vie en rose, the Edith Piaf bio-pic that won a Best Actress Oscar for Marion Cotillard. Will Noomi Rapace, who brings such a feral luster to the role of Lisbeth, reap a similar reward? Maybe not, but she's certainly an international star of the future, playing an alluring gypsy in Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes sequel and being touted as the lead in the proposed prequel to Alien one of whose four installments was Fincher's directorial debut. Sooner or later, actor or director, whether from the art house or the groundhouse, nearly everyone has to make a horror movie.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Saw 3D, $22.5 million, first week
2. Paranormal Activity 2, $16.5 million; $65.6 million, second week
3. Red, $10.8 million; $58.9 million, third week
4. Jackass 3D, $8.4 million; $101.6 million, third week
5. Hereafter, $6.3 million; $22.2 million, third week
6. Secretariat, $5 million; $44.8 million, fourth week
7. The Social Network, $4.7 million; $79.7 million, fifth week
8. Life as We Know It, $4 million; $43.5 million, fourth week
9. The Town, $1.95 million; $87.6 million, seventh week
10. Conviction, $1.8 million; $2.4 million, third week