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This October, horror flicks like the Grudge II and Saw III are still audiences' top choice

This October, horror flicks like the Grudge II and Saw III are still audiences’ top choice — Scary movies rule the box office but for how long?

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Until about a year ago, Donnie Wahlberg lived on the corner of Butt and Joke, with megastardom seemingly a distant memory. Then the ex-New Kid on the Block landed a role in a little horror sequel featuring a vicious serial killer named Jigsaw. ”It was almost like being back in the New Kids,” he says. ”I mean, basketball players [were] running over during the game giving me high fives, [saying] ‘Hey, you’re the guy from Saw II!”’

Behold the transformative power of the horror movie. Made for a reported $6 million, Saw II went on to gross more than $87 million domestically. And it’s not alone in bloody success. For the past two years, Hollywood has made a booming business out of the ”torture chic” genre (the good folks at Lionsgate prefer the more genteel ”claustrophobic cruelty”). Four of the ghastliest movies of the last year — The Descent, The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, and Saw II — have collectively grossed more than $201 million, an impressive number considering they reportedly cost under $35 million combined to make. And with October’s bevy of grisly prequels and sequels — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Grudge 2, and Saw III — the chopped-up-toes thing isn’t going to be over anytime soon.

Hollywood wouldn’t have it any other way. Notoriously cyclical and almost always profitable — especially when highly lucrative DVD afterlife is taken into account — the horror genre has been good to the studios. The current vogue for tort — er, claustrophobic cruelty — kicked off back in 2004, when an unheralded Lionsgate indie called Saw grossed a shocking $55 million. At the time, Asian horror remakes like The Grudge and Dark Water were all the rage — remember all those mute ghosts, creepy sound effects, and dark blue lighting schemes? — but any doubt there was a new genre champ ended in early 2005 when The Ring Two pulled in a deeply disappointing $53 million less than its predecessor. (The Grudge 2 is pretty much the only Asian horror sequel left.)

”The girl in the water with the wet hair is over,” says director Eli Roth from the set of Hostel: Part II in the Czech Republic. ”People want something that’s visceral, grisly, violent, and realistic. [In a world where] the BTK killer lives next door, people are terrified that the people at church and the people who protect us are going crazy.” Brad Fuller, producer of the Chainsaw prequel, agrees: ”The peril in your life pales in comparison to what’s happening on the screen. Hopefully [your life is] not as bad as having someone chainsaw you in half.”

And sure enough, a whole gaggle of young (male) filmmakers has emerged to fill the demand for such dramatically graphic material. This new Splat Pack includes Roth, Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Neil Marshall (The Descent), Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), and James Wan (Saw). ”There’s a bit of a pissing contest between directors to try and get the most blood in their movie,” says Roth. ”But we’re [really] making no-holds-barred films. People told me after Hostel that they had thought about burning people’s faces with blowtorches. They had fears about it. And they [now] felt like they weren’t crazy.”

Which may be well and good — and on second thought, a little twisted — but the most gruesome part of this saga could be its demise. The torture explosion is almost two years old now; by comparison, the postmodern horror craze (think: Scream) and the Asian boom lasted only a few years each. And while 2007 features a slate of gore-filled flicks, including Hostel: Part II, a Halloween franchise reboot, and The Hills Have Eyes II, one has to wonder whether this particular fad will soon go the way of piranhas and killer bees. “It’s like any genre. When something starts to work, more people start to attempt it,” says Fuller. “But that’s what always happens: People keep on doing the same thing over and over and then suddenly it’s not there anymore.”

And when the time comes for something new, it’s the quality of the scares that matters most. “My bottom line is, it has to be a good movie,” says Feast director John Gulager. “If you’re going to have somebody strapped to a chair, you better not do it half-assed. People [better be] cringing in their seat with their butts clenching.”