How Saw changed the Halloween release schedule

This Halloween marks the 10 year anniversary of the release of the first Saw movie. Sarah looks back to see how things have changed

“If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw”. Back in 2007, Lionsgate released the fourth movie in the Saw franchise with that amazingly egotistical tagline, and it got rolled out a few more times before the franchise finally came to an end in 2010. It wasn’t just marketing spin, though.

Saw completely dominated the Halloween release schedule for several years, changing the game for both horror movie distributors, and horror movie producers. There had been plenty of long-running horror franchises before Saw, but usually there were several years between each instalment. Knocking out one movie a year, on a regular schedule, so that your massive fanbase knew exactly what to expect and when to expect it, was a bold tactic that totally paid off for Twisted Pictures and co.

This year, for the 10th anniversary of the first Saw, Lionsgate is rereleasing the movie in US cinemas for one week. Ten years simultaneously feels like a long time and not very long at all – where did my youth go? – but in horror movie terms, it’s enough time for several waves to have come and gone. So what filled the Saw-shaped hole in the Halloween lineup? Let’s take a look back over several Halloweens and see what the impact of the Saw movies has been…

2000-2003: The Pre-Saw Years

Let’s start the Halloween release schedule for 2000, for no reason other than it’s a nice round number. The US got Lost Souls released in early October (though it wouldn’t make it to the UK until January 2001); Halloween weekend saw the release of Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. That sequel did pretty well at the box office, especially on its opening weekend, but critics and audiences hated it so much that, so far, there hasn’t been a Blair Witch Project 3.

Ad – content continues below

In 2001, there were two horror movies released in October that didn’t come out in the UK until the following year: From Hell and Thirteen Ghosts, neither of which are particularly amazing. Closer to home, there was a re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) in early October, with Jeepers Creepers released on 19 October and The Others just missing Halloween itself by coming out on 2 November. There’s no identifiable trend there, but at least The Others is brilliant.

Halloween 2002 saw a bumper crop of horror movies released in the UK: from daft reality TV thriller My Little Eye and the genuinely creepy One Hour Photo at the beginning of October through to the wonderful Donnie Darko and the less wonderful Halloween: Resurrection on the 25th, followed by Wes Craven’s They on 1 November. In the US, the remake of The Ring was also released in time for Halloween 2002, though in the UK we’d once again have to wait until February. Again, that’s a pretty good spread of different horror films, with a couple worth going to see.

Then there’s Halloween 2003. Rob Zombie’s first movie, House Of 1000 Corpses was released at the beginning of October, the first hint of the new torture porn wave that was coming; Eli Roth’s first movie, Cabin Fever, came a bit later; and, er, the Platinum Dunes remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released on Halloween itself. That year, horror fans were treated to gore, gore, and more gore. The stage was set, then.

2004-2005: Saw Begins

The first Saw wasn’t actually released in UK cinemas on Halloween weekend – it came out earlier than that, on 1 October 2004 (the US would have to wait until 29 October). It almost didn’t come out theatrically at all, but festival audiences responded so positively to it that Lionsgate decided to put it out in cinemas after all. That turned out to be the right move, obviously. But the torture wave was still in its infancy, and Halloween 2004 was actually dominated with j-horror and daft zombie movies.

Into The Mirror, the Korean movie that would be remade as Mirrors in 2008, was released the week after Saw, the same weekend as Bubba Ho-Tep, a horror comedy starring Bruce Campbell, and as Resident Evil: Apocalpyse, the second in that action horror franchise. The original Oldboy followed on 15 October, with AVP: Alien VS Predator and Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed following on 22 October, and Exorcist: The Beginning and Uwe Boll’s House Of The Dead the week after.

The film that dominated the Halloween box office in America, The Grudge, didn’t come out here until the first week of November. Aside from Oldboy and, weirdly, Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed, all of those movies got 15 certificates; The Grudge might’ve been scarier if you dug creaky ghosts, but Saw was clearly the nastiest film released that October.

Ad – content continues below

Fast-forward a year, then, to the rushed out sequel. Saw II did come out at Halloween, on 28 October 2005, and it didn’t have much competition for the Horror Movie Of The Month award; the only other horror-flavoured releases in October were the Wallace and Gromit outing The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, both of which were aimed at a pretty different audience than the second Saw movie.

If you wanted to pinpoint the exact moment torture porn took over from j-horror, mid-2005 is about right. The limp Dark Water remake came out in July, a kind of last gasp for that subgenre, and then Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects was released in August, followed by Wolf Creek in September. When Saw II made exponentially more money than its super successful predecessor, and then Hostel did megabucks the following March, it was pretty obvious a new trend had been established. But let’s get back to Halloweens…

2006-2008: Total Saw Dominance

Saw III was another proper Halloween release, hitting UK screens on 27 October 2006. The Grudge 2, which you’d think could maybe have competed with it for the Halloween box office crown, took a step back, opting to grab the pre-Halloween crowd again with a 20 October release. The latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre cash in, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning went even earlier, on 13 October. And for cinemagoing horror fans in 2006, that was pretty much it – dismal, no? Saw III had an even better opening weekend than Saw II, which meant another instalment was guaranteed.

So yeah, in 2007, when was Halloween, it was Saw, with Saw IV coming out on 26 October. Saw had Halloween in its reverse bear trap by now, and other horror movies were running scared: Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, which you’d think was a strong contender for a late October release, actually came out in September.

Interestingly, 30 Days Of Night had a go at grabbing the Halloween crowd, with a 1 November release date in the UK – though in America it played it safer, coming out on 19 October instead. Here, horror lovers were treated to enthusiastic slasher Hatchet on the first weekend of October, followed by better-than-it-should-be horror comedy Black Sheep and yet another Resident Evil sequel before Saw took over. If you weren’t a Saw fan but wanted to see something scary, you were pretty much out of luck in 2007.

2007 might’ve been probably the last time Saw was a guaranteed box office topper at Halloween, though. In 2008, Saw V came out a week early, on 24 October both in the UK and in the US. There was a horror movie released on Friday 31 October 2008 (Midnight Meat Train) but to be honest, that probably wasn’t what the distributors were worried about clashing with. More likely, they didn’t wanna go up against Quantum Of Solace. Still, gorehounds got their fix within seven days of Halloween, which counts for something. Because the Saw gravy train was about to come to a screeching halt.

Ad – content continues below

2009-2010: Sawn Off

The drop in box office revenue between Saw V and Saw VI is staggering. It virtually halved. That’s not directly attributable to the quality of the film – Saw VI is one of the franchise’s high points – it’s more likely that the torture porn wave had finally started to break. And there was a new horror trend sweeping in to take its place, though we’re gonna have to look at US release dates to explain this one.

On 16 October 2009, the first Paranormal Activity movie was released in US cinemas. Like the first Saw, it was a new property made on a low budget, released off the back of strong festival buzz. It might not have succeeded. But it did. Massively. The first Paranormal Activity movie made more money at the box office than any of the Saw movies ever had, and it had been produced on a fraction of Saw’s already tiny budget. Another legitimate phenomenon had arrived, and Saw VI just couldn’t compete when it came out on 23 October.

The UK didn’t get Paranormal Activity until the end of November, but even so, another horror movie (Grace) was released on the same weekend as Saw VI. The only comfort the battered Saw franchise got that year was at least H2: Halloween II kept a respectful distance, coming out on 9 October.

2010’s Saw 3D recovered some lost ground. Reclaiming the Halloween weekend, it was released on 29 October, with two gimmicks to draw back bored horror fans: firstly, it was in 3D, and secondly, it was touted as the end of the seemingly eternal Saw franchise. It did have to compete with Paranormal Activity 2, though, which was released the weekend beforehand and was still drawing crowds at Halloween.

With those two horror behemoths going head to head, it’s maybe not surprising there weren’t many other horror movies out that month. But the end of Saw should’ve opened up the field, shouldn’t it?

2011-2013: After Saw

Well, not really. Because Paranormal Activity just stepped in to plug the gap, at least in 2011. Kevin Smith’s Red State came out in September, kiddie horror Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark chanced its arm on an early October release, but Paranormal Activity 3 reigned supreme with a 21 October release date. It made more money than the lacklustre 2 and almost matched the first movie’s enormous box office. 

Ad – content continues below

But by 2012, the wheels had started to come off the Paranormal Activity franchise. Putting out a new film every year, adding to a complex mythology on the fly and somehow making a shedload of money off it isn’t an easy thing to do, and it’s doubtful that the makers of Paranormal Activity would have even tried if it hadn’t been for Saw.

The idea that one franchise could dominate a specific weekend for so long is a crazy one, and Paranormal Activity tripped over earlier than Saw: the fourth movie was released on 17 October to a sort of shrugging indifference, the drop in box office comparable to the one between Saw V and Saw VI. Horror fans had a few other choices that October, including Sinister, which came out in the first week of the month, and, uh, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, which came out on actual Halloween. Actual Halloween! That would’ve been unthinkable if it’d been Saw IV rather than Paranormal Activity 4.

Things didn’t get better in 2013, when the promised Paranormal Activity 5 failed to materialise. Instead, horror fans got… er, nothing. Seriously, look at the October release schedule for 2013: there was a limited release of V/H/S2 on 14 October, or you could go and see The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghosts Of Georgia on Halloween night if you were desperate, but other than that, nada. The blame for that miserable selection can be assigned to two things: the release of Marvel’s latest, Thor: The Dark World, on 30 October, and the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises teaching other horror distributors to steer clear.

(Things were slightly better in the US, where the Carrie remake was released on 18 October, but even so, clearly nothing was gonna face off with a Marvel movie. Even if I liked superhero movies, I’d be holding a grudge.)

2014: What next?

That brings us to this Halloween, where yet again, the Paranormal Activity has failed to deliver its fifth instalment – or sixth, if you count The Marked Ones, but let’s not, because it’s rubbish. Happily, last year’s no-show seems to have encouraged more horror movies to aim for this Halloween, because this month, we’ve got several promising-looking horrors to check out. There’s Life After Beth, Annabelle, The Babadook, Horns, and Ouija, all lining up to be your Halloween date. You could even maybe count Dracula Untold, though it’s more of a fantasy action movie. Even without it, that’s a more exciting slate of horror movies than we’ve had in years.

And, of course, if you’re in the US you could also go and see the Saw rerelease. It’ll be really interesting to see how that does, and how people react to it. It’s a great movie, but the genre’s in a very different place now. Still, horror fans owe Saw a debt of gratitude: for seeing off the repetitive j-horror remakes, for persuading distributors to take a chance on low budget indie horror, and, yes, for finally coming to an end, and letting other movies get a look in.

Ad – content continues below