It came, it's 'Saw,' it will conquer

Annual gorefest set to torture; 'Dan' looks elsewhere for love

Lionsgate's "Saw IV" is sure to cut deeply into its boxoffice competition this weekend when it opens in more than 3,100 locations, but the real question is whether the gore-filled sequel can pump some blood into a recently lifeless fall theatrical season.

Disney's Steve Carell-Juliette Binoche comedy "Dan in Real Life" is the only other wide debutant. A counterprogramming ploy, the PG-13 "Dan" aims to pull in anybody not inclined to see "Saw."

Mercifully, the presence of just two wide entrants could help restore a bit of sanity to a marketplace in which star-filled films have been crushed of late amid a surplus of openers and expansions. Among this weekend's notable expansions, "The Darjeeling Limited" heads north of 700 engagements after playing in 201 venues last weekend, when the Wes Anderson comedy managed a decent per-screen average in toting its 23-day cume to $3.9 million.

As for expectations on the R-rated "Saw," it's worth noting that the opening of each installment has outperformed its predecessor.

The franchise original bowed during Halloween 2004 with $18.3 million and eventually rung up $55.2 million domestically. A year later, "Saw II" unspooled with $31.7 million en route to an $87 million haul, and last year "Saw III" debuted with $33.6 million and took in $80.2 million.

Sony's "The Grudge" still ranks as the best horror opener ever, bowing with $39 million during the Oct. 22, 2004, frame.

The biggest audience for horror films is males younger than 25 — a sizable chunk of the moviegoing public.

"That's the core of our audience, (and) they have been tremendously loyal to the franchise," Lionsgate distribution president Steve Rothenberg said. "We expect them to come out in big numbers this weekend."

Some might dismissively place the "Saw" franchise in what has come to be known as "torture porn," a horror subgenre with waning support. But the popular franchise's third sequel should easily top $25 million, and a bow as high as $35 million is foreseeable if the weekend turns out to be a solid one for moviegoing.

Like its two predecessors, "Saw IV" is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. The central character, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), was killed in "Saw III," and "Saw IV's" plot line picks up thereafter.

Meanwhile, "Dan," set for more than 1,900 playdates, is expected to skew considerably older than "Saw IV" and possibly attract good date-crowd business.

"It's about as good a counterprogramming kind of film that anybody can make," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said.

"Dan" should appeal to a core base of Carell fans and draw broadly among males and females 18 and up, Viane said.

Saturday sneak previews of "Dan" went well, with more than 90% of patrons rating the film very good or excellent.

Unfortunately, little else went well last weekend.

The No. 1 film, Sony's vampire chiller "30 Days of Night," opened at the low end of expectations, grossing $16 million. The distributor also will be hard-pressed to hang a good hold on the horror film this weekend with "Saw IV" buzzing into the marketplace.

But the "30 Days" bow represented a notable success relative to the dismal debuts of other openers.

Fox Atomic's sports spoof "The Comebacks" rung up just $5.6 million last weekend, so a 50% drop would see the comedy deliver less than $3 million this frame.

Miramax executives claimed satisfaction with the $5.5 million bow for the drama "Gone Baby Gone," but will they feel that way if its 10-day gross through Sunday comes in at $11 million or less?

New Line's CIA thriller "Rendition" opened with just $4.1 million, so the less said about its longer-term prospects the better.