The battle for the soul of Horror: Saw vs Paranormal Activity

Every genre of film has gone through different phases, including horror. For decades, the constant turnover between monster movies, supernatural stories, exploitation cinema, giallo movies, slasher flicks, body-horror pictures and so on have graced horror fans, in different times and at different ages, with very different kinds of entertainment.

Since the early 00s, this turnover has become more defined and clearer in regard to horror cinema. 2004 was a benchmark: James Wan’s Saw came out, followed by one sequel per year until 2011. The Saw franchised reigned supreme until 2009 when, seemingly out of the blue, the first Paranormal Activity made its debut in theatres: 2009, in a way, was the year when the franchise started by James Wan “passed the torch” to the one created by that business genius known as Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions.

When the last Paranormal Activity came out (The Ghost Dimension, 2015), a new franchise was hiding behind the corner to take its place: The Conjuring Universe, of course, which is currently healthier than ever and keeps spawning sequels, prequels, spin-offs, vaguely related movies and so on. However, with this article I want to focus on the passing the torch between Saw and Paranormal Activity, what it meant for mainstream horror and why those franchises are still relevant (for better or worse).

It’s quite easy to answer the last questions: Jigsaw, the latest instalment in the series of movies that started in ’04, came out only 18 months ago, and a new Paranormal Activity flick has been announced: Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions will produce the seventh instalment in the franchise. No details are available about the new movie, and it does not yet have a title, but in 2017 Blum addressed the possibility of a reboot of the Paranormal Activity franchise, although nothing about that was confirmed.

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Before we delve into the meat of the matter, to give you an idea of how “totalitarian” Saw and Paranormal Activity were in mainstream horror and pop culture, the weekend of Halloween 2009, both the first Paranormal Activity and Saw VI came out: the first grossed $22 million in its opening weekend, followed at the box-office by Saw VI, which made $16 million. Limiting the data to horror, the same weekend The Stepfather grossed $6.5 million, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant $6.3 million, Zombieland (!) only $5.3 million and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist $73,500!

Overall, the Saw franchise grossed $976,272,768 worldwide with 8 movies; the Paranormal Activity series made $890,533,646 with only 6 movies!

However, it’s worth noting that the only two years these franchises played simultaneously in theatres (2009 and 2010) the Paranormal Activity movies smashed the Saw movies at the box office, condemning the Saw franchise, de facto, to extinction.

Now, these two film-series represent the polar opposite in the horror field: one uses the rule of “less is more” to the extreme, by teasing the audience throughout and shocking them at the end with a huge jump-scare. The other, instead, tries to scare or entertain viewers by showing graphic images, blood and violence.

Personally, I think most horror movies that descended from these two very different sub-genres aren’t great (to put it as politely as I can). However, both violent and in-your-face horror popularised by Saw toward mainstream audience and ultra-low-budget found-footage scenarios have given us some great titles in the past: there’s plenty of great found-footage movies, and there are many gory flicks that use violence to their advantage and tell interesting, stylised stories.

Although, as I said before, a new Saw just recently came out and a new Paranormal Activity will soon be in development, these two franchises have milked the cow to the fullest up to 2011 and 2015, respectively. What did they leave as their legacy, though?

This is a very interesting question because, regardless of what might seem to you, both of them are still very influential to this day, even though they don’t spawn as many rip-offs and carbon-copies as they did in the years where they ruled at the box office. However, the Saw legacy and the Paranormal Activity one differ quite a bit in terms of target audience.

Although the found-footage gimmick is now losing its relevance, the haunted house/ghost-driven/possession type movies are what horror fans are most subjected to, at least from Hollywood. In fact, the Paranormal Activity legacy is still alive and well (in regard to profit) when it comes to mainstream horror: most mainstream horror movies nowadays not only utilise the same tropes and storylines that Paranormal Activity popularised, but they’re also structured in a similar manner: all the “spooky stuff” tends to happen in the third act, whereas the first two acts of this type of flicks is used to tease the audience for what’s to come. Obviously, there are talented filmmakers within mainstream horror cinema that use this structure to develop characters, establish atmosphere or simply showcase interesting visuals. These directors, however, are the minority in mainstream horror cinema, a world where you need to stick to tiresome template in order to have the majority of audience members shoehorn to theatres and pay the ticket.

The footprints of Saw, so to speak, can be found in underground and extreme horror cinema. Since Hollywood decided to get rid of over-the-top, graphic violence in favour of mostly PG-13 ghost stories, movies where torture and gore are the focal point found their way in indie filmmaking. Although some of them are pure no-budget shlock, indie talented filmmakers have more opportunities to shine without compromising with studio interference, therefore providing smaller audiences with much more creative, original and unflinching content. It’s no secret, for instance, that the so-called French new wave of extreme horror was heavily inspired by movies like Saw and Hostel, as well as the attempt from edgy filmmakers to create films that exceed “the mainstream torture-porn” boundaries (an awful label that I completely disagree with, but I used it so it’s easier for me to be understood).

Horror cinema, and cinema in general, is like a ground where layers are overlapping in such a way that influences of the lower layers can be found in the newest ones. Although the box office fight between Saw and Paranormal Activity was tangible only for a few years, its traces are still evident in movies today, if you’re willing to look for them and to analyse trends a bit.

Clearly, this article only touches upon these matters, and it might come off as quite superficial. I mean, horror cinema isn’t just divided in two scenarios: there are multiple trends which include political horror, smart horror, art-house horror, nostalgia horror (you know, all the movies that were inspired by Stranger Things to use 80s references and play the card of nostalgia), straight exorcism-based horror, and so on and so forth. At the same time, it’s obvious that every trend, every sub-genre of horror spawned at least a bunch of great films throughout the years, so I want to make clear that I do not dismiss any single sub-genre as just crap!

Ultimately, my intention with this article was to give an overview of a particular moment in horror history, to provide you guys with some (hopefully) useful information, and to give you some food for thought. Hopefully, I didn’t come off as judgmental or biased, as my intention here wasn’t to review or assess the aforementioned franchises. Instead, I only wanted to raise some doubts and questions in some of view that, hopefully, will help you better understand some of the trends and trope in current horror cinema. You’re welcome to discuss these topics with me anytime you want in the comment section.

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