America's sweetheart? She's the one dripping blood, scrambling through the underbrush, on the run from dirty cutlery. Yep, this year audiences would rather watch boys and girls fall apart (courtesy of a few well-placed snips and rips) than fall in love. It's no black magic that the top two movies in the country are a horror film and...a spoof of horror films. ''Scary Movie 3'' took in $48.1 million its first weekend (a record for October openings), with ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'' chasing behind.
In fact, 2003 may go down as the Year of Horror (and not just because of Gary Coleman's stunning gubernatorial loss). January saw a No. 1 opening for ''Darkness Falls'' (that gummed-up tooth-fairy thriller), summer's most surprising jolt came from ''28 Days Later'' (that clever retooling of zombie flicks), and even Labor Day weekend was dominated by a fright film, ''Jeepers Creepers 2'' (that movie with the monster thingy that ate for 23 days every 23 years...and if he drove a bus 23 miles at a speed of...oh, we forget the math).
''These are classic matinee gimmick entertainments that have always been part and parcel of a great commercial side of Hollywood, no apologies necessary,'' says Robert Englund, who's played kiddie killer Freddy Krueger in eight films, including last summer's $82 million-grossing hit ''Freddy vs. Jason.''
Yes, just like an eager, horny teenager, the genre is bouncing blithely along. Studios released almost twice as many horror films this year as in the previous two, according to Nielsen EDI. The new strain has one common theme: The movies are unapologetic in their aim to entertain, they're unironic, and they're unwinking -- unlike a certain predecessor. ''The horror film, with 'Scream,' had turned itself on its ear, so that [the genre] was self-parodying,'' says Bill Mechanic, head of Pandemonium Films. ''You didn't know if they're supposed to be scary, you didn't know if they're supposed to be fun.''
The antidote, it seems, can be found in films like ''Chainsaw.'' As the movie's producer Michael Bay explains: ''I loved horror movies growing up and felt it was time to do a straight-ahead, no-frills, no-jokes nightmare movie.'' ''Scary Movie 3,'' in fact, owes its huge haul to this breed of earnest horror. ''It was only after I had agreed to do [SM3] that I saw 'Signs' and 'The Ring,''' says director David Zucker. ''When I saw those, I knew we had a movie. They take themselves seriously enough -- 'Signs' and 'The Ring' were ripe.''
While the style of horror films may go in and out with each trendlet, the genre as a whole is a steady bet. The films can be made on the cheap (very few cost more than $20 million) because they don't need big-ticket actors to lure crowds. ''The genre is the star here,'' says Dan Marks, executive VP of Nielsen EDI. ''People like to get scared.'' A franchise film, like ''Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'' carries its own name recognition. With a budget of $9.2 million, the film took in three times that on its opening weekend, thanks to all the young'uns who hit theaters. In packs. Another economic advantage: Horror flicks are as social as the movie experience gets, so people go in big bundles. ''They scream -- loud -- and grab each other,'' Bay says. ''They like the scares, and movies are a lot scarier when you're in a group.''