Amongst the reboots, sequels, retools, and odd indie gems of the horror world in 2004, there was one under-the-radar release that snuck up on the scene. It introduced two huge genre talents, became the most profitable horror film in almost a decade, and effectively ended the flagging camp-meta-horror trend. That movie was a simple locked room mystery called Saw. It began as a seven-minute short, cost only $1.2 million to make, and would end up grossing more than $100 million before the end of its cinematic run and launching what would be for a time one of the biggest horror franchises on Earth.
The core premise of Saw is simple: two people wake up on opposite sides of a room separated by only a dead body and the chains that bind their ankles. How did they get there and, more importantly, how do they escape? Like many of the best ideas in genre filmmaking, Saw’s locked room concept was spawned out of necessity. Two young, unknown Australian filmmakers, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, came to the conclusion that the most affordable way to make a film was to set it predominantly in one location.
Lionsgate, Twisted Pictures
Saw wasn’t the first contemporary horror film to take this route; the ’90s sci-fi horror classic Cube utilized a single room that could be lit differently, giving the impression of multiple spaces. Saw, though, was committed to its dingy bathroom setting, where Whannell and his co-star Cary Elwes faced a battle of wits against the murderous maniac who trapped them there.
It’s a grimy, dirty, and terrifying scenario that plays on feral human fears like lack of control, claustrophobia, and—in the case of both of the prisoners—the paranoia of your darkest secrets being uncovered. That’s the M.O. of the “Jigsaw Killer.” He’s a murderer who not only gets you to dissect yourself (he never technically kills, as his victims are always given a choice), but also your personal life, your perceived sins, and the dirty little things that you worry about before you lay your head down to sleep each night. Outside of the bleak box in which much of Saw takes place, a dark detective tale is afoot as genre icon Danny Glover and his partner hunt down a killer who’s been setting devilish traps to ensnare those that he feels don’t appreciate their life.
Lionsgate, Twisted Pictures
Wan and Whannell’s low-budget nightmare spoke to audiences and became a smash hit, eventually making more than a hundred times its minimal production budget. The psychological serial killer thrills of Seven mixed with the gore and shock of exploitation flicks made Saw feel unique. It also foreshadowed the torture porn trend that would truly begin with Eli Roth’s Hostel in 2005. Though Saw definitely excels at showcasing the torment of Jigsaw’s victims, the original film feels like more than a gorefest; it’s a mystery box, with plenty of horrible, enticing secrets inside.
To horror fans in the early ’00s, the film was a revelation. It felt fresh, scary, and worlds away from the comedic genre flicks that had filled cinemas since the arrival of Scream over a decade before. It wasn’t just for horror hounds, though. Marketed as a psychological thriller with an impossible-to-see-coming third act twist, Saw became the must-see movie of the year. After Saw’s huge success, the sequel was nothing short of inevitable.
Saw II took the trapped-in-a-room trope and expanded it, crafting a haunted house movie where the ghosts were Jigsaw’s brutal traps, set to ensnare a ragtag group of victims, most of whom would not survive the experience. Whannell split writing duties with new director Darren Lynn Bousman, who would become a Saw stalwart, taking on directing duties on Saw II through Saw IV, and who will soon be helming the ninth entry. Together the pair amped up the gore, crafting more gruesome deaths and the beginnings of a wider Saw lore that would twist and expand over the eight films that make up the original series. Following the proven track record of the first, Saw II cost just $4 million and made a massive $147 million during its theatrical release.
Lionsgate, Twisted Pictures
It was here the Saw franchise was truly born. It would become a Halloween mainstay, owning the multiplexes every single October with only one of the eight films, Saw V, making under $100 million at the box office. As the movies moved forward, they crafted a strange and sprawling world of criminal conspiracies and serial killer cults, the deaths becoming more gruesome and the traps more intricate and imaginative. Saw 3D debuted in 2010 and featured a huge twist alongside the return of an original character. By that point, Wan and Whannell had already established themselves as some of the most innovative creators in horror.
Beyond Saw, they produced underrated genre gems like Dead Silence and Wan’s hard-hitting revenge thriller Death Sentence. As if that weren’t enough, the same year that Saw 3D (the last Saw film for seven years) debuted, Wan and Whannell teamed up again to release Insidious, a grim ghost story that would launch their second franchise and once again made almost a hundred times its original minuscule budget of $1.5 million.
The rest, as they say, is history. Wan launched the so-called Conjuring-verse in 2013, which only a few years later would become the most successful horror franchise of all time. He then took the reins of Aquaman, which stands as the most profitable DC Comics film yet. Whannell, meanwhile, continued building his acting career while writing all the blockbuster Insidious films before turning to direction with the third chapter, and he’ll be writing the upcoming fourth entry too. He crafted screenplays for indie gems like Cooties and returned to directing for the absolutely badass action flick Upgrade.
While Wan is returning to his low budget roots with his upcoming film Malignant, Whannell is turning his hand to the classic Universal monsters, rebooting the Invisible Man after the failure of the studio’s attempt to create their Dark Universe. It’s an impressive journey, one that changed horror forever and started with nothing more than a short film, a really great idea, and a puppet called Billy.
Feature Image: Lionsgate, Twisted Pictures