Back in the early 2000’s, horror was going through a strange period. The success of movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) paved the way for PG-13 horror movies to rule, atop the kingdom of celluloid scares. While many embraced the teen focus, others were not so welcoming and a number of directors, influenced by 80’s horror, decided to do something about it all, before all was lost. In 2004, came the first fundamental step, James Wan and Leigh Whannell changed everything with Saw (2004).
With a budget of 1.2 million dollars, two (barely) graduated Australian students from film school shook the foundations of the dominant ‘teen slasher phase’ that the masses flocked to over and over again. The concept was a low-budget horror movie set mainly in one location, that with precision and care could prove that R-Rated horror was very much alive and breathing and wasn’t going anywhere without a fight. The result was over 100 million dollar profit, an array of sequels and one of the highest grossing horror movie franchises of all time. No small feat but what made Saw so special?
Truthfully, Saw was a breath of fresh air in 2004. Saw stood out amongst the crowd as a superbly crafted horror movie that had no fear in showing the nasty side of celluloid nightmares. For those upset with the formulaic teen slashers that were rife in the genre at that time, Saw was a fix that so many horror fans were craving. Once the masses got a small taste, the floodgates would open for the genre and welcome a much needed return to R-Rated horror. However it wasn’t all just being in the right place at the right time. Much of Saw‘s success lay deep in its careful construction by Wan and Whannell.
Saw centers around two men, freelance photographer Adam (Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), who awaken exhausted and disorientated, chained to the wall of a public bathroom. On the floor, lies a dead body and both men learn they are victims of a vicious game presented to them by the infamous, Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell). Starting with sheer simplicity, Saw unravels, twists and takes that simple premise and pushes it as far as it can go.
Taking stylistic cues from the likes of David Fincher‘s Se7en (1995), Saw aimed to give the horror community something they were missing, something new and rarely seen before. Wan and Whannell wrote Saw almost like a noir detective story that wouldn’t go a miss in Orson Welles’ filmography somewhere. The aim was to create a puzzle and gradually over time, the pieces would come together, just like a jigsaw (see what I did there). With huge attention to flashbacks that even Quentin Tarantino would acknowledge with approval and the utmost attention to carefully constructed exposition, Saw demanded your attention until the credits started rolling. Saw is pitch-perfect horror movie making that culminates in an absolutely unforgettable climax. With a soaring orchestral score in its final third that has the ability to send shivers up your spine and a jaw-dropping final twist, Saw represented just how ambitious horror can truly be.
With the infamous Jigsaw, Wan and Whannell created a cold, calculated horror icon who valued life more than most could imagine. Jigsaw’s sadistic games would aim to enlighten and teach its subsequently grateful victims that life is precious and to cherish every moment while you can. That understanding of cherishing every moment while you can is something we have all thought long and hard about and it gave Saw immediate weight for serious impact. Jigsaw would have a defiant purpose and the horror community connected with that concept instantly. Coupled with an unrelenting fetish-like attention to the horrors of violence, Wan and Whannell tapped into exactly what horror was missing in the early 2000’s.
It’s true: Saw wasn’t the first movie in the early 2000’s to try emulate the horror of old and upgrade it for newer audiences. Earlier horror movies like Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) were already showing what horror was missing, but Saw was different. Wan and Whannell aimed to create something that would thrive for many years and, truthfully, Saw paved the way for everything to come.
Horror as a genre grew more violent and cinema goers wanted to journey down the rabbit hole and see how far this newfound extremity in horror would take them. Even found footage horror movies, which would come to dominate mainstream horror a few years later, owe much to Saw and its gritty approach to handheld camera usage and seedy lighting. Saw was a shining example of just how much could be achieved on a miniscule budget. This influenced an array of young directors to take up a camera and try recreate that same spark Wan and Whannell brought forth with Saw.
Fifteen years later and Saw is still huge and widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The ending continues to be talked about as one of horror’s most inspirational moments and the influential approach Wan and Whannell adopted, can still be seen influencing others today. James Wan’s Saw was a rebellion in the early 2000s. A rebellion against PG-13 teen slashers and their underwhelming approach to mainstream horror and it’s profitability. Once Saw dropped, Eli Roth, Neil Marshall, Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja and Greg McLean to name but a few, all vowed to follow in it’s footsteps and return horror to its nastier roots.
I honestly believe that fifteen years from now Saw will still be talked about as one of the greatest horror movies of all time and, love it or hate what followed, its influence simply cannot be denied. James Wan and Leigh Whannell: a 29-year-old horror fanatic thanks you. That ending gives me goosebumps every time…