Twenty years ago, after unsuccessfully shopping the idea in their home country of Australia, two film school graduates arrived in Los Angeles armed with a proof-of-concept short film, a creepy puppet and a screenplay that would eventually spawn one of the most iconic horror franchises of all time.
Like so many budding genre filmmakers in the early aughts, James Wan and Leigh Whannell were inspired by the financial ingenuity of “The Blair Witch Project,” an independent film that made waves at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival for its unique found-footage narrative structure. Fresh out of film school, they set out to make something completely theirs.
The short film, which fans have begun to call “Saw 0.5,” was filmed in two days with minimal resources and a small budget straight from the filmmakers’ own pockets.
Once in Los Angeles, they were approached by producers at Evolution Entertainment with the offer of a lifetime: the studio would finance the film – albeit with a tight budget – but Wan and Whannell would retain complete creative control.
“Saw” was directed by Wan and shot over the course of 18 days in 2003. In addition to receiving sole writing credit, Whannell played Adam – one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. Days before premiering at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Lionsgate bought the worldwide distribution rights to the film.
Twenty years, 10 films and an unfathomable amount of fake blood later, it’s time to re-evaluate the legacy of “Saw.”
You don’t need to be a film student to recognize that what they were able to accomplish is nothing short of remarkable. It’s the kind of success story that creates a restless excitement deep within my movie-loving soul, making me feel optimistic about pursuing a career in such an unstable and oftentimes unforgiving industry.
I’m not expecting this to happen to me – I swear I’m not that delusional. But just knowing all of this happened because two friends genuinely believed in the potential of their ideas – that's enough to make the worst parts of chasing a career in the film industry a little more bearable.
The film wears its low-budget, scrappy spirit like a badge of honor, embracing the power of practical effects, labyrinthine writing and devoted performances. Much of the film’s effectiveness, especially in the third act, hinges on the actors’ willingness to take things to the extreme. Despite how many twists and turns there are, Whannell’s anguished sobs are what stick with you as the credits roll.
Stylistically, “Saw” oozes early aughts grime and decay. From the cool tones of the dilapidated bathroom where the majority of the film takes place to the lingering sickly yellow and dark green coloring, the film establishes a distinct visual style modern horror films tend to lack. It’s no surprise that Billy the Puppet has become a sort of mythical figure in horror iconography.
While the later sequels embrace a certain type of demented campiness, the original film is refreshingly sincere and even the toughest scenes to watch feel emotionally resonant. Wan and Whannell display a clear understanding of how to use horror violence to invoke a visceral reaction from the viewer, but they also tap into a unique kind of dramatic violence to give the film a tragic edge.
To not be able to save yourself, to realize that you never had a chance in the first place – these realizations are more horrific than the franchise’s bloodiest set pieces.
Even though Wan and Whannell have made it clear they never intended for the franchise to turn into “torture porn” (surprisingly, the violence in the first film is comparatively subdued), the fact that their film kickstarted a whole new subgenre of horror proves how gargantuan the film’s impact is.
Whether you’re a “Saw” purist or someone like me who has learned to love the sequels for their convoluted plots and outrageous traps, it’s undeniable that the original film deserves to be canonized alongside iconic horror films like “Halloween” and “Scream.”
It’s a cruel, violent piece of work – but it’s also beautiful in its own bloody way.
“Saw X” releases in theaters Sept. 29.