Submitted for your approval…two Saw review quotes from the horror smash’s October 2004 release that, in hindsight, sound ridiculous:
"The Internet film geeks are salivating over this one. But humans who live above ground, including horror fans, will find themselves only fitfully entertained and more consistently appalled." - Desson Thompson, Washington Post
"Saw has art-house ambitions, but it’s nothing but a glorified snuff film. I despised this movie." - Richard Roeper, Ebert & Roeper
Why the Washington Post write-up is now laughable should be obvious. Quite a few "humans who live above ground" paid to see Saw, pushing the independently financed, $1.2 million production to an $18 million opening weekend, a $103 million worldwide box office intake, six profitable sequels, and its standing as one of the most lucrative horror franchises of all time. In this context, the only thing gross about Saw is how much the Washington Post underestimated it.
Richard Roeper’s review, though, is more troubling. It’s almost as if Roeper watched a different film altogether, but labeling the first Saw as a "glorified snuff film" speaks to a larger issue surrounding director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell’s debut. When Lionsgate re-releases the film this Friday (for one week only), in honor of its 10th anniversary, do the following: buy a ticket, grab some overpriced popcorn, and reevaluate Saw. You’ll realize that it’s not the gruesome parade of elaborate traps and mindless display of—here comes that obnoxious and overused term—"torture porn" many see it as retroactively.
"To some degree, this re-release is to let people remember what the first Saw film was, and let them know there was a time in the Saw history where it wasn’t all about blood and traps," says Wan. "In Leigh’s and my opinion, it’s actually a pretty leisurely paced thriller. People can go back and see that there was actually a lot of thought that went into that first script and story. Leigh and I spent two years crafting that story."
Whannell adds, "There’s definitely a vindication in people seeing [Saw] and realizing it wasn’t ‘torture porn’ at all. I remember writing the first film and not thinking about the gore in any way. What I thought James and I were creating was a cool kind of locked-room thriller with this non-linear structure. To me it was a combination of Se7en, Cube, and Memento—all my favorite films at the time. So it was interesting when the film entered the public consciousness and became the yardstick for gory horror films. That wasn’t our intention."
Whannell’s fondness for David Fincher’s Se7en is particularly noteworthy. Saw is no more an extreme horror exercise than Fincher’s critically lauded Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman thriller. Sure, it’s much more amplified and in-your-face, due to Wan’s rookie-filmmaker decisions to accentuate the intensity with rapid-fire, erratic editing, and supercharged metal music. But take a closer look and you’ll find that the two films’ stories aren’t all that different.
Like Se7en, Whannell’s Saw script hinges on an unseen madman offing people based on his own personal messed-up doctrine. Instead of punishing violators of the biblical "Seven Deadly Sins," Saw’s Jigsaw challenges deviants and others who don’t value their lives to save their own asses by performing vile acts (e.g., digging keys out of human stomachs) or suffering heinous fates (e.g., having their heads crushed by reverse bear-traps). Saw, like Se7en, is also a two-hander, focusing not on detectives but on two strangers—a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (Whannell)—who randomly wake up in a grungy room chained to pipes and forced to participate in Jigsaw’s enigmatic and increasingly twisted game.
Based on that description alone, Saw doesn’t sound like a full-tilt horror movie. It’s a project that, under altered circumstances, would've been sent to David Fincher and barely ever labeled as horror. That’s because Fincher’s a highbrow critics’ favorite; the films he directs, no matter how nightmarish their subject matter may be, will never be instantly categorized as horror and written off as such. And between Saw and Se7en, only one film ends with a character's head in a box. "Very early into the Saw process, 10 or 11 years ago, someone asked us, ‘How does it feel to have made a horror film?’” says Wan. “I remember Jason Constantine, who’s one of the execs at Lionsgate and an executive producer on the film, jokingly saying, ‘Hey, Leigh and James didn’t even realize they’d made a horror movie until it was sold as a horror movie.’ We actually thought that we’d made a dark, twisty, pretty intellectual thriller, but it was sold as a horror film."
Saw’s Halloween release date, for one, played a large part in that perception. Yet the biggest factor into the film’s genre-specific categorization was Lionsgate’s curious but ultimately brilliant choice to market the living hell out of Saw’s reverse bear-trap moment. The actress whose head is crammed into the rusty, metallic device is Shawnee Smith; she plays Amanda, a heroin addict who avoids having her skull cracked by retrieving the trap’s key from another person’s innards. It’s the most most ingenuous and creatively disturbing image in Whannell’s script, and Lionsgate’s marketing team knew it.
"It’s definitely very visually iconic, and conceptually it left a strong imprint," says Wan. "For that very reason, the bear trap really stayed in people’s heads. Clearly it was a big thing for Lionsgate, because they designed that entire one-sheet poster campaign around that. It was smart of them to do so, too—it set Saw apart from other horror films and other thrillers. That’s what you need to do. You need to cut through the really crowded marketplace of movies made in these genres. Whatever it is that makes your movie unique is something you should embrace."
Neither Wan nor Whannell are mad at that. "Ultimately, it’s hard for James and I to be upset about the fact that they marketed it as a horror film—they made a good, smart move," says Whannell. "They knew what they were doing. Their marketing choices led to it being a success. But James and I know that’s not what we set out to make."
Because of Saw’s bear-trap’s resonance, though, the franchise gradually abandoned the first installment’s thriller aspects and earned its 'traps first, suspense second' approach. While Wan didn’t direct any of the sequels, merely executive-producing them, Whannell wrote Saw II and Saw III, both of which, he admits, heavily responded to the fans’ love for Saw’s bear-trap scene. "A lot of times when a film is a success, the fans of that film take ownership of it—it becomes their property," says Whannell. "That’s one of the great things about creativity. You labor away in a room, and when you’re writing a film, it couldn’t be more of a solitary activity or a lonelier job, but if you then write a film that gets made and goes out into the world, it kind of flies away from you. It’s not yours anymore. I do think it was the fans who pushed me in that more horror-heavy direction. They picked up on Saw’s more extreme elements, and the market always dictates and finds a way."
I do think it was the fans who pushed me in that more horror-heavy direction. They picked up on [the first movie's] more extreme elements, and the market always dictates and finds a way.” - LEIGH WHANNELL
Whannell continues, "The sequels belong more in the horror genre, but the original film, even when I watch it today, still feels like it’s the locked-room thriller that we were trying to come up with. We noticed that the first Saw’s traps and more visceral elements were really being championed and celebrated by the fans, so it was a natural progression towards that in the sequels. Saw II, I think, does still have those aspects of a locked-room thriller and the police hunting a serial killer, but the gore was increased. As for the third one, I still think Saw III is one of the goriest mainstream films ever made, and I wrote that film. That’s a real badge of dishonor for me."
And the next four entries, all the way through the 2010 franchise closer, Saw 3D, accelerated the carnage. Type "Best Saw Traps" into a YouTube search and there’s an endless stream of compilation videos and supercuts. But what about those Saw virgins whose first time seeing the O.G. film will be its re-release this week? Chances are, if they’re hoping to watch a splatterfest, they’ll leave disappointed. Critics like Richard Roeper, however, who once dismissed Wan’s film as a one-dimensional "torture porn" exhibition? Assuming they’re open-minded enough to reassess Saw, they might be pleasantly surprised.
In a way, Saw is this generation’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or, for that matter, Night of the Living Dead (1968)—those two classics were ripped apart by critics during their initial releases for similar reasons, and their bloodier, heightened sequels have contributed to wrongful reputations in the decades since. But Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are largely gore-free demonstrations of restraint. Granted, Saw isn't exactly restrained, but, like Hooper and Romero, Wan and Whannell set out to make a suspenseful, ultra-dark thriller. Any horror tags were secondary.
"Time dilutes the visceral effects of these films," says Whannell. "Depending on the period a film gets released in, it gets viewed under those circumstances. When Psycho came out back in 1960, it was seen as an abomination and as this really gory thing. We all watch Psycho today, of course, and think it’s so tame since there’s no blood or any real gore in it. But for the standards of the day when it was released, it was extreme. Society changes, and I do think those critics who attacked Saw as a 'snuff film’ should re-watch the original film. I have a feeling that they’d changed their tune."
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who first watched Saw on a date with a girl who, unsurprisingly, no longer talks to him. He tweets here.