Young Australian writer-director team Leigh Whannell and James Wan – both of whom I actually went through film school with in Melbourne – struggled for years to find financing for their low-budget horror movie script. When it found its way into Hollywood, the doors somehow magically opened. Seeing its commercial potential, LA's Evolution Pictures mortgaged their business and financed production. After a midnight Sundance Film Festival screening, distributors Lions Gate picked it up for worldwide release and so far Saw has taken around $50 million at the American box office prior to its run in Australia. Not bad for a couple of 'kids' from RMIT!
Taking its cues from many of the best horror films before it, Saw is a low-budget, gritty film where novice filmmakers learned their craft on the job. For horror fans like myself – and certainly the target audience aged between 14-24 years – it isn't hard to spot the film references in Saw, around which writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan have very much built their feature. Saw starts off like Vincenzo Natili's Cube (1997); two complete strangers wake up in a disconcerting isolated location, not sure of either how they got there or how to escape. Cary Elwes (Kiss The Girls, Shadow Of The Vampire) and writer Leigh Whannell in his first starring role, are the two amnesiac protagonists of Saw, respectively Dr. Lawrence Gordon and surveillance photographer Adam. Both men are brutalised, suspicious of each other and busting to find a way out of their seedy bathroom prison.
Saw certainly isn't the first film to attempt to 'reproduce' David Fincher's revolutionary morality tale/serial killer movie Se7en (1995) and it probably won't be the last. (See Copycat (1995), The Bone Collector (1995) and The Watcher (2000) for other not-so great examples.) The twists and turns of Saw more than suggest Se7en, as does the eventual morality play that pans out. The rapid-fire cutting also smacks of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: Iron Man (1988) and the over-the-top, hammy acting, again, The Watcher, a serial killer movie that like Saw, probably would have been more at home as a straight-to-video release.
In a way, Saw is out of time; it more recalls the plethora of graphic 'n grisly splatter films that flooded European and American grindhouse cinema in the 1960s and 70s. And post-Columbine, it is rare to see such a gory maniac movie released and financed through the American system – even Rob Zombie's House Of 1000 Corpses found it tough to gain a release due to a nervous distributor (Universal) and exhibitors.
In a nutshell, Saw is a fan-boy, exploitation horror flick, pure and simple, with lashings of gore, sadism and not much else. Box office success aside, to really succeed as a horror movie, Saw needed authentic heart, a decent subtext, and to be much less derivative. (See the last year's home-grown, highly-underrated zombie flick Undead by the Spierig brothers for a real success story. Or for that matter, the nasty-yet-intelligent surveillance horror My Little Eye (2003) from the UK). It is disappointing that Saw ends up so bad, especially after all the hype. But James and Leigh are a talented, ambitious pair, and I know they've got a much better film in them. Can't wait to see it.