Five years ago, in October 2004, it looked like horror needed something new. Two years earlier,
had ripped open the floodgates for American remakes of popular Asian horror films, ending the relative quiet that had settled on horror in the 90's following the slasher-movie renaissance of the 80's, but even that seemed to be taking too long.
was just opening and
The Ring Two
was months off. Something needed to fill the gap.
Five years ago, most people hadn't heard of Saw.
At that time, YouTube was still a year away, facebook was just a few months old, and even MySpace wasn't as popular or streamlined as it is today, so Saw, co-written by unknown Australian actor Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, built its buzz with good old fashioned word-of-mouth, from sneak previews and festival screenings. Today, however, that once-tiny film (shot in 18 days for barely over a million dollars) is merely the first chapter in what is currently the most profitable horror franchise of all time (in unadjusted dollars), the father to the so-called "torture porn" subgenre and a legitimate yearly phenomenon: "if it's Halloween, it must be Saw ".
"There's something like an 'annual carnival' vibe to the
series," says FEARnet critic Scott E. Weinberg. "[But] the fans who think the series has gotten a little silly— yep, even me—seem to enjoy the episodic nature of the franchise, like fans of
look forward to a big season premiere."
With the sixth chapter opening in theaters on Friday, many filmgoers seem to think the series has become a joke. Jeers and scoffing can be heard when the trailer plays in front of Zombieland, and most Saw stories on film websites are greeted in the comments with overwhelming negativity. Even now, despite a Saw VII already in production (in 3D) and a Saw VIII on the cards, producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg choose their words carefully, suggesting that a Saw IX will only happen if the writers can devise a new arc everyone's happy with.
At a glance, it seems odd that those irritated Zombieland crowds aren't killing Saw 's receipts. Each subsequent Saw film costs more than the previous one, but all of them have earned several times their budget on opening weekend alone, meaning the international and DVD grosses—which are plentiful—are just icing on the cake for Lionsgate and production company Twisted Pictures, and in 2006 and 2007, October was almost devoid of other major horror films, because Saw had staked a claim on the month's genre receipts. This year, the series has underground sensation Paranormal Activity to compete against, but even with Activity 's final wide expansion slated alongside VI for this Friday, it's hard not to feel like the Saw faithful will still turn out.
That's because Saw 's secret weapon is almost foolproof: despite all of its financial success, the series has always been a niche product unafraid to embrace its cult-hit nature, catering to its fans and its fans alone. As the plots become more complex and the backstory more detailed, it gets harder to imagine any newbies picking Saw VI off the marquee at random, especially given how the advertising has morphed into a combination of short, vague trailers and metaphoric poster imagery. "Generally, it's the filmmakers who give up first," notes Weinberg. "Where was Jason supposed to go after Manhattan, really? Some would say the Saw series has turned into self-parody by this point, and I can see that in small doses, but as long as the producers keep delivering a few new mysteries and a lot of new traps, then I say enjoy the ride."
Indeed, Burg and Koules seem committed to their franchise. Their interest could certainly be more about the bottom line than any artistic drive, but the forward motivation still shows. The pair, along with current writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan and each film's director (usually picked from within the series' ranks, like production designer David Hackl on V and VII and editor Kevin Greutert on VI ) listen to what their fans have to say and constantly bend over backwards to make sure the secrets of each film don't get leaked. The response is enthusiastic; the official Saw message board (located at www.houseofjigsaw.com) boasts almost 2,000 active members, with 1,500 threads buzzing about the new movie and dissecting the mythology of the series. In a quieter way, it's just like Paranormal Activity 's "Demand It!" campaign in that it lets the hype machine generate itself.
Even if Saw VI doesn't do as well as its predecessors, one can bet that Twisted's one-a-year production schedule and Halloween theatrical releases will continue until the numbers are dismal, and even then, Saw has a future. "If they shifted over to DTV, I'd be more than happy to keep watching," says Weinberg. Most moviegoers couldn't imagine Saw as cinematic comfort food, and massive franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street (seven sequels, a spin-off and a remake) and Friday the 13th (nine sequels, a spin-off and a remake) seem to be a thing of the past (can anyone see us reaching a third sequel -- much less a seventh -- to Rob Zombie's version of Halloween ?). But Saw makes it look easy, cleverly aiming itself at the kind of horror lovers who don't need anyone to tell them about the joy of having something that may not be great, but reliable. Plus, Weinberg suggests fans don't even have to choose: "Most horror geeks I know would salivate over the idea of Saw at 10 and Paranormal Activity at midnight. Or vice versa."