The Jigsaw Legacy: How The 'Saw' Franchise Defined Horror In The '00s And Laid The Groundwork For Blockbuster Careers

The Saw franchise is back, with the marquee names of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson injecting some new life into it. After a one-year coronavirus delay, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is finally bound for theaters this Friday. There was a time in the 2000s when every October brought another bloody Saw flick; Spiral is the first film to break the series tradition of releasing right before Halloween. The Jigsaw Killer has never been a critical darling and casual viewers may not have kept up with his last eight appearances. However, the original 2004 Saw stands on its own and it remains an interesting cultural artifact—with more to say about the state of the world post-9/11 than it perhaps intended.

The term "torture porn" solidified around Saw retroactively, around the time that Hostel was revving up the drills and chainsaws to maim tourists on the big screen. That was in January 2006, when New York Magazine ran the headline, "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn." Since then, we've often heard labels like "misery porn" and "disaster porn" applied to entertainment (there's also "food porn," which predates torture porn and is generally much more appetizing to watch). Yet Saw played into an older heritage of splatter horror and extreme cinema. It also gave several notable filmmakers their first big break, so that it's now only one degree removed from Kevin Bacon...and Aquaman.

Two Guys in a Room

As a horror fan, one idea I've found myself returning to again and again over the last few years is that the genre is a release valve for troubled times. Sometimes it's intentional, as filmmakers seek to explore socially relevant themes in their work. Other times, it's almost like it happens by accident, as if social unease has somehow bubbled up from the collective unconscious to find expression in synchronistic movies.

In a lengthy 2010 interview with The A.V. Club, director James Wan revealed that his foundational pitch for Saw was, simply, two guys in a room with a dead body between them. He and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, two Australian film school buddies, were kicking around ideas when they settled on this concept. The maze of barbed wire, the floor of broken glass, the "reverse bear trap" mouth contraption – all of those were incidental. Whannell merely used them to flesh out the story, which does not hinge on the specifics of any one torture mechanism (except, perhaps, in the end, when its title reveals itself as a punchline on a sawed-off foot).

The "two guys" would become Dr. Gordon, played by Cary Elwes, and Adam, played by Whannell himself. As noted in his DVD commentary, Wan used the film's visual language to reinforce each character's personality, with the camera giving a controlled, steady view of Dr. Gordon and a shaky, handheld view of Adam. Saw is not a two-hander, however, and it soon leaves the grimy bathroom where Dr. Gordon and Adam are trapped, spazzing out in sped-up shots and flashing back within flashbacks. The film's structure is so discursive that, at one point, it makes a 13-minute digression to focus on Danny Glover's character, Tapp, the first of many police detectives to be bedeviled by Jigsaw's games.

Saw turned an immense profit, making over $100 million at the box office on a budget of just $1 million. The film's sleeper-hit success helped revive splatter horror and mass-market it like never before. It reeled the transgressive spirit of the '70s exploitation boom and '80s video nasties into the new millennium. Wan and Whannell have also cited Hammer Films as an influence on their next movie, Dead Silence, and Hammer itself was a splatter-horror forebear: one stylistically descended from the Grand Guignol form of theater, which expanded from Paris to Hammer's London in the early 20th century.

"Torture porn," or whatever you want to call it, was hardly a new phenomenon. You could even argue that the first true victim of the 2000s craze was the one-eyed Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, which turned a single line of scripture into an extended bout of torture, punctuated by a cat o' nine tails whip that could rip the wood off a table or the skin off a man's back. Like a graphic hint of what was to come (both in the real world and on the big screen), that film landed eight months before Saw and it quickly became the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever made.

The American market, which has always been more permissive to violence than sex in movies, was opening up to new levels of visceral gore. In the same A.V. Club interview, Whannell put it like this:

"This subgenre of horror that existed in the underground for a long time, this extreme stuff, suddenly became palatable to mainstream audiences. People that previously would have never checked out films like Cannibal Holocaust or The Evil Dead suddenly were going to films like Hostel and Saw."

It was the envelope-pushing nature of these movies that led some to question their artistic merit. Critic David Edelstein, the self-described "horror maven" who penned that New York article, wrote that he was "baffled by how far this new stuff goes—by why America seems so nuts these days about torture."

In hindsight, maybe it's not so puzzling, after all. Consider the cultural context. 2004 was the year when U.S. soldiers, some later convicted as war criminals, were first seen posing for pictures with tortured and abused detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In April and May of that year — after The Passion of the Christ but before Saw — CBS News and The New Yorker surfaced the photos, igniting a media firestorm.

If you read about some of the stuff that went on at Abu Ghraib, it's infinitely more disturbing than anything you'll see in Saw, because these are real human rights violations that happened on America's watch. Ultimately, Saw is just a movie where fictional characters endure pain. The one moment that always stayed with me (a worthy contender for our Scariest Scene Ever column) had nothing to do with torture, anyway. It was when Adam was moving through the dark in his apartment, using the flash on his camera to fire off bursts of light ... only to have someone in a gonzo pig mask jump out of his closet.

The House That Saw Built

Since Saw, Wan and Whannell have both gone on to bigger and better things. Death Sentence isn't necessarily one of those things, but it did pair Wan with Kevin Bacon for an unofficial Death Wish sequel. He would rebound from its critical and commercial failure by launching two more lucrative horror franchises with Insidious and The Conjuring.

In 2015, Wan crossed over into action filmmaking with Furious 7, but even amid the sensory overload of his next blockbuster, his horror roots could be felt. The best part of Aquaman is when it turns into a monster movie at sea, diving down into the dark Trench with a red flare as a swarm of toothy creatures tries to eat the title superhero. Whannell, meanwhile, has done career-best work since he took the helm of his own projects, both writing and directing Upgrade in 2018 and The Invisible Man in 2020.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman also benefited from Saw's momentum even before the general public saw it. On his website, Bousman recounts how he had been working on a script called The Desperate in 2003 and was shopping it around Hollywood while Saw was building pre-release buzz. Since The Desperate utilized a similar premise of death traps in a house, producers decided to repurpose it as a Saw sequel, with Whannell eventually coming back on board as a co-writer to help fold Bousman's ideas into the existing mythos.

Bousman, a Kansas native and Full Sail graduate, went from "being penniless, sleeping on couches" to making his first movie. He was living the American dream while, separately, a fresh American nightmare was playing out in the news.

Fans of Saw, meanwhile, wanted to see characters dying in real-time, not just flashbacks. Saw II delivers such "games" right out of the gate: spiking a man's face in an iron maiden mask when he lacks the resolve to cut a key out of his eye. From there, it situates viewers in an H.H. Holmesesque murder castle where women thrash around in syringe pits and get their forearms trapped in razor boxes. Part of the film's tagline, "Oh, yes. There will be blood," would show up two years later as the title of an Oscar-winning Paul Thomas Anderson film.

This is where the series starts to pivot from being a "mystery thriller," as Wan described it, to an exercise in set-piece gimmickry. Whereas Saw left its shotgun blasts to the head out of frame and cut away from its climactic self-amputation — leaving the violence implied or focusing on the characters' hysterical reactions to it — subsequent outings would raise the gore quotient. "Two guys in a room" morphed into a meat grinder of ghastly scenarios.

Whannell wrote the script for the third movie, sharing a story credit with Wan, but after that, they took on the role of executive producers and their involvement in the franchise was limited. For his part, Bousman would continue shepherding the series through the fourth movie. Now, he's returning to the director's chair for Spiral.

The makers of Saw may not have deliberately set out to build a house of torture, but by using something like it as a storytelling device, they inadvertently tapped into the zeitgeist. Jigsaw's M.O., as telegraphed by a newspaper headline in Saw, is: "Psychopath Teaches Sick Life Lessons." There's a warped sense of morality to his games yet as he plays them, his own monstrosity is never in doubt.

Two weeks to the day before Saw hit theaters, The New York Times traced Abu Ghraib's tactics back to a U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, where members of the same military intelligence battalion had chained two civilians to the ceiling and subjected them to cruelty, resulting in their deaths. In November 2004, while Saw was still in its theatrical run, showing men chained to pipes, The Times also published the first report on torture at Guantanamo Bay, based on a summer Red Cross inspection of the infamous U.S. military prison.

Saw II hit DVD on Valentine's Day 2006. Two days later, Salon ran a report about a different kind of DVD it had received—with a laundry list of Abu Ghraib files, including, "1,325 images of suspected detainee abuse ... 546 images of suspected dead Iraqi detainees ..." and so on.

The torture house was real. Government officials had simply euphemized it as a place of "enhanced interrogation."

As America came to grips with its actions on the world stage, digesting the charnel of its own military prisons, the public perhaps reckoned with it by going to the movies. If that seems counterintuitive — don't we watch movies, after all, to escape the real world, not be reminded of it? — it's not to say that filmgoers were knowingly working through some national guilt or even making the connection between current events and coming attractions.

I can only speak for myself, but as a member of the coveted 18-to-24 demographic, when I sat down to watch Saw, the War on Terror was the furthest thing from my mind. Like most viewers, I was focused on surface-level entertainment.

From 2004 onward, more filmmakers from Australia and America and other countries churned out splatter horror, and audiences lapped it up. It all started with Saw, a flick that does not, in fact, deserve the torture-porn classification, despite its many misguided imitators. The formula spiraled out in red from the cheeks of Jigsaw's puppet and it keeps going. One can only hope that Spiral, per its subtitle, will take the right lessons from the Book of Saw and return the franchise to its roots as a thriller that leaves some horror up to the audience's imagination.