The Science of “Saw”

November 1st, 2006

by Victoria Chenoweth

Ripping your own flesh apart with barbed wire, jagged glass shards, needles, a hacksaw. Literally gutting a man, abducting a wife and child and holding them hostage. Killing another human being. What would you do to stay alive? To save your family?

It’s the most terrifying experience of your life. You wake up somewhere that’s not your own bed, you’re trapped in and tied down with death dancing all around and all you have is an audio or videotape to tell you that yes, death is here, death is gloating and revelling, and to escape you have to tango. You have to push yourself to the edge, push yourself flush against death itself and then, maybe, just maybe, if you don’t miss a step anywhere, death will retreat. All for the purpose of making you value your life.

Picture a fair-skinned, blue-eyed man. Where there’s still hair on his head, it is roughly shaven, giving his stubble reign all the way up to and around his bald crown. He has thick laugh lines; he’s in his fifties. What part could he play in this torture?

Well, this Ithaca College graduate is the reason that “Saw,” the immensely popular 2004 horror film, ever got off the ground. Known for his work throughout his Los Angeles career with low-budget films, Daniel Heffner was contacted by a friend to make a movie for a million dollars.

To you or me, a million dollars is a fortune. To the movie industry, it’s pocket change. Plenty of movies cost easily around 35 million or more. Heffner usually worked with about 10 million dollars on his films before: just one million was nearly inconceivable. However, an exact interplay of circumstances made the project possible, and Heffner set out to work as co-producer.

The film was shot in 18 days without any rehearsal, and many shots had only one take. It was edited as they shot, and the two writers played major roles as both stars and directors. The NC-17 version aired during Midnight Madness at the Sundance Film Festival. After traveling the film festival circuit, including a showing at Toronto, their distributor, Lion’s Gate, finally decided to go for a theatrical release: the Friday before Halloween. “Saw” was incredibly successful, grossing a startling 103 million dollars worldwide.
Some describe “Saw” as the movie that began a new generation of real horror films, some find it a repelling story that depresses faith in humanity and plenty of people are simply scared and disgusted. Regardless, “Saw” is an intellectual film in two key ways: it has an astounding plot with every scene playing an integral role, and it plays on some of humanity’s deepest and most lasting fears. It is not supernatural in any way; its realism brings fear to audiences and keeps it with them when they go home at night.

With the astounding response to “Saw,” “Saw II” was commissioned on the Monday following its theatrical release. The deadline for the script was approaching fast when Heffner noticed that another script in pre-production, Darren Bousman’s “The Desperate,” greatly resembled “Saw”. Leigh Whannel, co-writer of “Saw,” helped adapt “The Desperate” into “Saw II.” At the astounding age of 26, Bousman directed “Saw II.” The sequel was shot in 25 days for four million dollars and came out following year, again just before Halloween. It grosses 31.7 million its opening weekend.

Obviously, this once little film has ‘shot’ into a successful series. Many are excitedly waiting for “Saw III” this October 27th. But how have the movies evolved, other than the increasingly spectacular monetary figures of creation and earning?

“Saw,” regardless of all the people it grossed out, featured minimal blood and guts: the filmmakers left much of the gore to the viewer’s imagination. It was scary and disgusting because, as Heffner stated, they found ways to push people’s buttons, preying on nightmares, childhood fears and rarely relying on typical horror gore to bring in cheap thrills. To its credit, the “worst” scene in “Saw II” has no blood whatsoever.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the second stuck to the minimum of gore; with Bousman taking over the level of ick skyrocketed in comparison to the first. From both previews and scenes, “Saw III” seems to be following Bousman’s taste for blood—a suspicion which Daniel Heffner confirmed: “It’s probably on par with “Saw II”, maybe worse …”

Another difference between “Saw” and “Saw II” is the pure level of plot and intensity. You are more surprised and hooked throughout the first; it’s a more intellectual movie. When I expressed this to Heffner, he responded: “Yeah I would, I think, somewhat agree with you, I think that ‘Saw I’ was in a way much cleverer than ‘Saw II.’ My favorite moment on the first ‘Saw’ film was the ending.”

Heffner himself came to Ithaca this year on September 30th. As much as he was happy to talk about his career or the careers of eager Park students, his reply to questions about the upcoming movie was generally: “Go see Saw III.” As to “Saw IV,” he only mentioned that it was in the conceptual stage.

Are any of these movies— three, four, five hundred— going to match up to the genius of “Saw I?” The previews for “Saw III” go all out on rapid cuts, startling sound, and surprising flashes, possibly to make up for a lack of actual horror, replacing the beauty of the “Saw” movie’s truly terrifying concepts with shameful cinematic tricks. But the question still remains: Will the third installment reclaim the integrity of the first film?

Victoria Chenoweth is a freshman Cinema and Photography major. If you want to play a game and/or tango with death, email her at [email protected].

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
Anarchitect Mike Berlin
SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
Tropic of Scurvy Heather Newberger
Copy Editors Danielle Sherwood
  Jenna Scatena
  Elliott Feedore
Adviser Mary Beth O’Connor
Chief Residents Abby Bertumen
  Kelly Burdick
  Bryan Chambala
  Sam Costello
  Cole Louison
  James Sigman

Buzzsaw Haircut is funded by the Ithaca College Student Government Association, the Park School of Communications and a generous grant from Campus Progress.

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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.