Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after you’ve seen and/or if you like the original Saw.
Not only is this week the 10th anniversary of the release of Saw, but the movie is also back in theaters as of today in commemoration of the occasion. Conceived by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who met in film school as students at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and directed by Wan, this original installment of what would become a seven-movie franchise is also one of the most influential movies – not just horror movies – of the past decade. Like most seminal movies of the past few decades, though, it’s also a highly influenced movie. To discuss the inception of an idea like Saw is to discuss earlier movies that inspired Wan and Whannell.
In honor of both the anniversary and the re-release, I’ve compiled the latest Movies to See… list as a retroactive primer for fans of Saw, or just for anyone who has or does see the original and wants some great precursors to check out afterward. Not all are horror movies, but the ones that aren’t technically of the same genre are relevant for their darker elements. Some are directly acknowledged as being actual influences and inspirations for Saw while others are just obvious predecessors in some way or another. Only one of this week’s picks, however, is included primarily for being an earlier movie starring one of the members of the cast.
If by chance you haven’t seen Saw yet and have been able to go 10 years without it being spoiled for you, be warned that some of the entries below could ruin the ending. Just go see it on the big screen this weekend and come back after. Or skip it altogether and spend your weekend with these 12½ movies (there’s a bonus this week) instead.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Wan and Whannell have admitted to being inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, who they actually paid some tribute to with their following feature, Dead Silence. That’s a literary influence, though, and while some scholarly authors have gone as far as implying Saw is sort of an unacknowledged adaptation of Poe’s 1850 work “The Pit and the Pendulum” (see Sandra Hughes’s essay in the book “Adapting Poe”), that doesn’t make any of its true adaptations an easy connection. From the very first attempts, including a 1913 three-reeler by Alice Guy-Blache, there has always been an interest in adding more of a plot to the torture-based short story. This one, among Roger Corman’s necessary movies of Poe works, also adds two acts of narrative ahead of a third that is the more faithfully translated from the text. Also check out Jan Svankmajer’s animated take, which is combined with another short story not by Poe and is titled The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope. Meanwhile, just read Poe, including “Fall of the House of Usher” and “Tell-Tale Heart,” both of which Wan references in place of “Pendulum.”
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Many have seen this cult classic’s title character (played by Vincent Price, who also stars in The Pit and the Pendulum) as being a certain source for Saw’s Jigsaw. The movie also is considered an early entry into the later-named “torture porn” subgenre and is a definite precursor to Se7en, what with its Bible-inspired killings. The biggest connection to Saw, though, is in one of Dr. Phibes’s game-like murder schemes: a boy is on the verge of being burned by acid, but he can be saved if his father, a surgeon, can extract a key hidden in his son’s chest. Also, there’s the fact that Phibes is not defeated at the end, thereby allowing for sequels – only one being made to this movie, Dr. Phibes Rides Again.
Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark’s original Christmas-set slasher flick is one that Wan names as an all-time favorite horror movie, calling it “underrated” and highlighting its lack of blood, something it shares with Saw. There’s also a direct homage in Wan’s movie, acknowledged in the DVD commentary, when Michael Emerson is hiding in the closet and only his one eye is visible.
Deep Red (1975)
Also known by its Italian title, Profondo Rosso, this is probably the most notable of Dario Argento’s movies for Wan (he also names this as a favorite), though he and Whannell often cite the filmmaker as a general influence in many interviews. There is a tuxedoed mechanical doll in Deep Red, however, that is an obvious source for the Billy doll in Saw. Wan also likes to name another favorite, Poltergeist (more significant to Wan and Whannell’s Insidious), as an inspiration for incorporating a creepy clownish doll.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious classic is another retroactively labeled torture porn, but doing so sort of diminishes it. Not that the first Saw is torture porn, either, but its sequels do ramp up the torture. If you really want to follow Saw that way, you might as well just go with one of the most controversial movies of all time, which is based on works of the Marquis de Sade and Dante and involves a quartet of sadistic fascists who torture a bunch of adolescents in various ways, physically, mentally and sexually. It’s a must-see anyway, even if you know you’re going to hate it.
The Blob (1988)
I’m very happy to get to recommend this movie on two separate lists this week (see yesterday’s post on my favorite horror movies). In the DVD commentary for Saw, Wan confesses to having had a crush on actress Shawnee Smith since his teenage years and that being one of the main reasons they wanted her for their movie. While The Blob isn’t named as the origin of the director’s crush, I’d like to think it was this rather than Iron Eagle or Summer School. But who knows, maybe it was Who’s Harry Crumb? That’d be fine, as it’s a bad movie but she’s pretty darn cute in it, and Wan became a teen shortly after its release.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Whannell cited this influence in an interview with Feo Amante. “We definitely owe a lot to the movie,” he said, before also including the sequel Red Dragon. “We wanted Jigsaw to be intelligent like Hannibal. Not silent or wise-cracking. Then we wanted to make sure that Jigsaw would never be confused with Hannibal.”
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Although the first Saw seems to intently set up a whole franchise, not just a sequel, Whannell has stated that the guys never thought of it being continued. “To us it had a lot of finality to it and we just thought it was a great ending to a film and at the time we were really obsessed with these twist endings. Films like The Usual Suspects.” He goes on to spoil the ending of Bryan Singer’s crime film sensation in the linked-to quote, and I won’t, though it’s unlikely anyone is unfamiliar with it, even if unseen, after all these years. In the commentary for the Saw III DVD, he also claims that Wan originally wanted “a Hitchcockian slow burner, a very studied thriller, like The Usual Suspects.” The Sixth Sense has also occasionally been mentioned alongside this one as having twist endings that inspired Saw, and Wan has named M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough as one of his favorite horror films.
Another piece of trivia from the DVD commentary, this movie is said by Whannell to have influenced the scene where his character reaches into a nasty clogged toilet. Unlike Danny Boyle’s breakout movie, though, there’s no fantasy toilet swimming sequence set to Brian Eno music. Some tribute.
Lost Highway (1997)
If I had to ever pick one reason to love Wan and Whannell, it’d be for their love of this underrated David Lynch movie. The duo has often cited Lynch alongside Argento as a major influence on Saw, but in specific recognitions of their favorite work by the filmmaker, this always comes out on top. They call Lynch the greatest horror filmmaker who isn’t a horror filmmaker and this surreal thriller the scariest movie that isn’t a horror movie. I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes it a bit more than the similar Mulholland Drive, especially for the scene with Robert Blake.
A man wakes up in a room and finds himself a part of some sadistic game. That’s either Saw or Cube, and once again it’s an acknowledged connection. In an interview with Complex, he said, “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.” Also recommended for a similar set up is Dark City (this and that were both on the list of movies to see after The Maze Runner), which is directed by Alex Proyas, who Wan said he looks up to.
Panic Room (2002)
While Se7en is constantly referenced for its similarities to Saw, even by Whannel above, more recently the screenwriter told Crave that people shouldn’t see Jigsaw as anything like John Doe in David Fincher’s 1995 thriller. Yes, there is definitely reason to see Se7en after Saw if you’ve never seen it, but I’d rather go with this later Fincher movie to be a little different. Also, years ago, Whannell told MTV about how Saw was initially conceived not as a horror movie. “We tried to come up with the cheapest idea possible,” he said, “and finally hit upon the story of two guys stuck in a toilet for 90 minutes. It suited our budgetary limitations perfectly. We decided it was going to be a taut Panic Room-style thriller.”
Bonus: Saw (2003)
Of course the most legitimate predecessor for the Saw feature is this Saw short, which Wan and Whannell made after writing the full script in order to help with their pitch to studios – and it worked, as it was part of the presentation to Lionsgate, who greenlit the rest. The 9½-minute film is literally an excerpted scene from the feature version, albeit with Whannell starring in the role that Smith would later fill. Watch it below.