15 Years Later: How "Saw" Changed the Horror Genre

Does the biggest name in gritty horror movie gore still hold up?

It's hard to overstate how heavily Saw influenced the Western horror scene after its release in 2004.

The decade prior had been the era of Scream, and while Scream itself was a phenomenal take on the classic slasher tropes, every self-aware copycat that followed seemed to be trying to wink and nod audiences into a coma. The Blair Witch Project opened a major door for low budget horror in 1999, and The Ring solidified PG-13 spooky ghost flicks as a horror mainstay in 2002, but by-and-large, R-rated horror movies were still characterized by irreverent teen shlock.

And then came Saw.

Saw revolves around two kidnapped men trapped in a basement room with a dead body and forced into playing a life-or-death "game" engineered by a psychopath named Jigsaw. While the movie received mixed reviews upon release (many of them negatively comparing it to the David Fincher-directed thriller, Seven), Saw became an instant hit nonetheless.

Comparisons to Seven weren't entirely unwarranted, though––not only did Saw follow a similar narrative involving a killer masterminding elaborate deaths reflective of their victims' sins, but both stories also featured huge twists. However, whereas Seven grounded itself in the police hunt for the killer, Saw anchored itself with the victims, firmly establishing itself as a horror movie as opposed to a thriller.

Unlike the vast majority of other major horror movies of the time, Saw wasn't fun and light. It didn't seem designed for teens to cuddle up to on a date night. Saw was gritty and brutal with a dirty aesthetic. It felt less like watching a polished feature from an established movie studio, and more like an underground indie.

In a lot of ways, Saw feels amateur with its shaky camera movements and arguably poor acting (Cary Elwes kind of overdoes it). But at the same time, that almost lends to Saw's grindhouse credibility. It is an extremely low-budget movie, made for a mere $1.2 million (on which it made $103.9 million in return). And while it was clear that first-time feature director and current movie mogul James Wan was still finding his footing, his talent at creating intense, evocative horror was readily apparent.

One of the most interesting things about rewatching Saw is realizing that the movie actually isn't very gory at all. Rather, Wan creates scenes that cleverly give the implication of intense violence without ever showing the worst of it. For example, Wan shows the corpse of the man who climbed through the barbed wire trap after the police find him, but you never really see the barbed wire actively cutting him. Instead, you get a flashback with quick camera cuts and intense shaking that implies the pain and fear of the experience without graphically depicting much. Similarly, the climactic scene where Lawrence saws his own leg off is actually relatively tame. We know that Lawrence is cutting through bone, but we really only actually see small glimpses of him cutting into shallow flesh. The rest is conveyed through camera movement and facial shots.

Then again, the brutality of the first Saw might be blunted a little by its sequels and successors, which leaned into the graphic violence angle and delighted in showing absolutely all the gore and bloodshed that practical effects would allow. In the same way that Scream's sequels and copycats failed to live up to the cleverness of the original, subsequent Saw movies largely discarded the intrigue and thoughtfulness (why are these two victims here and how will they escape?) and instead dwelled on increasingly disgusting "puzzle" devices for maximum carnage. And while there's a certain enjoyment in watching those, especially for a seasoned horror buff, it's hard to call any of the later movies "good."

Moreover, Saw completely changed the horror landscape. Post-Saw, dark, edgy, adult horror movies took over at the box office with some copycats like Hostel but also quality movies like The Strangers. And in a sense, while the dark, gritty horror movie trend that Saw started could be viewed as a response to the formerly prevailing light teen fare of the '90s, the thoughtful, heady, conceptual horror of the 2010s (movies like It Follows) could be seen as a response to the visceral realism of movies like Saw.

But even if many of the movies Saw inspired are a bit subpar and outdated, and even though we've moved onto an entirely new cycle or horror, that doesn't change the fact that original Saw was good. Very good. It blended intense horror with mystery and thriller elements, and it featured incredibly clever directing that did a whole lot with very little. The final twist (the man you thought was Jigsaw the whole movie is actually a victim of the game, too, and the dead body in the middle of the floor was actually Jigsaw the whole time!) is genuinely shocking and memorable. Fifteen years later, Saw still holds up really well.

Fall has just begun, meaning Halloween is right around the corner. But something else is lurking around the corner too, and it's not pumpkin spice lattes...

Okay, it is pumpkin spice lattes.

But also, October is all about snuggling up under a blanket and streaming scary movies on Netflix. Unfortunately, Netflix's horror movie section is a minefield of hot garbage with a few spooky gems strewn amongst the trash. Luckily, we're here to guide you to the right choices. Think of this list kind of like your own personal Netflix Halloween Minesweeper.

The Conjuring

The Conjuring may have spawned an infinite number of mediocre sequels, but the original deserves all of its success. James Wan directs with subtlety, earning scares through well-crafted tension-building instead of cheap jump spooks.

Annabelle got her own movie after debuting as the monster of The Conjuring.

Annabelle Comes Home may as well be The Conjuring 2.5 for how deeply it ties in with the story of the Warrens, but that's not to take anything away from Annabelle or the women who face her. Annabelle Comes Home is Annabelle's triumphant homecoming and a guaranteed summer scare.

Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) recover the Annabelle doll from the Perrons (from The Conjuring), and they lock Annabelle up in their artifact room. One year later, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) babysits Judy Warren (McKenna Grace) while Ed and Lorraine are out overnight. Mary Ellen's friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) snoops around the artifact room and messes with Annabelle, initiating a night of terror for the three young women.

Gary Dauberman unleashes a lot of new tricks to scare you and the on-screen heroines in his directorial debut. His toolbox of scares includes new tricks with light and shadows, antics with old typewriters (I guess they were modern typewriters, since this is set in the '70s), and even freaky board games. Dauberman also uses the familiar "monster pops up in the dark" and "dragging the heroine across the floor" tropes. If it ain't broke, right?

The Conjuring movies work because they are more than just scary, but some of the spinoffs haven't measured up, because they're just scare machines without any heart. Annabelle Comes Home has an advantage since it's dealing with the Warrens, the center of The Conjuring movies. There's a lot of history already established in two Conjuring films, but Judy Warren, the youngest of the family, is a clean slate. Exploring what it's like to be a kid growing up with famous parents (or infamous depending on how the neighbors see them) would be compelling even outside a horror movie.

The new characters are compelling, too. Daniela may seem like a troublemaker, but when she's alone, the movie reveals she has a sincere reason for breaking and entering. Mary Ellen exudes the kindness and compassion of a caretaker, the sort of pure nurturing you'd need in your corner when facing malevolent spirits. It's really empowering to see three women under 20 stand up to monsters. Sure, "the final girl" has always been a staple of horror movies, but it felt special to relate to a trio and not just wait for two of them to die.

The very nature of the plot, that the Warrens hire a babysitter for the night, makes it apparent that Ed and Lorraine will only be at the beginning and end of the movie. Otherwise, it really would just be The Conjuring 3. The Warrens' presence makes really strong bookends to Annabelle Comes Home. They're great parents, which empowers Judy to be independent. When they drive by a cemetery in the beginning and all the spirits talk to Lorraine, you get the sense that she probably deals with this all the time. After all, with great power comes great responsibility, and there are a lot of spirits who need her help and others who aren't interested in cooperation with humans.

Dauberman definitely took what he knows about the Warrens and used it to amplify this latest Annabelle story. Die-hard fans of the real-life Warrens may catch some Easter eggs, while people who only know the Warrens through The Conjuring films will learn more about their history. That depth makes Annabelle Comes Home the most haunting Annabelle yet. Perhaps, Annabelle Comes Home will encourage research into the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, but even if it doesn't make you do homework, Annabelle Comes Home is the scariest toy story of the year.


Now in Theaters: 5 New Movies for the Weekend of April 19

Are people singing on the subway ever not insane? Find out this weekend.

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

Welcome back to "Now in Theaters: 5 New Movies for the Weekend."

This week we have more generic horror and the dumbest musical concept in human history.


The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona - Official Trailer [HD]

Based on an old Mexican folktale about the wailing ghost of a woman who drowned her children, The Curse of La Llorona follows a family...cursed by La Llorona. It's produced by horror icon James Wan, and while marketed as a standalone film, it takes place within the same universe as The Conjuring. Honestly, the trailer doesn't really set it apart from any of the other "spooky ghosts jumping out" horror fare of the last decade. Moreover, The Conjuring was fantastic, but the follow-up movies not actually directed by James Wan have been middling. Go in with low expectations and maybe it'll be fun.


Under the Silver Lake

Under the Silver Lake | Official Trailer HD |

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's previous film, It Follows, was genuinely one of my favorite movies of the past couple years. As such, Under the Silver Lake is a personal must-see, even if it hasn't been getting the same across-the-board praise as its predecessor. Andrew Garfield plays a lovestruck young man trying to solve the mystery of his missing neighbor, convinced that a vast conspiracy of strange codes and hidden messages across LA will lead to answers. It looks weird and unlike anything I've seen before, so even if it falls short of expectations it should be an interesting ride.


STUCK Official Trailer #1 (2017) | Ashanti, Amy Madigan | Musical Film HD

Imagine being stuck on the subway in NYC and then a bunch of assholes start singing about their most intimate problems. That's the premise of this mind-blowingly stupid concept for a musical starring Ashanti, Arden Cho (Teen Wolf), and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad) for some reason. Maybe the music is good, I don't know. But as a New Yorker who encounters singing subway lunatics on my daily commute, I can think of better ways to waste my weekend.


GRASS (official trailer)

An artsy South Korean drama from director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then), Grass is an unconventional narrative in which a writer eavesdrops on three different couples in a cafe. Their simultaneously unfolding stories influence the writer's work. The trailer itself is very interesting, playing an intimate, wordless moment out during a single shot. Your reaction to the trailer should be a good barometer for whether or not you'll appreciate Hong Sang-soo's directorial style.

Hail Satan?

Hail Satan? - Official

What if people's notions about "Satanism" are entirely wrong? Those misconceptions are exactly what the comedic documentary Hail Satan? sets out to rectify. Featuring exploits and interviews with actual, self-proclaimed Satanists, director Penny Lane highlights what amounts to an activist movement ironically posing as a religion. For anyone even mildly interested in the intersection between theology and politics, this documentary should be high on your list.

Dan Kahan is a writer & screenwriter from Brooklyn, usually rocking a man bun. Find more at

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Aquaman, the latest movie from the DC universe, will splash into theatres on December 21st. Reviews for the big-budget superhero flick include, "a complete bellyflop," "Aquaman Stinks Like Last Month's Fish," and "Oceanic DC superhero epic will float your boat." So far, only two things are clear: this film is really bad and journalists can't resist an easy water-related pun. We don't care about either point. If we're being honest with ourselves, Aquaman was never going to be a piece of cinematic art. We bought presale tickets hoping the movie would be a two-hour long wet t-shirt contest feat. Jason Momoa's pecs. We want some flowing wet hair, some real tight merman leggings, and at least a cumulative half-hour of intense, furrowed eyebrows. If at any point he wrestles or befriends a shark whilst shirtless, we're ready to declare Aquaman the best movie ever made.

Below is our comprehensive, analytical, plot-based list of the reasons we'll be first in line to see DC's Aquaman.

Aquaman - Official Trailer 1 - Now Playing In

Those blonde tips, those "I better never get an old man body cause these really won't age well" tattoos, that SMIRK. Oh my Poseidon.

YES! We like our men moist. We like them unreasonably muscular. We like them appearing to making a plumbing disaster significantly worse!

Those arm fins can't possibly be conducive to faster swimming but look at that SNARL!

Is this movie just Khal Drogo taking a shower and gazing at the camera menacingly for 2 hours? Can someone make that movie?

Yes, outfit change. Yes, genius hot dog roasting device. Yes, colored contacts.

We're changing our official Popdust Instagram handle to "Jason Momoa's Eyebrow Scar.".

Does it look like he got that necklace at the natural history museum gift shop? Yes. Is he pulling it off? Yes. We don't blame that shark for wanting to take a bite.

Well, folks, the reviews are in. We haven't seen Aquaman yet, but we're pretty sure it's this generation's Citizen Kane.

Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn-based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her Twitter @BrookeIJohnson.

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SEPTEMBER 7th-9th | What's Coming to Theaters this Weekend?

Class is in session with some of our favorite films to kick off the first week of school.

In Popdust's column, Box Office Breakdown, we aim to inform you of the top flicks to check out every weekend depending on what you're in the mood to enjoy. Looking to laugh? What about having your pants scared off? Maybe you just need a little love? Whatever the case may be, we have you covered. Take a peek at our top picks for this week…

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