"Let the games begin."
When Jigsaw, the fiendish killer at the heart of the Saw franchise, first spoke these words in 2004, little did he realise just how many spectators there would be. With the seventh (and reputedly last) instalment released today, Saw has become the most profitable horror franchise on record. Those horror icons of the 1980s - Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers - have nothing on Jigsaw, the killer played by Tobin Bell, who likes nothing better than putting his victims in devious torture devices that test their minds, bodies and souls to the ultimate limit.
The 2004 original, made by the director James Wan and the writer Leigh Whannell, set the tone for what was to come. Shot in Toronto for less than US$1 million (Dh3.7m), the film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival to largely positive reviews - the New York Times even drawing comparisons to the horrors of Abu Ghraib - before going on to make more than $100m around the globe.
Ever since then, the numbers have stacked up like the corpses of Jigsaw's victims. To date, the six Saw films have grossed $730m around the globe. Now that might not sound so hot compared with Avatar's $2.7bn haul, but you have to consider that each film was made for less than $11m - peanuts in movie terms. In the US, only the Friday the 13th series crossed the $300m mark, in terms of domestic grosses, and that was across 12 films, including the hybrid horror Freddy vs Jason and the 2009 reboot. Despite multiple entries, remakes and crossovers, the rest of the major Hollywood horror franchises - Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream - don't even come close.
Admittedly, you might argue there have been more profitable one-off horrors, such as last year's Paranormal Activity (made for just $15,000, it grossed a staggering $193m). In truth, the Saw films have never touched this - 2006's Saw III was the high point, collecting $162m around the world. Yet the franchise's box-office performance has been remarkably consistent, with only Saw VI the one entry not to take more than $100m. With Saw VII being shown in 3D, as well as promising to wrap up some unanswered questions, there's a good chance it will buck the franchise's gradual box-office decline and take its overall tally to well over $800m. Indeed, the early signs are promising, so far the film has taken nearly $40m worldwide. One of these major questions will be what happened to Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), one of the two characters from the original Saw, who wake up chained together in a grubby bathroom only to discover one must kill the other to survive. By the end, as Gordon crawls away, we're left to wonder what happened to him. "There had been so much blogging from the fans online," says Elwes, "saying 'Where's Dr Gordon? Every other character has been fully developed and we never understood what happened to him. Can you please explain it?' And the producers thought the best way to bookend the series was to answer that question."
At the core of the franchise is Jigsaw - who, despite dying at the end of Saw III, has remained the franchise's central figure. Compare him with the likes of Halloween's psychopathic Michael Myers, Friday the 13th's hockey-mask wearing Jason Voorhees or Nightmare on Elm Street's dagger-gloved Freddy Krueger. All three were leading players in the wave of slasher films that dominated the 1980s, their victims chosen almost indiscriminately. Not so Jigsaw, whose mechanical traps are designed as moral tests to teach each luckless wearer the value of life. "As twisted as his games are," says Whannell, "his intention is to help people."
A rather questionable argument, it hasn't convinced some cultural commentators, who branded the whole franchise "sick" for its over-the-top scenes of death and dismemberment. Nobody can dispute Saw's impact on Hollywood, where it has been instrumental in inspiring a wave of films that includes Hostel, Captivity and remakes of Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all sharing a "sheer, ruptured-sewage-pipe deluge of gore, mutilation and general unpleasantness", as The Guardian newspaper's film critic Peter Bradshaw so delicately put it.
At least Saw had Tobin Bell's turn as Jigsaw to elevate it above its peers. As the LA Weekly critic Luke Thomson wrote, "He's the best 'real-world' horror antihero since Anthony Hopkins first played Hannibal Lecter." In the later films, we learn that the late Jigsaw is out for vengeance upon the health insurance executives who denied him cover during his illness.
What is remarkable about the Saw films, though, is the discipline with which they've been produced - seven films in as many years. "Most big serial studio films take their time between releasing sequels," says Elwes. "Mostly it's two years or three years. The Friday the 13th series was sporadic at best. With Halloween we had a gap of three years before we saw its first sequel. But these guys kept to a deadline of meeting a certain date for release purposes. It was like a conveyor belt. They literally had to wrap one and start the next one right away. And they never cheated by filming two at the same time, like some franchises do."
Partly, this consistency has come from keeping hold of the key creative personnel. After working on the original, both Wan and Whannell (who also played Adam, Dr Gordon's companion in that bathroom) have remained as executive producers, with Whannell co-writing Saw II and both men contributing to the writing of Saw III. While Darren Lynn Bousman was brought on board to direct the second, third and fourth instalments, David Hackl, the production designer on the first four films, went behind the camera for Saw V. Meanwhile, Kevin Greutert, the editor on the first five films, was promoted to director for Saw VI and the forthcoming final episode.
With the cinematography and score for the first six episodes provided by David A Armstrong and the former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser respectively, it's no surprise the films have managed an aesthetic and tonal consistency that most horror franchises fail to achieve. Yet, with the final four episodes all co-written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, what Saw and its sequels all share is the intricate plotting. The stories are laden with multiple flashbacks, parallel time-lines (with events of Saw III and IV taking place at the same time) and dozens of characters.
With Costas Mandylor's psychopathic cop carrying out Jigsaw's wishes in his wake, it seems rather apt that the Saw universe looks set to live on even after the demise of the franchise. The inevitable merchandise aside, the films have also spawned Saw: The Ride, the world's first horror-movie themed rollercoaster at Thorpe Park in the UK. You might even say the producers have put something back, following the US-based Saw blood drive that has encouraged fans to visit the Red Cross and "Give 'Til It Hurts". A horror film that saves lives? Now that's unique.
Ÿ Saw VII 3D opens in the UAE today.