Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The weekend brings the release of The Invisible Man, Leigh Whannell’s excellent take on a very old concept. It’s been a while since negative space served as such a consistently evocative screen presence, so let’s celebrate this crafty genre moviemaking.
In 2004 Whannell came up from Down Under with his filmmaking partner James Wan, tucking a little experiment called Saw under their collective arm. I interviewed them at the time, and found them to be as smart and funny as two up-and-coming wiseguys ought to be. They went on to the Saw and Insidious franchises, of course, with some very clever outings along the way.
Here’s my original review of Saw, which morphs into the interview. Imagine two young guys full of humor and ambition, and you’ll get the gist.
It would be bad enough to wake up in a grungy underground room with your leg chained to a wall, opposite a total stranger who has his leg similarly chained.
But to have a dead guy lying on the floor between you? That’s rubbing it in.
This is the bewildering situation for two men in Saw, a fiendish and brutal thriller. This movie puts the audience through the paces while challenging them to figure out what exactly is going on.
The two men are Adam (Leigh Whannell), a sarcastic slacker type, and Lawrence (Cary Elwes), a surgeon. Within minutes, they listen to tape-recorded messages from their captor. The news isn’t pleasant.
A madman’s voice gives Lawrence an ultimatum: kill Adam in the next eight hours, or both of you will die. Oh, and Lawrence’s wife (Monica Potter) and daughter will also be killed.
This dilemma keeps tensions high between Lawrence and Adam. Meanwhile, there are flashbacks and cutaways, so we’re not constantly inside the room. We see some of the investigation of the serial killer, led by a decidedly obsessed cop (Danny Glover), and the crazy puzzles the madman has devised for previous victims.
Saw is not for the faint of heart. Its title refers to two handsaws discovered by Adam and Lawrence. At first, they assume these will help them cut through their chains. But they’re not strong enough. So what are they for? Well, do you remember that hiker who got trapped by a boulder and had to cut off his own hand?
As grisly as it sounds, Saw is one of the more ingenious suspense-horror films of recent memory. The ending should have cult fans chattering on the Internet for months to come.
Saw is the creation of two 27-year-old Australians, director James Wan and writer-actor Leigh Whannell, who plays Adam. They came to the area last week to promote the picture, which is getting a big push for a relatively low-budget film made by two unknowns. I caught up with them to find out how they went Hollywood.
Wan and Whannell worked on the idea for a couple of years in Australia. They decided to gamble on coming to Hollywood to pitch the script and show a sample scene they’d shot with their own money. Incredibly, they were shooting the picture three months later, with Whannell co-starring in a lead role opposite a group of well-known actors. In a jokey back-and-forth, they explained.
“A little bit of naivete can help you a lot,” said Whannell. “It gets you past all the people telling you it can’t be done.” Wan agreed: “It’s insane to believe you can do it. Especially coming from halfway around the world.”
They seemed giddy with their sudden success. “Getting something that’s your passion to be your job,” said Whannell, “is extremely hard. Everybody wants those jobs.”
Audiences have been vocally reacting while watching this roller-coaster movie. “It’s like a spectator sport,” said Wan. “We want people to jump. It’s very gratifying, but you can’t really predict. Japanese audiences are so polite, but the American movie-going public is much more verbal.”
Wan and Whannell are as smart as they are ebullient. Wan asked Whannell to write a script that was absolutely elemental, in part because they love those kinds of simple-situation movies (Wan cited Duel as a favorite), and in part because that’s what they could afford to make.
Whannell spoke of how those budgetary considerations helped the movie. “It’s just, boom, we’re in this room and we’re stuck. It puts its hooks in straightaway.” Wan added, “You’re as oblivious to what’s going on as the characters are.”
I asked about the title. “Leigh and I are big fans of one-word titles,” Wan said. “Leigh came up with this right after I pitched the idea to him over the phone. That’s always a good thing when you can see it instantly.”
“Plus,” added Whannell, “it’s one letter away from Jaws.”
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.