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Sick Individuals

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I wanted to vomit. It's a learned reflex in this profession, looking away from the screen, but the premise of first-time director James Wan's Saw, a puzzle-game serial killer thriller -- described in the Sundance 2004 catalog as "indelible horror... terrifying in tone and effect," even conveys its grave gruesomeness in a coming-attractions trailer that ends, fittingly, with the words, "How f--ed up is that?"

Saw is recommended with the strenuous caveat that the trailer alone is horrifying. It shows a woman waking up in a dark, cold basement with a helmet on her head that threatens to either rip off her jaw or blow her up, unless she can carve a key out the belly of a body on the floor -- which turns out to be alive. That may be one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen in a movie. With its jaw-dropping pile-on, like the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs multiplied a dozen-fold, this movie should make a lot of horror aficionados happy.

Put up against Se7en, its inventive mind warps go up to about 16.7. With much of the dank nastiness of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw isn't something you've seen before. Two Australian friends in their mid-20s -- director/co-writer James Wan and co-star/co-writer Leigh Whannell -- composed a spare mind game of a story, thinking they'd make it on the cheap at home. But they managed to convince a few big names, like Danny Glover, to participate in their reindeer games, and got to make it in Los Angeles for around $1 million. Then the games truly began.

I met the pair for drinks after a word-of-mouth screening they'd missed. "It's not yours anymore, it's the audience's film," the affable, open-faced Whannell says. "Sundance and at Toronto, we sat through it. A couple's good enough. I'm vicariously living my rock 'n' roll fantasy -- 20 cities in 20 nights. You wish you could stay, you're just getting a taste for something, and bang, you have to go."

They've both got the compulsive patter of film students -- I had to slow my tape recorder to decipher our conversation. I asked Wan -- a slight, impossibly young, beaming Asian-Australian in a black leather and punked-up hair -- what gives you the nerve? And what's a film or a scene that utterly grabbed you, by some other filmmaker? "I can't point anything specific out, but I'm a big David Lynch fan. He's a big influence on Saw, and another director I truly admire as well, is an Italian, Dario Argento? These two guys have a big impact on us -- Deep Red, Lost Highway."

They both use deep space, negative space. "Yeah!" Wan shorthands, "scenes that are dark and pitch black. You don't have anything else to look to."

Whannel adds," Lynch is the master of just scaring the s-- out of you. Like that scene [in Lost Highway] where that guy says, 'I'm at your house... Right now!'" They both laugh happily.

Originally, Saw was rated NC-17. " When we handed in our first cut, the Sundance version, we were essentially told the film was too intense. Really?" He grins, shaking him head. "I'm going to be penalized for doing what I'm supposed to do as a director? I think they have a problem with the 'tone' as well. How do you cut 'tone'? How do you censor 'tone'?"

So how do you? "From my experience of this film, I don't want to get into the whole MPAA thing too much, because y'know, it's political and I don't want to go there!"

Did the duo want to be scary as they could? Or make a name for themselves? They shot a scene to go with their script on their first L.A. journey.

"Yeah," says Wan. "We shot a scene. It was that scene, but played by Leigh instead, and essentially the same scene that got us our attention. We picked that scene because we thought, we had to pick the most shocking out of the screenplay. It would get attention and allow me to do a lot of cinematic tricks and showcase Leigh as an actor as well. In a weird way, it sums up the film."

If you haven't seen the trailer, I urge you to see it online -- www.ifilm.com/ifilmdetail/2537921-- before you decide to go.