May 24, 2024

The gruesome “Saw” franchise has grossed more than $1 billion at the global box office — but the original 2004 horror film was destined to be a direct-to-video curio. That is, until a pair of rollicking test screenings saved it.

“The first one we did in Camarillo [Calif.] and it scored so well that Lionsgate was convinced that we padded the audience,” franchise producer Oren Koules remembers. “So they made us do it again in Vegas, but they didn’t tell us until 6 p.m. that night where the theater was.”

Almost 20 years and nine twisty chapters later, “Saw X” (heading to theaters on Sept. 29) is returning to its franchise roots.

“Lionsgate did a brand study of ‘Saw’ fans: How many did they watch? Why did they stop?” franchise producer Mark Burg says. “We decided to make ‘Saw X’ that way. We pivoted from shooting in Eastern Europe to Mexico City, because we found such a giant portion of our fans were Latin.”

The research led most notably to the revival of key villain Jigsaw (aka John Kramer, portrayed by Tobin Bell). Jigsaw and his puppet Billy thrust victims struggling with their morality into death traps to make them value their lives. Although Jigsaw technically died in 2006’s “Saw III,” his nefarious plans have been in play for all of the films except the Chris Rock-starring 2021 spinoff “Spiral.”

“Saw X” is set between the series’ first and second installments, and reunites Jigsaw with his protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Together, they target and test a group of medical hustlers who swindle John after pretending to perform surgery on him.

Given the “Saw” team’s creative license with the timeline, anything seems possible for future installments. Although a new chapter hasn’t been greenlit yet, “Saw X” director and editor Kevin Greutert, who has worked on every film in the franchise, says, “I’m thinking about it all the time.”

“None of us have really had a conversation about what ‘Saw 11’ will look like,” Koules says. “The one thing I can tell you is that the fans really seem to be loving going back to the early days.”

Burg and Koules are in a position to give the fans what they want — they own the franchise outright, with Lionsgate distributing and marketing the movies.

“We don’t make anything unless the movie is a success, but also we have final cut,” Burg says.

Despite — or thanks to — being such a grisly series, “Saw” has become a high point in Lionsgate history by feeding the appetite of the sizable extreme horror audience. Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at the company, says the box office and pop culture impact of the franchise has lifted up Lionsgate for nearly 20 years.

“‘Saw’ is one of those seminal, historical, extraordinary franchises — not just for fans who love horror movies but within the context of Lionsgate,” he says.

Beyond the traps and the gore, Constantine says the dark heart of the franchise keeps it pumping.

“‘Saw’ entertainingly, terrifyingly forces the audience to reflect on mortality and the meaning of life,” he says. “Most people don’t talk about that in a horror movie.”

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