The shuddering naked woman strung up in the meat locker was not the problem. Neither was the guy ripping through chains embedded in his flesh to dismantle a ticking bomb in front of him. What worried the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when the ratings body screened Saw III, the latest installment in the lucrative, torture-based horror franchise, was the disturbing "tonality," according to the film's director, Darren Lynn Bousman. "This movie is too dark?" asks Bousman, a 27-year-old Elvis Costello look-alike from Kansas. "That's what I set out to do! It's a horror movie." Before altering Saw III to garner a more box-office-friendly R-rating, Bousman called up another director who specializes in movies people watch through their fingers, Rob Zombie, the tattooed heavy-metal vocalist. "I told him to talk to the MPAA as a filmmaker," says Zombie, 41, whose depraved gorefest The Devil's Rejects contains what many consider cinema's most artful human-roadkill scene. "Explain why the extreme violence is necessary to tell the story in a way that's more socially responsible." When pressed, Zombie admits he doesn't actually care what's socially responsible. He just wanted to help out a kindred spirit, another guy who understands the unique beauty of a properly lighted viscera shot.
Bousman and Zombie are both members of an emerging and collegial band of horror auteurs--unofficially known as the Splat Pack--who are given almost free rein and usually less than $10 million by studios or producers to make unapologetically disgusting, brutally violent movies. If they get it right, there's a fervid fan base, composed mostly of people far too young to take death seriously, who will send those movies into almost gruesome profitability (some of the films have made more than $100 million). The group is loose knit, and other members include the director of the first Saw movie, James Wan, and his co-writer, Leigh Whannell; Hostel writer-director Eli Roth; The Descent's Neil Marshall; and Alexandre Aja, who remade Wes Craven's 1977 cannibalistic film, The Hills Have Eyes.
The gore-happy gang owes a lot of its recent good fortune to Whannell and Wan, who ushered in the latest iteration of big-screen bloodlust with the first Saw movie in 2004, just as eerie Japanese horror movies like The Ring were peaking. Whannell was a Melbourne, Australia, TV host who thought he had a brain tumor. His film-school buddy, Wan, was unemployed. "I would have done anything to be healthy again," says Whannell, now 29, who, it turned out, was actually just suffering from stress headaches. When he felt better, he wrote the script for Saw, in which a terminally ill cancer patient, Jigsawultimately played in all three movies by the creepy character actor Tobin Bellforces people to consider what they're prepared to do to stay alive. Using $7,000 of Whannell's savings, the pair shot a shocking 10-min. film in which Whannell played one of Jigsaw's victims who has to dig a key from the digestive tract of a paralyzed cellmate before Whannell's character's jaw is split open by a reverse bear trap. On the strength of that short, Los Angeles--based Evolution Entertainment ponied up $1.2 million to make a feature. The sets were grungy--most of the film takes place in a dirty bathroom--and the actors, Danny Glover and Carey Elwes, weren't too expensive. Wan got to direct, and Whannell starred as another of Jigsaw's victims.