Monday, January 13, 2014

DEN (2001)

A serial killer, with a religious secret, captures four victims and plays a deadly game of Q & A. The winner is promised to come out alive from this 'wreck' room where truth, sin and religious faith are the game of choice.

Does this sound a tad familiar perhaps? Maybe you've heard of something similar? A certain film (turned franchise) about a madman who after abducting his victims forces them to play twisted games for their own survival. No the above synopsis is not taken from any of the SAW films, it is from the rarely seen 2001 independent film DEN. A project that predates SAW by three years. 
First and foremost I must thank the director of DEN, Greg Arce. Without his help, this article would not be possible. After initially reaching out to Greg, inquiring about everything that happened with his film, he was more than willing to answer any questions I had.  

From 2001 through 2002 DEN was heavily playing the film festival circuit, one being the NYC Horror Film Festival, which I've covered in the past. Another being the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Now here is where thing's get interesting. 

James Wan & Leigh Whannell, the writers/creators of the SAW franchise, met each other while attending film school in Australia. Whannell being from Melbourne, Wan originating from Malaysia. What remains in question is the timeline of such things. Though it does seem very plausible that both Wan & Whannell were students at the time that Arce's film was shown in Melbourne. 

Arce: "We played at the Melbourne festival in July of 2002. My lead actress won a best actress award at that festival. So I know that we were known there. I have never been able to prove that those two guys were there, but just backing up the history seemed to me they were probably film students there or had recently graduated and what film student doesn't go to the film festival in their area. I tried getting help from the Melbourne Festival but they declined."

I asked Greg about when he first heard about this project named SAW that was being shopped around, and his reaction after he saw it. 

"I guess I first heard about SAW sometime in either late 2003 or early 2004. I started getting emails from people that had seen DEN years before and saying that had just seen a film that was similar to mine. I believe SAW had played at some film festival. At that moment I didn't know what to think."
"It wasn't until SAW actually came out that I made the connection. The weird thing is I liked SAW and even liked the sequel... didn't think much of all the other ones after that. I was hated in the SAW community because they felt I was some guy just trying to make a paycheck off of them."
Shortly after SAW opened during Halloween week of 2004, is when I first learned about the comparison. Despite my annual attendance at the aforementioned NYC Horror Film Fest, I somehow missed out on DEN's screening back in 2002. I honestly didn't think anything of it at the time, until someone at the festival was talking about SAW and how it ripped off this previous film. This piqued my interest immediately, and quite frankly bummed me out for passing on it years earlier. Besides, I was not even a fan of SAW. But I am fascinated when I hear a story like this one. Speaking of which...
I'd be hard-pressed to not at least mention the more known The Last Broadcast & The Blair Witch Project controversy. A debate that still goes on to this day, even though the similarities between those two films is undeniable. It does need to be noted, the director of The Last Broadcast never proceeded with legal actions. For what reason, I am not sure. The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most successful horror films of all time. Meanwhile, The Last Broadcast remains an unknown title to general audiences. 

Back to DEN, in what seems like years it took me to finally come across a copy of it. Why so long? Well the film was never officially released. Between trying to find distribution and lawyer-legal fees, Arce filled for bankruptcy. For now, his film only exists in cyberspace.

"I ended up going through several lawyers (either 4 or 5) and never got anything out of it. They would always start out positive and tell me it's a slam dunk case, but then suddenly decide it was not for them. Some people started to tell me they felt that maybe the lawyers were being paid by the SAW film companies, but I have no proof and I'm never a conspiracy theorist."

"So I ended up being broke and the SAW franchise made something like a half a billion dollars. And all I kept saying to the lawyers is I would have been happy to have at least been compensated for the cost of doing DEN... which was around $150,000... all my money from selling my home. Just to have been put back to square one would have meant a lot to me and I'm sure I would have gone on to make another film. Oh well." 

After now having seen both movies, it’s clear where the films are connected. Certain scenes are so blatantly obvious, a blind man see it! It would be one thing for me to rattle off some facts but I had to inquire from Greg, in his own words, what are the major similarities between his film and SAW. Not only did he have an answer for that, but he made points that I completely missed.

This is the easiest to answer because I had to make a detailed list for my lawyers and the list kept getting longer as I watched the films over and over.

The following is the list that Greg had sent to me:
1.)  The main story of SAW has two men tied to chains who wake up in a strange place… In DEN the captives also wake up in a strange place and are tied in chains.

2.)  The main story is set in a rundown bathroom with pipes running all around it… In DEN, the whole story takes place in an abandoned theater that has walls & pipes that appear similar at times to that of SAW’s.

3.)  In DEN, one of the main captives is a psychotherapist and in SAW the main guy is a doctor.

4.)  In DEN, the psychotherapist as a secret that he has cheated on his wife… In SAW the doctor’s secret has to do with infidelity.

5.)  In DEN, the killer picks people that have hidden secrets that are connected to each other… same thing in SAW.

6.)  In DEN, the killer picks people he believes have some immoral secrets or past…. Same is true of the killer in SAW.

7.)  In DEN, killer plays psychological games that pits each captive against each other… same is true in SAW.

8.)  In DEN, the killer tries to make the captives make decisions that will require someone else to die… same is true in SAW.

9.)  There is a key scene in SAW where the killer says, “Make a choice” and this line is used in the trailer… we have a similar scene in DEN with the same line repeated over and over.

10.)  We have a tub of water next to one of our captives in DEN… in SAW there is a bathtub next to one of the captives.

11.)  The opening scene in SAW when the captives wake up is very similar to DEN’s where they are asking each other where they are & what is this situation all about.

12.)  Both films have scenes showing how the captives were picked up by the killer.

13.)  In SAW, one of the characters talks about himself as being on a “leash” due to the chain… we have the same speech in DEN.

Oh but that’s not all. Greg also revealed something that really blew me away:

By the way, there was one thing on the following list that was not added back then. I actually realized this years later. I guess you know that the big secret in SAW is that the killer is the shot dead guy in the middle of the room. He suddenly stands up in the end. I completely forgot that we have similar scene like that in DEN. It's not supposed to be a big twist, but just a kind of dramatic moment. In DEN, the heroine gets hold of gun and shoots DEN in the middle of the room. He falls down dead. Everyone thinks that's it and then he suddenly gets up. It's kind of similar in tone.

Arce has since moved on from all the controversy. As far as my thoughts on DEN, honestly it’s a good film. Maybe it’s missing the production value of SAW and having name actors, but who cares. It is well written, acted, and certainly kept my interest throughout.

So that’s that. Did SAW rip off DEN? Did James Wan & Leigh Whannell steal from Greg Arce? I'm not an expert, however the numerous similarities make it very unlikely that this could all be just a coincidence. Check out this side by side comparison of the poster for DEN and the doll from SAW. I rest my case.

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