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— by Vanessa White Wolf, with additional reporting by Kelly Marino

A woman awakens to find herself bound to a chair in a dark concrete cell with a dingy steel contraption mounted to her head and the taste of blood filling her mouth. A video screen on the other side of the room sparks to life with the image of a demented puppet, who informs the woman that the device on her head is wired into her jaw. Once its timer reaches zero, the trap will spring open, ripping her jaw apart.

Her only chance for survival? To retrieve the key that unlocks the device, but it's in the stomach of her dead cellmate. A scalpel lies next to her cellmate's motionless body and a large question mark has been drawn on the man's stomach. As the clock ticks toward zero and the young woman clutches the knife and kneels over her cellmate, it soon becomes apparent that the man isn't quite dead yet.

"Live or die. Make your choice," the puppet whispers.

 "Saw" trailer

In June a trailer showing that scene turned movie fanatics all across the Internet on to what was, at that point, a relatively unknown movie. Dark and uncomfortably gritty, the teaser offered just a hint of the grim world of "Saw," and ensuing trailers and word-of-mouth confirmed rumors that the film was going to be scary as hell. Now, four months after the trailer first surfaced, the little chiller that could has become one of the most anticipated horror films of the fall season. Not bad for the first effort from two 20-something Australians.

Taking its name from the film's mysterious killer, Jigsaw — and also hinting at the hardware involved in one of the film's grisly scenarios — "Saw" plays with the grim visuals and twisted morality of films like "Seven." Technically, Jigsaw isn't a serial killer; rather, he places his victims in positions where they are forced to inflict violence, either on themselves or others. Jigsaw's lesson is that if his victims don't value their lives enough to live them fully or correctly, they don't deserve to live. Given that principled message and the film's enormous potential for gore, it's a bit surprising that "Saw" comes from the pen of Leigh Whannell, a warm and funny 27-year-old who also co-stars in the film.

"[Director] James [Wan] and I always thought of it as a thriller," Whannell said. "We never thought of it as a horror film, but it seems to be really sort of scaring people."

Wan and Whannell have been friends since their days in film school, and it was obvious to the duo what would be in store for them as soon as they met.

"We knew we had to make a feature film one day," Whannell recalled. "Everyone else was sort of out making experimental Super-8 films about sand. And we were, like, straight to the Hollywood way of thinking. 'Forget the experimental stuff, let's make feature zombie movies!' So we just stayed friends after we'd graduated."

Their first step was coming up with a story to save them from the obscurity that befalls many struggling Aussie filmmakers. And just as important was coming up with a story that they could afford, since they'd be funding the film from their own pockets.

 News, photos and video from "Saw"

"Basically we needed to come up with an idea that could take place in one room with two actors, because that's all we had the money for," Whannell laughed. "There was a lot of brainstorming sessions in restaurants that would run like, 'How about two guys stuck in an elevator, and one of them's a killer?' And then we'd be like, 'Nah.' Finally, James rang me and said, 'I've got it' and sort of pitched the basic idea for 'Saw' — these two guys are chained in this room so they can't get out. The restrictions we put on ourselves gave birth to the story idea."

Once the script was finished, they brought it to Whannell's agent, who thought she could pass it around to stir up interest, and more importantly, stir up money.

"Every time we'd give it to someone, they'd go, 'Hey, this is really good, can I help?' " Whannell recalled. "Before long we started seeing it as a film we could make with money."

But money was only half the problem — they still needed a way to actually make it into a film, which meant they had to get the attention of Stateside producers who could make it happen. Plane tickets from Melbourne to Los Angeles were expensive, and Whannell and Wan were nervous about showing up empty-handed with no guarantee of getting a foot in the proverbial door once they arrived. The solution: Spend every last penny on something guaranteed to set them apart. Whannell and Wan pooled their money, shot one of the film's key scenes, burned it onto a DVD and shopped it around with their pitch.

"You've got to remember, not only were we looking to get the film happening, but James wanted to direct it and I wanted to play one of the leads, so it was a really tough sell because we had no track record to speak of," Whannell said. "I wasn't Heath Ledger in Australia, and James wasn't anyone. We were just absolute nobodies."

The scene they filmed was the jaw-trap scene — the same one that would later spread across the Internet like wildfire.

"I'll take credit for that one!" Whannell laughed. "I was the one to be like, 'We've got to do the jaw-trap scene. People will either hate it because it's too gory or repulsive or they'll love it.' It was easily the smartest thing we've ever done."

NEXT: Early screenings send viewers cursing and fleeing — but in a good way ...
Photo: Greg Gayne

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