I've never seen Saw. I avoided it as a representative (if not the progenitor) of the modern wave of so-called 'torture porn' movies. I just had no interest in watching a film that was essentially two guys having to cut their feet off and other people in similar situations being horrifically mangled. (Which was the entirety of the film, as I understood it.)
Now, don't get me wrong. I love a good splatter picture. Romero's zombie films, any given Cronenberg picture, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Dead Alive, Fulci films, Ricky Oh, the Story of Ricky - you get the gist. But I've never been able to enjoy normal people being, well, tortured. I can watch the head exploding scene in Scanners over and over again, but the dentist drill sequence in Marathon Man makes me squirm every time.
|I couldn't look while I tried to post this - did I post it? I did, right? Okay, I'll look... gah!|
On the other hand, Saw is kind of a seminal horror film at this point. Also the start of one of the most popular horror franchise series of the current century. That I had never seen it has become more and more of a glaring omission in my horror curriculum vitae. I finally watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre last year after decades of avoiding it - and that turned out to be an amazing film that I wish I'd seen earlier. Could I be misunderstanding the film? Could Saw turn out to be just as much of a classic as TTCM?
Streaming on Amazon. I've really been depending on Prime a lot this year, as Netflix doesn't seem to be adding horror movies in October like they use to. Quality was a helluva lot better than some other recent Amazon viewings - not that Saw really needs it.
A man, Adam (Leigh Whannell), wakes up in a large, dilapidated bathroom. Freeing himself from a bathtub (he wakes under water) he finds himself chained to large pipes coming out of the wall. Also chained on the opposite side of the room is Lawrence (Cary Elwes), a doctor. In between them is the corpse of a man who has apparently shot himself in the head (a pistol lies near his hand, in addition to a microcassette recorder). They each find tapes in their pockets and, using the recorder, listen to them to discover that someone has imprisoned them and given them instructions. Adam must escape. Lawrence must kill Adam - or his wife and daughter will die.
|On the bright side... no, you're right, there is no bright side.|
I spent a good chunk of the first 10-15 minutes reflexively wincing at imagined horrors. Waiting for the hammer to drop (or the saw to cut, as it were). Nothing much happens, though - gore wise, that is. Seeing the hacksaws come out was something I expected, and weighted on my mind as the film progressed.
|"This is what the hacksaws are for, right?"|
|"I don't think so..."|
Lawrence thinks he knows who has done this to them. A serial killer named Jigsaw, who doesn't directly kill his victims. Instead, he places them in positions where they have to struggle to save themselves. All but one of them has failed his games. And Lawrence was once a suspect.
I like Cary Elwes, but he's really not very good here. He's a bit too broad for the subject matter and the cadence of his speech is a bit off - slipping occasionally into his native English accent. Whannell is a tad better, but doesn't have a huge range. In general the acting is simply passable, with Monica Potter (as Lawrence's wife, Alison), Danny Glover and Michael Emerson being standouts.
|"I'm looking for my agent's number. I'm sure it's in here somewhere."|
The pacing of the film is uneven. The procedural segments with Glover's Detective Tapp and Ken Leung's Detective Sing are slow and - except for a confrontation with the Jigsaw killer - kill the mood built up by the scenes in the bathroom. There's a scene with the only survivor - a subdued Shawnee Smith - that's really good, however (and that particular contraption is freakishly cool/awful).
|"He was the only dentist in my preferred provider list!"|
As the movie progresses we learn more about Lawrence and Adam - and their secrets. Flashbacks reveal that neither of them is telling the other the real truth about themselves. Meanwhile, Detective Trapp keeps an eye on Lawrence's house - because he still believes that the good Doctor is actually the killer.
|Two days 'til retirement, right?|
Things pick up speed quickly as time runs out for Lawrence and Adam, setting in motion several violent confrontations and making sure that a hacksaw is finally used for its intended purpose. I've read a few articles about Saw, but the ending was still a surprise for me (even knowing the actor who plays Jigsaw), so I won't spoil it. It was almost worth it just for that reveal.
|Jigsaw is actually a grown up Howdy Doody! Whatta twist!|
The movie is pretty well shot and directed, though it feels very claustrophobic - which was probably on purpose. It did make it all feel a bit 'staged' rather than something occurring in the real world. Some of the editing and pacing was problematic and it felt like a first film by a very talented amateur filmmaker. Flashes of brilliance with some technical faults.
Wan and Whannell have gone off to bigger and better things, of course - Wan is actually set to direct an Aquaman film, which should be interesting. They're both still involved in the Saw franchise, which looked to be fading with the release of Saw VI, but had a resurgence with Saw 3D in 2010. Saw VIII is noted on IMDB as 'in production.'
The Bottom Line
To answer my own rhetorical questions: Yes, I was misunderstanding the film - it's a much better and more interesting movie than I gave it credit for. Is it a classic - on par with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Well - no. But it's not bad! I'm not sure I need to see any of the others, though - are there any particularly good installments?