Saw Review

Is it just me, or are screen psychos getting more creative? Film heroes have seen just about every type imaginable - bone collectors, cannibals, mutant hill-dwellers, religious fanatics, and unstoppable bogeymen that just won’t quit. Hell, not even your dreams are safe from their grasp, making even the most resourceful heroine a viable target. Saw tries to ignore these age-old stereotypes, with a mad-man that is so diabolical, so clever, that he could only exist within the confines of grand guignol cinema. But this, and every other loon, would be nothing without one key ingredient - victims. The film is barely on two minutes, before we meet our protagonists. Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) awakens in a grimy bathroom, with his foot chained to the wall. He has no clue where he is, or why he’s bound by shackles. But he isn’t alone. Across the room, is Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), who is just as clueless as to why they are holed-up in a room so dirty and decayed, it would give Lawrence Llywellyn Bowen a stroke. Lying on the floor between them, is a corpse, with half of his head blown-off; a fate which was clearly self-inflicted.

Gordon theorises that they are prisoners of the “Jigsaw Killer,” a perpetrator who kidnaps his victims, places them in a dangerous scenario, and watches as they try to escape the maze. They’ll either leave with their life, or suffer a suitably grisly demise. Ol’ Jigsaw has stayed one step ahead of the police force, led by Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover), a veteran who is determined to catch this criminal anyway he can. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon and Adam are facing the longest night of their lives. Jigsaw has saved his most elaborate plan for them. As the pair move around their “cell”, they discover a variety of clues - a gun, one bullet, two hacksaws, two cigarettes, a lighter, a collection of photographs, and a mobile phone, that can only receive calls. However, cassette tapes hidden in their clothes reveal Jigsaw’s plan. He states that Dr. Gordon has until 6pm to kill Adam, or his family will be murdered. Chances of escape are slim, yet there’s a possibility if they work together. But what about the hacksaws? They won’t cut through the chains, but they will slice through human bone quite nicely...

Last October, there wasn’t much to celebrate at the cinema. It was a droll month, with only one film that stood out from the crowd. After seeing it, I was overwhelmed. “You’ve got to see Saw,” came my enthusiastic response, telling every schmoe that would listen. This low-budget horror film had been hyped to death online, and was receiving a great deal of kudos on the festival circuit, making me very excited indeed. So October came, and Saw was given a wide release, much to my amazement. It was on my birthday, that I finally got to see it. For this horror fanatic, Saw was everything I’d hoped for. Few modern genre films have effected me in quite the same way. It was a genuinely tense shocker, that took its blood-drenched scares seriously; reminding me that motion pictures still have the potential to produce disturbing art. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my feelings. As I left my seat, I listened to other patrons, as they scrambled toward to the exit. “What a fucked-up movie,” came one viewer’s response - a kid who was clearly too young, but boasted a smile wider than the Grand Canyon. I happened to agree, and for once, liking a down-and-dirty horror film didn’t feel like a crime.

Saw is a bona-fide gem, that bodes well for its creators - Australian director James Wan, and writer/star Leigh Whannell. The pair have fashioned a modern genre classic, which seems destined for cult status. Most surprisingly of all, they did it first time out, with little experience. Somehow, they managed to get their script read by LA producers, resulting in a low-budget ($1 million), but plenty of support. They also had the common sense to provide investors with proof of their talents. After shooting an horrific scene from the script (with $10,000 of their own money), the budding auteurs revealed their macabre imaginations, and the production was soon underway. The completed film would go on to generate a great deal of buzz, ending up at the Toronto Film Festival. It was here, that the ever-reliable Lions Gate picked it up for theatrical distribution (the same company that plucked Cabin Fever and House of 1000 Corpses from obscurity.) It’s release in the UK was eagerly-awaited, and Saw sprinted to the top of the box office chart.

While reviews were mixed, the general reaction was good, and the main genre outlets were impressed - Dark Side Magazine gave it the thumbs up; sending my anticipation into overdrive. Still, the all-important US release wouldn’t be quite so complimentary. It made plenty of money, but the critics were overly harsh, and audience feedback ranged from positive to downright lousy. Did they watch the same film? Either Americans have become so used to bloodless, PG-13 genre pictures, or the film was genuinely bad. It’s not a perfect picture, but it’s certainly well-made. Naturally, it all depends on the individual - this is a movie you’ll either love or hate. Saw was never going to be universally accepted, since it’s too brutal and stark for that. This is a film for genre aficionados, and those with a weak stomach should stay well away. To cult audiences, Saw is a minor masterpiece, and in my opinion, the first significant giallo picture to originate in the US.

Incorporating many of the traits that Dario Argento used so well in his Italian horror films, Saw is clearly Wan’s way of tipping his hat to the foreign Hitchcock. The master’s work has been referenced so much, that quoting Argento is almost a cliché. However, Saw is the closest I’ve seen to matching his earliest, primal works. The giallo is essentially an elaborate murder mystery, a title that fits Wan’s film quite well. Take the basic scenario. It’s a masterful conceit on Whannell’s part, and even though the film never quite reaches the dizzying heights of Deep Red or Opera, it comes close. Wan catches the audience off-guard, sparking a multitude of questions. Where are we? Who is keeping Adam and Dr. Gordon locked-up? Will they escape? These questions keep circling our minds, and Whannell manages to confuse us even more with umpteen red herrings and sub-plots; echoing the sci-fi film Cube in terms of concept, and the stylish trappings of Tenebrae in execution. Throughout, the filmmakers love toying with our expectations, and never miss the chance to mount tension.

However, the film doesn’t restrict itself to a one room setting. Saw delves into flashbacks, and in some cases, flashbacks-within-flashbacks. It’s probably the only way to build characterisation, given the premise, allowing the audience to learn about Jigsaw, his crimes and the mundane lives of Adam and Dr. Gordon. The giallo influence comes alive here, as the film introduces Detective Tapp, and his escalating interest in catching Jigsaw. Some critics felt the flashback scenes were intrusive, with Whannell spending too much time on back-story. While that statement holds some truth, most of the information is necessary. They also provide Saw’s most memorable scenes, beginning with the revelation that Dr. Gordon was connected to the Jigsaw case. He was questioned by the police, and met the only survivor of Jigsaw’s twisted games - the terrified Amanda (Shawnee Smith).

In what has become known as the “reverse bear trap” sequence, a shaken Amanda awakens to find herself alone in a dark, dank room. Unfortunately for her, that isn’t the problem. Her head has been encased in a crude-looking device; an insidious mechanism that will smash her jaw apart unless she can find the key in time. It’s probably the best sequence in the picture (and, incidentally, the scene Wan shot for investors), making Jigsaw’s latent cruelty so very clear. We know Amanda survives, but the scene is given a hyper-realistic edge, that veers into pitch black terrain; effectively chilling the bones. Seeking the key, she realises that the item is hidden within the stomach of a man, who lies unconscious on the floor. With time running out, she proceeds to murder the poor individual, rooting through his guts to find the “prize”. Cut to nerve-shredding industrial music (a source of annoyance for some), Wan delivers the scene with hyper-kinetic strokes, and machine-gun editing, that left me cold. The sequence has a memorable conclusion too, as Amanda - alive and trap-free - is told that she has “won the game”. No, not by Jigsaw in person, but by a creepy puppet, which appears out of the darkness on a rusted tricycle. It’s a moment of sheer Argento-inspired weirdness, providing the grim punch-line to Saw’s most accomplished segment.

The fate of Jigsaw’s previous victims is documented too, with a man burnt alive (ouch!), and another entwined in a maze of barb wire (a scene clearly inspired by Suspiria.) Jigsaw is essentially a gimmick; a one-trick pony. He’s Rube Goldberg, if Goldberg was a sadistic psychopath with too much time on his hands. But Wan’s character refuses to be one-dimensional. Throughout this review, I’ve resisted the temptation to label Jigsaw as a murderer, since he really isn’t. The unlucky few didn’t die by his hands, but their own. He merely provides the means. His only hope - twisted as it might be - is to make his victims appreciate life, and after escaping with her jaw intact, I doubt Amanda will take life for granted ever again. Jigsaw is a great creation, and Wan wisely keeps him to the shadows, adding to his mystique. When we do catch a glimpse of the villain, Wan makes our blood run cold; especially the shot of an eye peeking out from the dark (“borrowed” from Bob Clark’s Black Christmas.)

Many audiences appreciated the bravado, but were less impressed with the acting. Saw’s cast is brimming with memorable faces, yet many felt Elwes was miscast as the suffering Dr. Gordon. I don’t really agree, since his role is neatly structured - growing ever-more impatient and deranged as the film goes on. There’s a few moments where his dialogue seems stiff (especially during exposition), but he manages to overcome the theatrical setting (lest we forget, that 80% of the time, he’s in one room, chained to the wall.) Glover glides through his role like an old pro. The character of Tapp is nothing new for the veteran, but his presence helps to give Saw an air of credibility. So does the use of character actors Ken Leung and Dina Meyer, in brief, but significant supporting roles.

Much better, is Monica Potter, who provides Dr. Gordon’s wife with a sympathetic edge. The actress does a respectable job of projecting fear in her scenes, with some suspenseful moments that power Saw’s frantic denouement. As for Whannell, his first leading role isn’t as bad as some critics led you to believe. He isn’t too experienced in the field, but he comes across as actor with great potential. Like Elwes, he can seem emotionally vacant at times, but gives Adam a mysterious edge; with the script peeling away layers constantly. His slack-jawed astonishment during the conclusion is priceless - a twist ending that redefines everything you’ve just witnessed. Generally nail-biting, the last act has also been dissected by many, yet the plot holes don’t appear at first; showing up only when you discuss the plot during a post-screening drink. Yet, the film boasts so many brilliant touches, that any inconsistencies are easily overlooked.

As you probably know, Saw has been compared to David Fincher’s Se7en, on a stylistic level. There’s nothing here that matches his masterpiece, but Wan reveals plenty of visual style. The film defies its low-budget, with some assured camerawork (mostly hand-held), and David Armstrong’s skilful lighting. With much of the action occurring in darkened rooms, or gloomy shadows, Saw really reeks of death - a definite plus in any horror picture. The director occasionally gives in to MTV aesthetics, but doesn’t dwell on them, making the look and feel of this film very potent indeed. In fact, Saw owes its success to the filmmakers, who made the best of a pathetic schedule (18 days), and put many commercial thrillers in the shade. The director leads us on this winding path with breathless energy, speeding to a conclusion that is not only downbeat, but shocking in its raw power. Intelligent, gripping, and often perverse, Saw is a modern gem...

The Disc

Saw is practically a blockbuster for Lions Gate, having grossed over $18 million in its opening weekend alone. Therefore, the DVD has been eagerly-awaited, and has arrived with plenty of fanfare. Still, there has been some controversy for fans. It’s a well-known fact that Saw was released uncut in the UK (a pleasant surprise!), but snipped by the MPAA for its American debut. To avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating, some of the “reverse bear trap” scene was cut (a few seconds of Shawnee Smith rooting through the guts.) Therefore, the current Region 2 copy from EIV is probably the one to go for, but LG’s edition still has some value for die-hard fans. The box art for instance, is one in a million; with a transparent cover, revealing the “saw” disc. Jigsaw would feel proud with this on his shelf...

The Look and Sound

Saw has been treated well by LG, and few films with a price tag of $1 million look this good. The picture takes place largely in dark locations, with lighting used sparingly (make no mistake, this a pretty bleak little flick). Therefore, the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer holds plenty of surprises; revelling in a crisp, clear image. David Armstrong's gritty cinematography is transferred with the utmost care, and the picture is pretty sharp. No edge enhancement was detected, though there is a light vale of grain (showing up in the bathroom scenes), which merely adds to the atmosphere. It isn’t perfect - detail was average, and some of the colours seemed off, yet Saw looks magnificent. You’d swear it cost a lot more...

Moving on, I was shocked by Saw’s wide range of audio options: DTS 6.1 ES, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby 2.0 stereo are all provided. The DTS and 5.1 tracks are superb, and the surrounds are constantly assaulting the viewer with nihilistic excess (the screams that close the movie will stay in my head for days.) From the neatly-designed Twisted Pictures logo, to the nerve-shredding climax, these tracks were brilliant. They even help to give Charlie Clouser’s death-metal score some panache. Kudos to Lions Gate...

The Menus

As you’d expect, these were loud and animated with plenty of flash; guaranteed to send epileptics into a fit. They’re gritty and dark, with the options appearing as newspaper clippings (select one, and a creepy sound effect springs into action). Setting the mood well, these menus do the trick.

Bonus Material

This is where the disc disappoints, since the extra material is slim, and pretty far from substantial. According to interviews with the filmmakers, the disc contents were produced during the cinema release, which might explain their sparse nature (after all, Saw’s success was hardly set in stone.) Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lions Gate release a “Deluxe Edition” sometime in the future. Until then, this release is adequate.

Audio Commentary with James Wan and Leigh Whannell

A relaxed, self-deprecating commentary with the dynamic duo is provided, and was a total blast for me. Whannell apologises up-front for anyone who might be bored by the track, but he shouldn’t have worried. This is an entertaining discussion, that runs the gamut from informative to downright hilarious. The Australians have a light and infectious tone, that makes the commentary consistently enjoyable. Wan frequently comments on the rushed production schedule (so much so, that his colleague suggests viewers turn the track into a drinking game), and documents how they went about filming with little resources. The genesis of the project is also discussed, and they seem highly enthusiastic about the finished film (though they are quick to note flaws or plot holes.) With some great details about no-budget filmmaking, the commentary succeeds due to the pair’s irreverent humour (Whannell does a spot-on impersonation of Cary Elwes, and later, a BBC news reporter.) A great track, it more than makes up for the filler found elsewhere...

The super-quick behind-the-scenes featurette (dubbed "Sawed Off"), is a depressingly anaemic 2-minute piece, that offers quick talking head material and splashes of on-set footage. There’s also a collection of trailers and TV spots, and two versions of Fear Factory's grim "Bite the Hand That Bleeds You" music video (both unrated and rated.) A “making-of” the music video completes the collection.

The Bottom Line

Some will hate it, others will adore it. For me, the debut of James Wan and Leigh Whannell was simply electric - it’s been a long time since a movie has excited me in quite the same way. For horror-buffs, Saw is just the ticket, serving up a platter of harrowing violence and graphic torture; making it an entirely memorable experience. Lions Gate’s disc sports a great transfer, but disembowels the bonus material. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Saw is a modern cult classic...sweet dreams...

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