Should I Watch..? 'Saw'
What's the big deal?
Saw is a psychological horror film released in 2004 and was the feature-length directing debut of co-writer James Wan, who developed the screenplay with Leigh Whannell. The film depicts two men trapped in a rundown bathroom somewhere with one man ordered to kill the other or risk his family being killed. It soon emerges that they are both victims of a horrific serial killer known as Jigsaw. The film stars Cary Elwes, Whannell, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer and Tobin Bell. The film, made on a shoestring budget and released to a mixed reception from critics, became the most profitable horror film since Scream in 1996 and it would go on to spawn a string of sequels. After the apparent end of the series in 2010, the franchise would restart again in 2017 with the release of Jigsaw and producers are currently discussing the possibility of a ninth film sometime in the future.
What's it about?
Photographer Adam wakes up in a rancid, rundown bathroom chained at the ankle to a pipe. Across the room, Dr Lawrence Gordon also wakes up similarly chained to a pipe. Unsure how either man got there, they discuss their predicament over a corpse in the middle of the room. After discovering that the corpse has a revolver and a tape recorder, both men find that they have a tape in their pockets. Stretching to reach the tape recorder, Adam's tape urges him to try and escape but Dr Gordon's tape is much worse. It orders him to kill Adam or his wife and daughter will be killed in retaliation and he himself will be left there to die.
Adam then finds a bag containing two hacksaws and immediately tries to saw through his chain, failing after the blade snaps. Gordon realises that the saws are meant for their feet and not the chains and begins to suspect that this is the work of a serial killer called Jigsaw. Gordon himself was interviewed by the police as a possible suspect, who delights in punishing his victims with elaborate and deadly games.
Dr Lawrence Gordon
Det. David Tapp
Det. Steven Sing
Det. Allison Kerry
Release Date (UK)
1st October, 2004
Horror, Mystery, Thriller
What's to like?
Comparisons to Seven get thrown about like confetti at times but with Saw, these comparisons are justified. The film is dark, gritty and undeniably brutal with truly horrible murders committed in bloody detail. In every respect, this is a very extreme movie in terms of shocks and narrative. Stretching the premise beyond breaking point, the film is loaded with flashbacks and seemingly unlikely probabilities although these might be explained in any of the sequels. Not that I'm in a rush to check, mind - it's difficult to imagine how the sequels top this and judging by their reviews, they don't.
As the heart of the film, Elwes and Whannell manage to deliver chilling performances as the unfortunate guys trapped by a psychopath. But the film expands beyond the confines of the bathroom to incorporate an array of supporting characters led by Glover, playing yet another grizzled cop. Wan's direction is competent but clearly muzzled by budget restraints. However, I think this is a good thing - good horror needs to work the mind and imagination and not just act like a ghost-train, aiming for quick scares and a giggle afterwards. Saw slowly starts to mess with your mind before its unlikely but terrifying conclusion, making it feel different to countless serial-killer films that write cheques the film can't cash.
- Wan claimed that many of Jigsaw's traps and games were based on nightmares that he and Whannell experienced as children. He never intended to make a 'torture porn' film, claiming that it was the sequels that got much nastier.
- The budget was so tight that Wan declined a salary to direct, opting to take a percentage of the profits. Pre-production took just five days, shooting took just eighteen and there were no rehearsals.
- The film contains a number of references to Italian horror director Dario Argento. The killer's black gloves appear in almost every one of Argento's film while the creepy puppet (built from scratch by Wan) is a reference to Argento's 1975 horror film Deep Red.
What's not to like?
One way of looking at Saw is that it's a brutal but intelligent film that does a great job of hiding its twists and turns. Another way of looking at the film is that it's riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes - so many, in fact, that it takes another seven or eight films to rectify. On a purely cinematic level, the film works with its twisted violence and gruesome death scenes. But narratively, the film is all over the place. I especially disliked the fact that seemingly every character is linked to the villainous Jigsaw in some way. And don't get me started on that stupid puppet!
What occurred to me whilst watching the film was that Wan and Whannell are a couple of sick individuals, producing a list of impossibly violent death sequences and then writing the screenplay around this. It would certainly explain why the screenplay makes little sense on first viewing. I'm no veteran of horror films but I imagine that even seasoned gore hounds will appreciate Saw. But for me, it just put me off seeing characters delve into a vat of intestines or crawl through a maze of razor-wire. Did it keep me up at night? Not really. Did it loosen my bowels or churn my stomach? Not really. I simply didn't care enough.
Should I watch it?
Although it's superior to any of its sequels and spin-offs, Saw deserves some recognition for its well-produced chills and game-changing use of violence. The term 'torture porn' didn't really appear until this film came out and while it might be somewhat misleading, the film's unflinching look at such activities pushed the boundaries of what cinematic horror could be. Its power may have been weakened over the years but it's still worth a look.
Great For: horror fans, gore hounds, studio's bank accounts
Not So Great For: squeamish viewers, anyone under the age of 18, escaping typecasting, anyone with a fear of puppets
What else should I watch?
Having been thoroughly put off watching any of the sequels, Saw remains one of the bloodiest and gruesome films I've ever experienced. I will admit that there are any number of films that are much worse in terms of content - splatter film classics like Cannibal Holocaust and Peter Jackson's debut Bad Taste offers plenty of bloody scenes for viewers to... umm, enjoy? But since the success of this film, torture porn has become much more frequent and just as profitable - consider the likes of Hostel, Wolf Creek and the horrific Japanese crime thriller Ichi The Killer. And make sure you have a wash afterwards.
Personally, I prefer psychological horror to more blood-soaked efforts which rely on cheap thrills and well-worn stereotypes. And in my humble opinion, the best psychological horror films come from the Far East. The benchmark has always been Ring, a film so successful that it inspired sequels and prequels and a poor US remake. But I'd also recommend Audition, a sucker-punch of a film that hooks you in before knocking you for six. It's also the reason why I'd never consider acupuncture...
© 2018 Benjamin Cox