Saw (2004) Lionsgate/Horror RT: 103 minutes Unrated Version (strong graphic violence and gore, language, drug references) Director: James Wan Screenplay: Leigh Whannell Music: Charlie Clouser Cinematography: David A. Armstrong Release date: October 29, 2004 (US) Cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell, Monica Potter, Ken Leung, Shawnee Smith, Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell, Makenzie Vega, Dina Meyer, Benito Martinez. Box Office: $55.1 million (US)/$103 million (World)
Every great saga has a beginning and the same holds true for good ones like Saw. I’ll straight out admit that I like this horror franchise. Little did I know when I bought my ticket that Friday afternoon that I’d be witnessing the birth of another great horror movie boogeyman. To be fair, Jigsaw isn’t technically a killer. He “tests” him victims by placing them in elaborate devices designed to maim or kill and offers them to opportunity to go free based on their will to live. His intended purpose is to teach them the value of life and not to take it for granted. That’s his M.O. (modus operandi), but who is he? Given that Saw spawned six sequels, it wouldn’t be ruining anything to reveal his identity.
His name is John Kramer (Bell, Malice), a former civil engineer dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He has his reasons for doing what he does which are revealed in subsequent installments. For now, just know that this guy is one seriously sick f**k!
The movie opens with two men, Lawrence (Elwes, The Princess Bride) and Adam (writer Whannell), chained at their ankles to pipes in a filthy abandoned industrial bathroom. They don’t how they got there or why they’re there. Their only clues are a couple of cassette tapes containing instructions for each man. Adam is told that he must escape somehow or else be left there to die. Lawrence has until six o’clock to kill Adam or else his wife (Potter, Parenthood) and young daughter (Vega, The Good Wife) will die at the hands of a man holding them hostage. A clue on the tape leads Adam to discover a couple of hacksaws hidden in the toilet tank. They soon realize that they’re not meant to cut through the chains, but their feet. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
By way of flashbacks, we learn that the police once considered Lawrence a suspect in “The Jigsaw Killings”. Even though his alibi checked out, Detective Tapp (Glover, Lethal Weapon) is convinced that Lawrence, a successful oncologist, is their man.
I went to see Saw opening day first show in a theater half-filled with men who came by themselves like me. Perhaps I should have been unnerved by the possibility that I was in the company of potential psychopaths, but I wasn’t. Sure, a few of them looked shady, but it’s the closest thing to the grindhouse theater experience that I’m ever likely to get. I later joked to my friends that I never felt so at home in my life. I rushed out to see Saw for the exact same reason as every Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I came for the gore and killings. I love a good splatter flick and while Saw isn’t exactly that, it has other qualities that place it relatively high on my list of gruesome faves. It has its grisly moments like the scene where somebody gets their head blown off by a four-shotgun booby trap. And yes, one of the captives does saw off his foot. But more than that, Saw has a seedy quality to it in terms of setting and character. The victims chosen by Jigsaw aren’t exactly upstanding citizens. He selects his victims purposefully. There’s nothing random about this guy.
Made on a low budget ($1.2 million), Saw is a stylish and effective thriller with a dark and disturbing tone. Directed by James Wan (The Conjuring), it successfully brings grindhouse to the mainstream. That is to say, it played at multiplexes rather than going straight-to-DVD as originally planned. It’s very well-written with its intricate flashbacks-within-flashbacks structure that explains how each character came to be where they are. It also has a few neat tricks up its sleeve. Something happens at the end that I never saw coming, so kudos to Wan for getting one past me. The gore effects are very good; I was especially glad to see that the makers didn’t resort to CGI blood. Elwes and Whannell overact shamelessly while Glover brings a measure of respectability to Saw with his performance. Shawnee Smith (Becker) shows up briefly as Amanda, a drug addict that survived one of Jigsaw’s tests. I’ve always liked her and it’s great to see that she can do more than comedy. Some characterize the Saw movies as “torture porn” and while that’s true to some extent, it’s not fair to dismiss them altogether. This first movie gets under your skin and creeps you out much like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It’s a modern horror classic that has attained cult status in the ten years since its release. Hey, it deserves it!