Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Leigh Whannell and James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannel, Tobin Bell
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Most people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you. Not anymore."
In the past few years, horror fans have become increasingly familiar with the name Saw. Indeed, the end of October has become synonymous with the franchise since it burst onto the scene in 2004. However, like many other horror franchises, the film was produced with very little fanfare, and I doubt that screenwriters Leigh Whannell and James Wan ever thought it would spawn a franchise with annual entries. I personally became interested in it when I stumbled upon a thread for it at the now defunct Fridaythe13thFilms.com message board and discovered that it was starring none other than Danny Glover. Add in an interesting premise and some intriguing posters featuring severed limbs, and I was there opening day.
The plot of Saw is deceptively simple. A doctor, Lawrence Gordon, and a photographer, Adam Faulkner, awake to find themselves held captive in a washroom. Unbeknownst to the two men, they have been kidnapped by the enigma simply known as "The Jigsaw Killer," a local madman that captures people and places them in traps that they must escape to gain a greater appreciation for their lives. In between Adam and Lawrence is a bloodied corpse with a gun and a tape recorder, which contains a tape with the instructions for their "game:" Adam is told that he must escape the room, while Dr. Gordon must kill Adam before 6:00, or else Jigsaw will kill his wife and daughter, whom he has taken hostage. As the film continues to unfold, the mystery and purpose behind the game unravels and leads to the shocking discovery of the Jigsaw killer himself.
When I left the theater in 2004, I knew I had seen a good film, but I never thought it would grow into the horror phenomenon the series has become. However, I was very much impressed with the film, especially considering its low budget and quick shooting schedule. Indeed, the taut script, frenetic pacing, and the film's interesting trap set-pieces all melded together into an intense and unique horror experience. While the latter entries of the series have become quite convoluted, the original is an excellent little suspense thriller with very little excess baggage. This is a film that literally drops you off in the middle of things and leaves you on the edge of your seat as the mystery unravels. Along the way, there are many twists and turns, and the film's ultimate twist adds a further dimension and purpose to the film.
Indeed, while Saw has become somewhat synonymous with the "torture porn" sub-genre, there's a method to this film's madness. This is not to say that the film is a deep, philosophical musing on life, there is a moral element to the film that leaves a bit of an impression. Without divulging too much to the three horror fans that are unfamiliar with the series, Saw has one of the most interesting horror villains to ever grace the screen in The Jigsaw Killer, a man who would rather his victims survive his hideous games than perish from them. Later entries will flesh out the man behind the madness, but here he serves as the answer to a question that's far more important than you think it is. Because you're so invested in Adam and Lawrence's dilemma, you actually become less interested in who has subjected them to such torture.
That said, the gore that is here is also memorable, particularly one scene that has already become an infamous bit of horror lore. The aforementioned trap set-pieces are simple compared to the elaborate traps of the latter entries, but they're arguably more memorable. These sequences basically take the aesthetic of a slasher film and makes it even more and elaborate. While I've somewhat bragged about the film's moral dimension, I'd be lying if I said the trap sequences aren't a huge component of the Saw films. Just as 80s audiences couldn't wait to see how Freddy or Jason would dispatch their latest victims, modern audiences now look forward to the hideous traps Jigsaw devises for his villains. In many cases, Jigsaw's traps are intently personal and exploit the victim's flaws or weaknesses.
If there is one area this film has been lambasted about since its release, it's the acting, particularly that of Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannel. While I don't think their acting is nearly bad as some have made it out to be, there's no doubt that the former gets very hammy and over-the-top at times, while the latter shows his inexperience as an actor. At any rate, it's certainly not the worst acting I've ever seen in a horror film, that's for sure. Also, on the other end of the spectrum, I think Danny Glover gives a great performance as Detective Tapp, the officer in charge of the Jigsaw case. Despite being driven to the edge of sanity, Tapp remains tirelessly devoted to cracking the case, which makes him one of the more sympathetic characters in the entire series. Also, Ken Leung gives an excellent performance as Tapp's partner, Detective Sing.
As we rapidly approach the release of Saw V, it's interesting to go back and see how the entire thing began. While the franchise is now a well-known commodity, the original film still works very well as a stand-alone film. Despite its low budget and quick shooting schedule, the cast and crew truly managed to capture lightning in a bottle, but isn't that how it usually is with horror? While the sequels have been very fun films, none of them have matched the heights of the original, which is not only the best of the series so far, but one of the best mainstream horror films of this decade. It seems like Saw gets a bit of a bad rap from some of the purists out there, but I find it to be a thoughtfully constructed and excellently written film that was craftily brought to the screen by Wan's confident and stylish direction. I haven't enjoyed his follow up films (Dead Silence and Death Sentence) as much as his debut film, but there's no denying his skills as a visual stylist. I wouldn't call the film a masterpiece, and I'm not sure if it's going to go down as a classic (only time will determine that); however, it is a thrilling ride with a great story and nice thematic elements underpinning it.
The film has seen a few home video releases since its initial release. The original release featured the theatrical cut, while the later release featured an uncut version that actually ran a bit shorter due to an excised line of dialogue; also, there's a hardly any more gore that's even noticeable, so gorehounds shouldn't expect much more here. As far as presentation goes, both discs feature an excellent transfer that faithfully shows off the film's grimy, gritty look; the soundtrack is also very aggressive, particularly the DTS track. The uncut version features a host of special features, including a commentary featuring Wan, Whannel, and Elwes, the original Saw short film, an art gallery, and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes. There is also a Blu-ray version featuring the theatrical cut that has a decent high def transfer, but no lossless audio soundtrack; also, there are no extras at all, so high-def Saw-hounds might want to wait and see if Lion's Gate bothers to double-dip on this one. The bottom line is this, however: any horror fan should check out the beginning of what has become the face of horror for this decade. While it remains to be seen just how history will remember the series, the original film remains Jigsaw's most memorable game so far. Buy it!
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