Lionsgate // 2004 // 316 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // October 23rd, 2007
Most people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you, not anymore...
"I want to play a game."
When Saw was released to unsuspecting fear fans in 2004, it came on like a sucker punch to those in attendance. A surprise hit at Sundance, the film had developed a "buzz" that gave it the coveted must-see public approval before its regular release. When it was released, it effectively snuck up on jaded horror-mongers, they who likely couldn't recall when they had last been challenged by an intelligent-albeit-unflinchingly-intense excursion into human corruption. It was a shocker, no doubt, but it gained its highest marks for its implied horrors, magnificently wielding its ability to convince its audience it just saw a gruesomeness that was never actually depicted on screen -- they only thought they saw the destruction and dismemberment suggested by that hacksaw laying on the floor. It was a return to competent genre storytelling that reminded audiences everywhere how tiresome the usual ensemble-gets-slashed formula had become.
The film could have easily stood on its own -- a one-off production -- that would sustain a level of reference by the fan base that quickly formed around it. Of course, the frothing fans demanded more and so the Saw franchise was launched. Although the initial film was rather self-contained, there was room for extension and the subsequent two sequels (with a third due within two weeks of this writing) sought to perpetuate the unsettled and unimaginable horror of the twisted game master and the subjects of his tests. While each of the films is afflicted with various weaknesses and missed opportunities (more on that later), they all embody the compelling philosophy of the Jigsaw killer, who stretches his subjects to the limits of their moral convictions in order to confront them with their own fatal frailties and self-inflicted downfalls. Over the course of each film, audiences are similarly forced to witness the self-destruction, in agonizingly graphic detail, that comes from what we'd all like to brush away as excusable indiscretions. In Jigsaw's game plan, there are no excuses -- only truth and consequence.
In Saw, first-timers James Wan and Leigh Whannell dare to drop us into a the depths of decrepit despair when we witness the plight of Adam (Leigh Whannell, The Matrix Reloaded) and Lawrence (Cary Elwes, Twister). Each shackled by the ankle and staring at the dead body on the floor between them, the two strangers learn they are pawns in a serial killer's most unusual game. Via mini-cassette recordings and various cryptic clues, the two are forced to grapple with their life's choices, including the ultimate choice of whether the putrid setting they find themselves in will serve as their final resting place. But when they discover how the two of them are interconnected in their individual deeds, the presiding yet apparently ethereal game master, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, Buried Alive), ups the ante by giving them both the incentive to dispatch one another in a bitter fight for survival and redemption.
Saw II begins its game several months later when another grisly death attracts the attention of Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, Dead Silence), mainly because Jigsaw is still on the loose and has called for Matthews directly. Finding and confronting Jigsaw/John directly, Matthews learns that eight strangers have awakened in a condemned house, so it would seem, with no memory of how they got there or why they were plucked from their daily lives to participate in a deadly race against time. By Jigsaw's devious design, the house is slowly filling with a lethal nerve gas that will kill the unwilling occupants in two hours' time, including Daniel (Erik Knudsen, Jericho), Matthews' own estranged son. In the house, Daniel and the others must solve Jigsaw's lethal puzzles, including the overarching mystery of what links each of them and why the surviving Amanda (Shawnee Smith, The Island) has been selected to undergo another of Jigsaw's unsavory games. As their life clocks tick and the body count commences, Matthews is challenged to obey a rule leveled against him -- to patiently talk with John in order to be safely reunited with his son.
Saw III commences precisely from the close of its predecessor in which we find the detained Matthews struggling to free himself and exact his revenge upon Amanda. Later, we meet up with surgeon Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh, Saw IV) who becomes an unwitting attendant to the failing John. Rigged with a deadly device of Amanda's design, Lynn must perform surgery to keep John alive lest his expiration brings about her own gruesome demise. Concurrently, Amanda apprises John of another subject of study, Jeff (Angus Macfadyen, .45), who is challenged with bestowing forgiveness upon a series of individuals who have ties to the death of his young son. If Jeff is not willing to make personal sacrifices of his own as a proof of his forgiveness, each of the ensnared individuals will suffer the horrific consequences.
Easily, the first film still stands as the best in the franchise just by nature of its claustrophobic setting and its ability to practically make us smell the stench of the decaying bathroom. The production, admittedly a low-budget endeavor by Director James Wan and Screenwriter/Actor Whannell, again proves how inventiveness-out-of-necessity will generally turn out a better product than that buoyed by a bloated budget. Surely, the film has a replay value that justifies the purchase of subsequent releases and regular re-screenings, alone or in the company of friends. Whannell nearly bests the veteran Elwes but, in the overall view, both actors strike a chemistry that sells the film's dire situation from the outset.
When Saw II came around, something had been lost. Although Whannell returned to pen the screen treatment, the absence of Wan seemed to allow the second outing to slip into the laziness of most sequels -- add more characters and more gruesome settings and the film will be better than its predecessor; it wasn't. While the film is still quite engaging, the snotty attitudes of the eight characters trapped in the house gives a sinking feeling that a great franchise has immediately been hamstrung. The saving element here, however, was the time spent with John/Jigsaw, and the further elaboration of his philosophy about the appreciation for life. A good turn by Wahlberg also helped rescue this one from near-fatal tedium.
The third film, however, returned to form and presented the fans with the sort of puzzling predicaments they enjoyed in the first outing, pondering everything they saw and heard in order to unravel Jigsaw's riddles before the on-screen characters could. The gore factor was heightened as was the sense of urgency for the key characters to attain internal reconciliation before it was too late. If you were to skip from the first film to this third installment, you likely wouldn't feel you had missed much from excising Saw II. That said, the opportunity to view all three films in successive fashion makes for a riveting experience that further tempts a purchase of this trilogy. Tobin Bell's John/Jigsaw is a high point in the annals of horror, his half-mast gaze instantly unsettling in its cool calculation and commensurate condemnation. His is a performance -- in all three films -- not to be missed.
As celebrated as these films have been, they've also been met with a level of grumbling as they each have been offered to the DVD consumer in multiple releases. Early releases would provide a theatrical cut and a scant few bonus features but it was immediately understood that expanded and uncut editions would follow in the coming months. The Saw pictures were notorious, then, for unapologetic double- and triple-dipping. The answer to the problem was simple, however: wait for the full-fledged releases. Perhaps this was a game in itself leveled at DVD consumers who, while they were fully aware expanded editions were on the release horizon, still couldn't resist purchasing the initial offerings the moment their street date arrived. Who's to blame? In the world of Saw, arguably there is no blame since the overall essence of the pictures can justify multiple viewings and subsequent purchases. To that point, and in the wake of the theatrical unleashing of Saw IV, Lionsgate is presenting The Saw Trilogy, a commensurate six-disc collection that delivers each of the three films with its supplement bonus feature discs. What you'll find, then, are Saw: Uncut Edition, Saw II: Two-Disc Uncut Edition, and Saw III: Director's Cut. It makes for a hellishly engrossing triple bill and is likely just the sort of material to refresh or study up on before viewing Saw IV.
Yet, as enticing as this set seems to be, there's an element of disappointment here in that nothing was done to differentiate this collection from the three full-fledged single-film releases that had gone before it. In fact, this collection is really just a quick grab of those originally authored discs, pushed into a new multi-disc keep case with an enticing yet largely useless collector's box (the dimensional vacu-formed head of Billy the Puppet serves as an outer slipcase for the disc box; beyond this, it hasn't much purpose or value and, truth be told, clearly serves as a point-of-purchase attention-getter). Therefore, you won't find any new re-masters here (and the transfers on tap are excellent within the Standard Definition technology), nor will you find altered audio tracks (and the DTS tracks are still pulse pounding). As for extra features, you'll get the entire complement of commentaries, making-of documentaries, short films, trailers, and more -- a total of fifteen hours -- that had been released previously. As much as this is all rehash, it's still remarkably entertaining, nevertheless. If you failed to indulge in the special edition releases previously -- especially the excellent commentaries by the actors and filmmakers -- here's your reward for your patience and a perfect excuse to seize the moment and gather all three films in their best SD presentations yet.
It's a value-priced proposition that is best suited to the uninitiated or those with the aforementioned incomplete DVD library. For those who have already purchased these editions in the expanded single-film releases, the clever packaging alone isn't enough to warrant yet another purchase, but that's up to you.
Make your choice.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 316 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Audio Commentaries
* Original Short Film
* Set-top Games
* DVD-ROM Content
* IMDb for Saw
* IMDb for Saw II
* IMDb for Saw III
* Official Fan Club Site
* Review of SAW
* Review of SAW: UNCUT EDITION
* Review of SAW II
* Review of SAW II: TWO-DISC UNCUT EDITION
* Review of SAW III
* Review of SAW III: DIRECTOR'S CUT