Judge Bill Gibron came, Saw, and conquered.
Our review of Saw: Uncut Edition, published October 18th, 2005, is also available.
Every piece has a puzzle…
It's sad to say it, but the modern horror film has forgotten how to be mean. Back in the '70s, when the drive-in drove the terror tale, examples of baser brutality in scary movies were rampant. From the cannibals as close knit family craziness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the shopping-mall-as-zombie-oasis in Dawn of the Dead, writers and directors determined to spook the spectators knew, inherently, that malice made the macabre meatier. So they piled on the viciousness, turning the big screen into a torture chamber of savagery and sanguine sinew.
The trend continued throughout the '80s, as the slasher showed that audiences just loved mindless slaughter (as long as it was presented in increasingly inventive ways, mind you). But thanks to a self-referential bit of cynicism called Scream, which basically deconstructed and dribbled all over the old-school creature feature, harm was tossed aside for humor. Actually, the trend was well into place around the fourth sequel in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Freddy Krueger—that finger-razor-wearing child killer with a taste for the witticism—was, over the course of his canon, reduced to a stand-up comic with death issues. Suddenly, all fright flicks were supposed to have fear and funny factors. It's gotten to the point where most modern genre offerings are soaked in their own sense of satire, mocking as much as shocking the audience.
That is why we should thank that plucky man-goat for Saw. Striving to take the last 10 years of terror, filter out the dopey dumb-ass bits, and give us only the gruesomeness the genre used to do best, this fantastic first film from Australian director James Wan and his partner in the pitiless, actor-writer Leigh Whannell, is a redolent return to the traditional tainted vision of dread. It serves up a stellar script, an incredible sense of style, and more outright meanness than several dozen of its tame Tinsel Town brethren. While it may not always make sense, or play it perfectly straight from a plot perspective, this is still easily one of the best scary movies of the postmillennial era.
Facts of the Case
Two men awaken in a dirty, dilapidated bathroom. Each is chained to a pipe along the wall and has only a hazy, unclear memory of how he got there. In the middle of the floor is a dead body, head exploded along the tiles, blood pooling in a massive lake around it. Introductions are reluctantly made. One of the unlucky gentlemen is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride, The Crush). The other is Adam (Leigh Whannell). Confusion reigns. Adam discovers an envelope in his pocket. It contains a microcassette tape. Dr. Gordon finds one as well. They locate a player. The men learn their fate. They are trapped in this hellhole, and there are rules for release. Specifically, Dr. Gordon must kill Adam within the next eight hours. If he doesn't, something horrible will happen to his family. The kidnapper has even left clues somewhere among the filth and foulness that will provide a means of escape.
An initial search turns up something strange—a pair of hacksaws. Useless against the metal bonds that hold them, the option seems obvious: cut through your own limbs, and perhaps limp to freedom. But there is more to this sinister charade than meets the eye and Dr. Gordon knows it. All of these perverted puzzles are the calling card of the Jigsaw, a spree killer who creates convoluted scenarios and then inserts hapless victims directly into his demented dioramas. Survival appears possible, but not very likely. Jigsaw knows every angle. His motives are clear. All he wants to know is: How far will you go to win back your life? What will you do? What are the limits of your desire? Dr. Gordon and Adam are about to find out.
In the meantime, a dismissed police detective (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon, The Color Purple), obsessed with the crimes, is tracking Jigsaw. He hopes to stop the psychopath before it's too late. But it seems as though with this particular criminal, everyone is always one step behind.
In a word, Saw is sensational, a highly inventive exercise in terror that works as both a puzzle box and a fascinating fright flick. Don't let the fanboy forum negativity dissuade you. This is not Se7en after all, nor was it ever meant to be. Sure, it trades on director David Fincher's dark vision melded with a Marilyn Manson music video mentality. But Saw has more in common with classics like Theater of Blood and The Abominable Dr. Phibes than it does with the modern serial killer conceit. This is The Usual Suspects for scare-mongering sadists, a mighty macabre mindf*ck posing as a polished indie entity. Though there are probably websites right now dedicating their existence to proving and/or plugging all the obvious plot holes in the malevolent narrative strands, and director James Wan never met a stylistic trick he couldn't appropriate and endlessly emulate, this is not just some portfolio-minded folly. There is some rip-roaring terror to be found here, as well as a healthy dose of heady imagination.
Anyone coming to Saw looking for carefully drawn characters or three-dimensional individuals should perhaps grab a couple of Romero flicks and relish the mastery of a true horror god. Saw is not interested in getting us to care about some tormented teenagers or home-alone babysitter. This is a movie solely obsessed with its story elements, the arcane and grossly inspired death devices and setups used by our hooded figure to send the majority of the cast into corpse-land. All logistical logic, both psycho and social, is tossed into the lunatic landfill comprised of this movie's mannerisms, to simply keep us focused on the bubbly brainteasers crashing across the screen.
True, Wan and actor/writer Leigh Whannell give us the most basic of persona sketches, easily recognizable types (adulterous doctor, wise-ass slacker, obsessed cop, etc.), and, in truth, the outlines-only approach is good enough. Since the film is really focused on how it will manipulate the narrative nuances, tossing tangential strands in the air to see which ones stick, all we have to do is hope that they manage to bring the pieces back together in the end. Saw manages this amazing task, and in an incredibly visual manner to boot.
Hopefully, all those championing that piece of J-Lo junk called The Cell are giving Wan the praise and props that they lavished over the visual pretender responsible for that irritating bit of ersatz eye candy, Tarsem Singh (still waiting on a follow-up, there, T-man). Wan knows his horror history, realizing that originality is nothing more than a crazy combination of insight and inspiration. Backtracking through the decades and hitting on all the homage high notes—Fincher, Raimi, Jackson, Romero, Craven—this crafty little Aussie has managed to make dread dreadful again, unlike that other silly CGI surreality of repressed sexual symbolism that was all the rage five years ago.
Admittedly, the two biggest influences on Wan and his cinematic work ethic are David Lynch and Dario Argento (Wan has cited these two directors as having a major impact on Saw). In many ways, Saw takes its tenets from Deep Red (murder mystery) and Lost Highway (perhaps the ultimate experience in dreamlike disconnect). From the obvious references (the doll as death-bringer, the use of loud, fast heavy metal music) to the far more subtle and suggestive ideas (gloved black hands, the meshing of the beautiful with the grotesque), Wan knows whom he's name-checking. He also taps into his own music video inspired sense of style for the film. Occasionally looking like a nightmare Trent Reznor might have had while working on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers, Saw is old-school horror ideals fused to a new modern-day optical conception. And the results are rip-snorting.
There are some who will argue that Saw fails because it doesn't play fair with the audience, using the overtired element of omnipresence to make the villain in the film (he's really not a murderer, since he gets others to do his dirty work—call him a serial torturer or manipulator, maybe) seem virtually invincible. Like a Jason Voorhees of advanced intellectualism, Jigsaw is incredibly perceptive and seemingly able to anticipate every move made by those he drops into his distorted conundrums. Every step has been preplanned, every action predicted and prepared for. This can grow grating, but somehow, Wan and Whannell find a way of avoiding exasperation. Perhaps it's because the situations are so sublime in their cruelty, so gratifying in their gratuity, that we forget about all the Mensa might it would take to concoct and correctly carry them out.
Allowing us to participate, indirectly, in the craven joys of human brutality is one of Saw's main selling points. It recalls a time when filmmakers confused viciousness with dread and amplified both with gory greatness. In some ways, Saw is the geared-up genre hallucination of Poltergeist, a perfect reflection of the last few decades of post-'80s horror. It throws in everything that other wicked workouts like The Silence of the Lambs, TV's Millennium, and the works of Floria Sigismondi used to sell their wicked wares. It merges the biological and the mechanical to craft something sickening, and very disturbing.
Sure, the film relies on the tried and the true. Nothing is more anxiety-producing than a ticking time bomb, especially when the timer is tied to a device that will literally rip your mouth wide open and split your skull in two. Part of the prescience of Saw is the taking of such traditional terror tricks and reconfiguring them with cleverness and creepiness. Two guys locked up in a room may not seem sinister, but then the hacksaws and taped messages appear. Soon, clues are revealing themselves and realities are becoming apparent. With each new element, the horror is heightening, the originality reconfigured. When something can startle a "seen it all" mentality, when a sequence as tired as a frightened child seeing a mysterious man in her room can crackle with electrifying eeriness, you know you are in the hands of true terror titans. Saw is a movie that retrofits formulas to work in a new, more aggressive age. It understands the impact of props, realizes that not everything has to be spelled out completely, and lets the imagination of the audience work as hard as the cameramen at capturing Jigsaw's jaundiced activities.
Wan does use every directorial device he can think of, from the simplest (dissolves and fadeouts) to the most overdone (360º fast-motion circling of characters, overcranking) to manufacture a hodgepodge of sensational set pieces that pay off magnificently. It is almost impossible not to be disturbed, nauseated, manipulated, and/or delighted by what the director has to offer. This is a smart-looking, well-crafted film, a powerhouse of pictures with all the impact and power of a pile driver to the brain. Certainly, some can fault Wan and Whannell for falling in love with their multi-faceted narrative, trying to one-up Lynch or overamplify Tarantino in their flashback and forward framework. The only reason it comes close to being successful is the crackerjack, trip-hammer plotting—the reasonably sound sequencing of all the events until they come together in a truly stellar finale.
Everything in Saw refers back onto itself, giving meaning to what we've seen, and portents of what may happen next. Seeing past victims and how they handled Jigsaw's devices prepares us to expect the worst for Dr. Gordon and Adam. Knowing that Danny Glover's Detective Tapp has an uncanny knack for picking up on clues that others obviously overlook, makes his continued chasing of the killer seem reasonable (if not just a little insane). From the way the family plays into the puzzle, to the random red herrings tossed at the screen, Saw is a whodunit in which the denouement is not important. We basically have to guess who is responsible (not that his or her real identity is all that telling in the end), since, frankly, all we care about is if those high-powered drill bits will penetrate the victim's head, or if the man drenched in flammable fluid will avoid being immolated as he tries to escape. Confusion, either in motivation or storytelling, is part and parcel of the horror film. If we know everything up front, the foreboding becomes forced. Saw continuously surprises us because that is what it was meant to do. It is never obvious or obscure.
On the performance front, this is really not an actor's film. Everyone gets his or her moments (Cary Elwes's heartfelt phone call to the family, Glover's discovery of Jigsaw's lair) while others seem shuttled off into the background, playing scenery for others to emote against (this is especially true of Dina Meyer, who has a nothing role as a cop). All an individual has to be in a horror film is believable and he or she wins the thespian prize. Thankfully, everyone is quite credible and authentic, even when committing the most awful of acts. Also seen in small doses is that most missing of facets from the modern macabre—blood. Oh sure, there are lots of clots in this movie, but it would be hard to call it gore galore. Wan uses a more subtle approach to the arterial spray than most manic moviemakers, and while this may have been a MPAA-mandated issue, one wonders if there's not a far more funky director's cut just waiting out there in the dastardly double-dip wings (more on this later). Indeed, the lack of life juices leaves several of the sensational slaughter spectacles a little limp. While one can never really get enough of seeing a junkie rifling through some poor schlub's intestines, blood lovers may actually find themselves giving a Clara Peller-like bleat of "Where's the Splatter?"
Still, for all its minor misgivings, for its desire to drown us in waves of iniquity and singe our retinas with images both redolent and repellent, Saw is a salve for the recent rash of gutless, PG-13 creature features. It has the balls to play with the big boys and stays right in there with them, even as the stakes get raised higher and higher. Don't be confused by the referencing to other auteurs—there is nothing here to match the masterworks crafted by artists like Lynch and Argento, those geniuses who inspired this twisted terror take. But what Saw has over and above the recent trends in terror is the desire to delve into the diseased and the disgusting, to open up the once-vital vista of killers as insane savants, and puzzle-box the plausibility out of us. Yes, there is a certain amount of disbelief suspension that has to be maintained in order to connect with this film. Naturally, if you have a preference for slow, ethereal creepouts where everything is hidden or happening off-screen, Saw will not match up to your moodiness. But if you are looking for something striking, for a movie that is as ingenious as it is intense, Saw is your kind of devilish delight. It is a very good, very original horror film.
Visually, you would never guess that this movie was made on a shoestring budget, thanks in part to Wan's way with a lens, but also because of Lions Gate's amazing DVD transfer. Saw looks sensational in the vivid, vibrant 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. While creatively stuck in the Se7en / Alien3 arena of color schemes, the picture here is nearly flawless. We do witness some minor pixelation in the straight night/dark sequences, and the grain of compression makes a little gray speck appearance in a couple of unimportant places. But these are mere quibbles with what is, overall, a very evocative and visually striking recreation of the cinema experience. The sound is even better, as the Gate gives us a marvelously immersive 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Surround EX experience with this digital presentation. The speakers become specters, giving off their unearthly sounds in a carefully crafted cacophony that really helps set and keep the mood. Mixing multiple elements—rock and roll, noises, spatial effects, and random sonic subterfuge—this is an amazing aural achievement, the kind of decibel-based backing that really supports and strengthens Saw's cinematic goals. From a purely technical standpoint, this is an exceptional DVD production.
On the added content front, Lions Gate comes up a little short. Perhaps one should take that back. They come up with excuses for extras. Everything offered here as a so-called bonus is bullcrap, with the exception of the full-length audio commentary by director Wan and writer-actor Whannell. The video (by the thrash metal murkiness of a band called Fear Factory) is vacuous and rather routine, either in a rated or unrated option. The "making of" said song is equally uneventful—just a bunch of rockers sitting around acting interested in making a mini-movie. The "Sawed Off" mini-featurette lasts a grand total of—get this—two minutes and 29 seconds. Wow! You can really learn a lot from such an in-depth discussion. Some of the trailers and TV spots are rather spoiler-heavy, so it is perhaps best to view them after watching the film. And the gallery is a nice, if unnecessary, collection of promotional material.
The alternative narrative track, on the other hand, is hilarious. Wan and Whannell are like a comedy duo, taking each other down several notches while filling in the details on the amazing production schedule for the movie—shot over 18 days (the first six taken up with a chronological filming of the bathroom sequences) and utilizing as many found and available elements as possible. The pair picks apart the casting process, the lack of alternate takes, and the resilience of some of the actors. Whether they are explaining their influences or giggling over the more gratuitous bits, these guys are obviously fans and darn proud of it. They consider Saw to be more of a dark thriller than a horror workout, but they do give deference to several of the scare genre's bigger names along the way. If you are interested in a scholarly dissection of Saw's plot and peculiarities, this is not the discussion for you. But if you want to hear a couple of pals gloating over the fact that they made a pretty magnificent movie and are fairly flummoxed by the whole experience, then you'll thoroughly enjoy this Saw bonus feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One smells a possible double-dip here, and a far more fleshed-out Saw may actually be in the works. Naturally, the first facet offered would be unrated director's cut, an unedited version with all the blood and bowels intact. Next, a more substantial "Making-Of" would be in order, since the two-minute micro-missive offered here is about as insightful as a conversation with a middle schooler. Finally, it would be nice to know a little about Wan and Whannell's past. In their commentary, they come across as rabid fans who just sort of lucked into moviemaking. A clearer career explanation would be in order, especially given how professional Saw appears to be. If you are indeed giving this movie a return trip to the merchandising rack, Lions Gate, address some of these discrepancies and we spook show aficionados will be more than satisfied.
Though it is probably a given for anyone going into this—or any movie—for the first time, here is a little friendly advice: ignore all the hype surrounding Saw and simply see the film for yourself. Don't listen to the unhappy campers who didn't get their shocks spelled out for them in easy-to-digest, micromanaged fright bites. Ignore all the people who prattle on about how incongruous and ill-conceived it all is. Avoid the critics who point to the performances or scripted shortcomings and somehow translate those minor misgivings into an outright dismissal. While this Saw may not be family, it is still a fantastic, fatalistic chiller with enough unwelcoming elements to give you the heebie-jeebies for days. It is highly clever, stylistically complex, and just a little bit cheeky. Best of all, it's mean and nasty, just like horror films used to be. Hopefully, its success will spawn a renaissance in the repugnant. Terror should never be rib-tickling. It should be grotesque and gut-munching. Saw does a splendid job of reintroducing such grim and gloomy greatness. Let's hope the rest of the morbid-minded get the message.
All charges against Saw are hereby dismissed. Lions Gate is held over for trial on the grounds that, aside from the audio commentary and the tech specs offered, this DVD is more Artisan than Criterion in caliber. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-Length Audio Commentary by Director James Wan and Screenwriter-Actor Leigh Whannell
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