Want a horror thriller that's a "cut" above the rest? Judge Bill Gibron says give this over-hyped gem from last year a try—especially in this new "unrated" version.
Our review of Saw, published February 21st, 2005, is also available.
How much blood would you shed to stay alive?
Two men awaken in a dirty, dilapidated bathroom. Each is chained to a pipe along the wall. In the middle of the floor is a dead body, head exploded along the tiles. One of the unlucky gentlemen is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride). 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. After locating a player, they learn their fate. They are trapped in this hellhole, and there are rules for release. Dr. Gordon must kill Adam. 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, 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.
Eight months ago, this critic got the call to screen Saw for review. Having been burned by excessive hype more than once before in his entertainment life (he was suckered into seeing The Blair Witch Project in the theater—and he was not happy about it afterward), he was wary of this supposedly superb shocker. Well, for once in its miserably misleading existence, the ballyhoo was "dead" on. Saw was a sensational, smart thriller with enough jolts and jumps to keep the audience on its toes. While it borrowed heavily from the Davids—Fincher and Lynch—and relied on a lot of stylistic stunts to get over a few first-time filmmaking flaws (this film was quite an impressive turn for novice director James Wan), Saw was still a brilliant exercise in suspense deconstruction. Along with his scriptwriting partner Leigh Whannell, Wan tried to reduce dread down to the simplest of components—plot, character, and situation. For the most part, he succeeded.
Now, almost a year since its initial splash in theaters, the prerequisite double-dip of Saw is out on DVD. Loaded with more extras than the initial, nearly bare-bones presentation, and referred to as the Uncut version, there is very little that is different about the film, but there is a lot that's better about the new digital package. First for the film. In this "uncut" version, Saw remains a strangely suggestive Grand Guignol-like thriller with a sensationally seedy undercurrent. This is a mean movie, one that dares to deliver a tone as vicious as the killer at its center. The acting is above average (though most of the movie is exposition driven), and some of the cinematic fads relied upon (such as undercranking, and 360-degree shots and pans) actually work very well here. Some may think the ending a bit of a cheat (this critic found it clever and, more importantly, rational within the narrative's design), and the causality a bit too coincidental, but this is still a film that soars over the heads of most hokey Hollywood horsecrap that passes as experiments in terror.
The extra footage all revolves around gore. It is not excessive, and really doesn't push the movie over into blood-soaked geek show territory. There is a close-up of the suicide victim's wound, extra shots of the "reverse beartrap" gal sifting through some internal organs (tasty!), and more material as part of the final act amputation. Perhaps the bigger news is the trims. Wan removed all the horribly silly slam-bang nu-metal songs that got sunk into the soundtrack for "marketing and merchandising" purposes. In its place are nicely nuanced bits by composer Charlie Clouser. Also, the film feels tighter, as if some of the many montages used to fill in story gaps have been snipped by a second or two. As a film, Saw mostly stays the same. This new version is really not enough to win over new fans to the film, while those who already like it will probably find the changes inconsequential at best.
The real selling point here is the new DVD presentation. Starting with a wonderfully sick packaging concept (the front cover art is encased in plastic, and fake blood and a saw blade float around in it like some kind of sinister snow globe), this two-disc set really tries to flesh out the Saw experience. On Disc One, we have two of the best bonuses. As they proved on the original version of the title, Wan and Whannell give great commentary—perhaps second only to Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the non-stop joke department. Instead of doing it together, like they did previously, they bring actor Cary Elwes into the act, and the result is another marvelous listen. Elwes holds his own with the anarchic Aussies (he does a mean Marlon Brando impression), and the tone is again light, effervescent, and self-effacing. If anything, Wan is even harder on his own efforts this time around, as he and Whannell lament all the Web sites on the 'Net that tear into their movie from both the plot and production standpoints.
Additionally, the producers of the movie get together to create a second alternative narrative track. Mark Burg, Oren Koules, and Gregg Hoffman sit down to discuss many of the details that went into getting this picture made. They are a wealth of information, as well as a cornucopia of advice for young filmmakers. They do repeat material mentioned by Wan and Whannell, but they take their participation in this film very seriously, and want to clear the air about creative choices, production snafus, and other interesting backstage gossip. Toward the end, they wander off into self-congratulatory mode, but they have built up enough goodwill beforehand to get away with it. With numerous plugs for Saw II, and a few nice words for their hard-working cast and crew, this is an above-average commentary track that doesn't reek of industry speak or insider arrogance.
Disc Two houses the rest of the goodies, and there is some excellent stuff here. The best is something called "Hacking Away at Saw," which offers a Behind-the-Scenes glimpse at how the movie was conceived, produced, and marketed. At nearly 35 minutes, we learn a lot about Wan, Whannell, and their amazing rags-to-riches story. Though Glover does not speak, the rest of the cast and crew are on hand to add insight and information. Since it is mentioned several times in the featurette, Lions Gate also offers up the nine-minute test reel for Saw. It is a nearly shot-for-shot version of the "reverse beartrap" scene, and shows how accomplished Wan was as a novice filmmaker.
In addition, there is an alternate storyboard sequence that reflects how far these filmmakers wanted to go. During the visit to Jigsaw's lair, the duo envisioned a pair of collapsing walls that would smash one policeman to death. They never got to film it (for obvious budgetary reasons), but the animated drawings that went into the prep for the sequence deliver a nice cartoon re-creation. Indeed, Wan's artistry is front and center on this disc, and a collection of his drawings, paintings, and designs (he built the Jigsaw "doll") is a wonderful gallery to peruse.
The rest of the added features appear to be setups for the soon-to-be-released sequel, Saw II. There is something on here called "Full Disclosure Report—Go Inside the Real Jigsaw Investigation," which plays like a weak version of John Walsh's America's Most Wanted. With some new filmed material (mostly interviews with unknown actors), we get backstory on the Jigsaw case and a recap of the first film. This appears to be a "ready for Sci-Fi Channel" promo piece to get newbies up to speed for the second installment of the series. We get a decent glimpse at Saw II, as well as trailers and some DVD-Rom content. Overall, the bonus features do a good job of expanding our knowledge of the movie and its makers, even if some of the stuff stinks of obvious shilling.
As to the rest of the tech specs, it was said before, but bears repeating. Visually, you would never guess that this movie was made on a shoestring budget, thanks in part to 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 / Alien 3 arena of color schemes, the picture here is nearly flawless—even better than the initial release.
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—music, 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.
If you didn't give it a shot the first time around, take some friendly advice and screen Saw. 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-friendly fare, it is still a fantastic, fatalistic chiller with enough unwelcoming elements to give you the heebie-jeebies for days.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director James Wan, Writer/Actor Leigh Whannell, and Actor Cary Elwes
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