The ‘Saw’ Movies in Review: The First One
Since you all enjoyed how much I tortured myself with the Fast and Furious movies I figured I’d try again with some more literal torture. I was always interested in the Saw franchise, just not interested enough to watch them beyond the third one. It’s also been more than a decade since I last watched any of them and it’ll be interesting to see how such an influential series has aged.
So…let’s play a game…
Director: James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Shawnee Smith, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell
Plot: Two men, Dr. Lawrence and photographer Adam, wake up in a filthy bathroom with shackles around their ankles and a dead body between them. They find clues hidden within reach and start to unravel who did this to them and what grisly act they have to perform to escape.
Review: Saw will always stand as an example of how clueless Australian film producers can be. There’s not a lot of money to go around and the government are hung up on only funding art that ‘reflects Australian values and culture’. If it’s not a sombre drama or kooky comedy it’s not getting funded. Saw was a bold, original horror film so after shopping it around and getting nothing the creators, Wan and Whannell, went to Hollywood and their debut feature pulled in more than $100million off its meagre budget before spawning six sequels. Meanwhile, Australia made a movie about how funny gay men are. In 2004.
Whilst the franchise has become best known for it’s relentless ‘people fainting in the aisles’ gore the first film tied everything together with a surprisingly solid script. We know as much about the situation as Lawrence (Elwes) and Adam (Whannel) and learn about it through clues and flashbacks. It’s here we find out about the psychotic Jigsaw and his deadly ‘games’. Each of these vignettes are creative and shocking and contribute to the sense of fear and suspense that builds up to a solid twist. The film-makers have used dramatic irony and red herrings effectively to keep the audience enthralled by what is essentially two people locked in a room.
There is very little going on the room until the final act. It’s impossible for us to learn anything before the prisoners do, we can only try and guess what’s in store for them. What keeps it interesting is the mind-games Jigsaw (Bell) manipulates them into playing with each other, giving them different information and opportunities to poison each other. The conflict between the two of them drives the story better than anything else.
What seriously ages the film is the quick jump cuts, whip pans and incredibly brief montages focused on small details and the orange and green colour scheme. This style got adopted by dozens of horror and action directors looking to add some style to their low-budget films without actually thinking something up on their own. In 2004 it made Saw look like it had a higher budget than it actually did, compensating for the uneven performances and limited resources. After we’ve been beaten over the head with it time and time again it makes things look dated.
The imagery that does hold up is the less gimmicky classic horror ideas. When Lawrence and Adam flashback to being stalked by a mysterious figure in a pig mask remains effective, mostly because we still have no idea what’s going on at this point. Wan and Whannell effectively draw upon their influences with the flashbulb sequence referencing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As well as this works has a closed room mystery it’s easy to see why people flocked to the cinemas for the sequels. There’s endless potential for creative new traps and there is ultimately very little said about the enigmatic Jigsaw. How well did those sequels do? Let’s find out.
Rating: SEVEN out of TEN
Actually, let’s add one more feature for this marathon…
Most Horrifying Trap: Easily the ‘reverse bear trap’ contraption Shawnee Smith has strapped to her head. The whole sequence was shot in a day and is a masterclass in tension. There’s a good reason this one became the most talked about scene in the film.