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Hopes for SAW were high simply because it seems to promise something we have not been getting as of late. We have grown tired of the so-called psychological thrillers, which of late have not thrilled and have fallen far short of being smart enough to call "psychological." So many refute to push the envelope and so few actually do so. There is a lack of conviction in films. Television on the other hand has gotten increasingly violent, at least in what it's implying. Shows like CSI and COLD CASE detail acts that are so graphic and heinous, they would make for an automatic R-rating on just about any big screen film from a few years back. Film on the other hand has recycled the same plot over and over again with ever-decreasing effectiveness. I lost count of how many thrillers Morgan Freeman and Ashely Judd have starred in shortly after I stopped caring about a single one of them. The violence is always flashy but rarely creative and the plots are recycled from a dozen bargain basement potboilers.
In short, we wanted a film with balls and to that effect, SAW delivers. It is a melding of the sophisticated serial killer film with the gruesomeness of the more outlandish horror auteurs. Watching the film in a darkened theatre was a rare treat as the packed house screamed with every jolt. The reactions of the audience were mixed, with some loving the thrill ride and others being too appalled and let's face it, snobbish, to dare recommend it. People were overheard saying, "That was the sickest movie I've ever seen." In the lobby, people were seen breathing heavily staring uncomfortably at the ground. At least one group was seen embracing one another and crying because they were so terrified.
Of course, you must keep in mind that most of this audience was not used to seeing this sort of thing, and in fact had probably not had much of a primer before entering the theatre. For die-hard horror fans, it's all primer. We live this stuff, are more jaded and hence tend to look at it with a more critical eye. So while SAW is an effective indie shocker, it frustratingly falls into some of the same trappings associated with the Hollywood machine.
The film opens in a dirty and seemingly abandoned bathroom. Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) awake on opposite ends of the room. They are chained to old, rusty pipes that nonetheless show no signs of budging. In between them is a dead man. In one hand, he holds a micro cassette recorder, in the other the gun he used to blow his brains out. The scene unintentionally recalls images from the Iraq War, both at the hands of insurgents in the city of Fallujah and the American government's abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Each of them carries a tape in which the killer tells them the deal. Dr. Gordon has only a few hours to kill Adam. If he doesn't do it, he will die as will his wife and daughter. If either one of them is desperate enough to get free, they each are given a hacksaw. Both saws are too dull to cut through the metal chains, but perfectly suited for cutting through their feet if either of the captives is so inclined.
Dr. Gordon tells Adam he thinks he knows who is behind this. A few months earlier, he was suspected in a series of killings attributed to the Jigsaw Killer. The killer kidnaps his villains and locks them in an out of the way place. Each is told they have not fully appreciated the time they have been given. If they want to die, they do nothing. But if they want to survive, he makes them go through some horribly torturous ordeals. One man is told he must tunnel through several yards of razor wire in a short amount of time. Another woman has her jaw wired shut in what is described as "a reverse bear trap." If she does not retrieve the key in the time allotted, the device will force her jaws open and likely take her head with it. All of this is told in flashback (we don't suspect either of these two people were present at the events, but that's a minimal offense) and the title takes it's true meaning. Of course, the title SAW refers to the hacksaws they are given. But it is also short for "jigsaw" as in the killer's nickname. And a jigsaw puzzle is exactly what we have here as the fractured narrative is pieced together by the two captives as the clock continues to tick away.
One of the things that peaked people's interest was the pure viciousness of the film. Now, this represents a melding of two entities - the graphic horror films of times gone by and the modern-day psychological thriller. Films like this will likely never be as delightfully trashy in the same way they were in the 1980s. SEED OF CHUCKY comes awfully close to achieving this, but is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. No, SAW is dead serious and it wouldn't work if we weren't in the hands of someone who knows how to create suspense.
Director James Wan comes out of nowhere and shows himself to be a master craftsman. He does create the same feeling of dread and the grotesque. At times, the film plays like a visualization of some of the best splatterpunk short stories. Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum and (if he were alive) Richard Laymon would all find something to like here. This is no holds barred horror and anything can happen at anytime. Wan keeps us guessing so that we don't know which way is up most of the time.
The scenarios themselves are brilliant. They are some of the most complex, creative and frightening since SEVEN, a film that only gets brought up so often because it raised the bar for everyone. The flaw of many films that would brag about their violence is that the emphasis is too often on special effects. Take a polar opposite of SAW like the WISHMASTER series. I could never get into these because it was just an uninspired series of gore effects. As the films go on and on, you can't even put yourself in the victim's shoes because what is happening is too abstract, too flamboyant and just ridiculous. In SAW however, we are not only placed in the victim's shoes but in their minds as well. Our terror and disgust often rising with the victims'.
To top it all off, the film looks great. I have double and triple checked the figures and am very impressed that this film only took $1 million to make. This year, I've seen films that cost nearly a hundred times that amount without achieving the same visual flair.
So much of SAW is unlike what we've been weaned on that it comes as a slap in the face when it commits the same sins we've become fed up with. Oh yes, there is still plenty of cheese to be had here and it's everyone's fault. The most infuriating is when Wan stoops to quick cutting and MTV effects. Right in the middle of the creepiest scenes, the action will accelerate to show people flopping around at high speeds. Picture a snuff film edited to the strains of the BENNY HILL soundtrack and you'll have the right idea. Since I have seen this in a number of other recent films, I have to ask - When has this ever been successful in increasing the tension? Never to my recollection, but Wan does it anyway and more than once. He also indulges in strobe effects and suddenly increases the number of cuts to levels that could cause seizures. All of this occurs after we have had long and enjoyable periods where the film doesn't act like a Riddlin-addled ten year old. Looking at these sequences, I just wanted to scream, "Why?" SAW has an amazing premise and Wan proves himself perfectly capable of increasing the terror level without resorting to cheat parlor show gimmicks. But whenever the film is on the verge of being amazing, it becomes a Jerry Bruckheimer schlock-fest.
Wan and Whannell also show remarkable talent both in crafting the premise of SAW and delivering it's ever increasing fear factor. But they deliver and ending that just isn't satisfying. No, I won't spoil it here. Let's just say that the ending makes little sense and actually contradicts much of what has transpired before. It is just not the ending that needs tweaking however as reflecting on the film will reveal a good number of plot holes and logistical conundrums.
SAW assembles an impressive cast for such a small film. Monica Potter plays Gordon's long suffering wife. Potter almost became an A-list movie star a few years ago when she earned above the title billing in ALONG CAME A SPIDER. And who is that crazy cop that's always sweating profusely? Why, it's Danny Glover of COLOR PURPLE and LETHAL WEAPON fame. Shawnee Smith (THE STAND) and Dina Meyer (STARSHIP TROOPERS, JOHNNY MNEUMONIC) also make appearances.
But it's the lead that is the biggest name and the biggest problem. Cary Elwes has been acting on screen for twenty years. His performances have ranged from good (THE PRINCESS BRIDE, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, CRADLE WILL ROCK) to awful (ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, THE CRUSH). Sadly, he has never been so jaw-droppingly bad as he is in SAW. Elwes turns in what could be the worst performance in a major horror film since Laurie Metcalf stunk up SCREAM 2. One cannot deny the part offers him range, and he ranges from stiff and wooden to hammy and self-righteous without warning. It really is a Jeckyll and Hyde interpretation of the part, that is if Jeckyll and Hyde were first year drama students.
SAW has the makings of a great horror film. It isn't as generic as most thrillers, but falls on some bad habits anyway. Wan and Whannell are great when it comes to setup and suspense, but they need to dispense with the flashy Hollywood conceits. Nevertheless, expect both of them to become hot commodities now that SAW has become a success. Each of them will likely soon be attached to a big production. Then expect them to be under the screws of a horrified studio when they turn in their work. We all know the studios are more familiar with buzz than the films that cause the buzz in the first place, and they are notoriously unwilling to push the envelope. If they can dispense with the cliches, tighten the scripts and whip their cast into shape, James Wan and Leigh Whannell may be the people who push hard enough.