Saw (2004)

Sex :
Violence :
Director James Wan
Writers Leigh Whannell
Starring Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung
Genre Psycho
Tagline How do you solve a puzzle with pieces missing?

Melbournian lads James Wan and Leigh Whannell devised a story that basically involved two people finding themselves chained in a room with a dead body between them. The overriding requirement had been to keep costs down for a future movie, hence a pretty much two punch deal. Perhaps realising Film Australia were not about to finance a hard core horror flick, which the resulting movie really isn't, Wan and Whannell decided to take the script and try their luck in Hollywood. Lions Gate saw the potential for the Down Under concept and the rest as they say is history. The Saw franchise has become the most lucrative for the dark genre thus far this century, but the general standard of each sequel has been headed down a worse looking toilet than the one Leigh Whannell has to investigate in the original movie. Lets break down Saw and see if the game is worth playing.

Talk us through it

You wake up in a dilapidated bathroom and realise you are chained to a pipe that looks like it's going to make you are permanent fixture. You soon learn you are not alone, across the room from you is someone you don't know who is also chained up with nowhere to go. Between the two of you is a dead body holding a gun and a cassette player, as the room needs that extra Halloween torture chamber touch. You have no idea where you are or why you are in your current predicament. Welcome to the world of Saw, the new century's first attempt at creating a franchise with a killer to rival the dark overlords of cinematic horror.

A Doctor and a Photographer find themselves in the above situation, victims of a serial killer with a twist nicknamed Jigsaw. They learn they must play a game, and no it isn't chess, devised by Jigsaw and involving the sort of forfeit that will require a mop and bucket to clean up if they lose. Can our latest members of the chain gang work out how to get out of dodge or will Jigsaw have the final say on their lives.

Ready to play something slightly more adult than pin the tail on the donkey?


"Most people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you, not any more…" - John

Structurally Saw should be working a hell of a lot better than it does. We have Leigh Whannell's character waking up in a bathtub, underwater, almost drowning. He manages to escape the bath of doom only to discover he is chained up in the dark. When the lights go up, after a particular sombre voice speaks to him out of the dark, he discovers he is in a disused industrial looking bathroom chained to a rusted pipe. Worse still someone he apparently doesn't know is chained to another pipe across the room from him, and between them is a dead body in a pool of blood. Director Wan makes sure the audience are aware that in the hands of the dead body are a cassette player and a gun, ergo they are going to be of major importance plot wise before the end credits roll. Excellent introduction to the movie, why are these two chained up, who is lying dead between them, and how are they going to get out of their predicament. Via flashbacks we gradually piece together the story, and the fact that Adam knew Doctor Gordon prior to their current situation. Wan takes time to introduce Jigsaw, a particularly twisted serial killer who has his own apparent agenda. We also learn a number of people didn't win Jigsaw's games with Amanda being the only one who managed to get away. So it is possible for our duo to escape their current situation but it might involve actions that they will only take under the most intense pressure. Unfortunately once outside the bathroom of despair Wan loses all pacing in Saw and we are left with a disjointed run to the blood soaked conclusion and a surprise twist that I didn't see coming. The flashbacks we get to flesh out the framework is repeated a total of three times for slower members of the audience and to the irritation of the rest of us. Wan I think we got it the first time, I really don't need to be preached to during a horror flick mate.

Strangely Wan and Whannell seem to have been trying to get their audience to guess at the identity of Jigsaw via throwing up a number of candidates. Is it the hospital orderly, perhaps one of the detectives, or could it be one of the two men chained in the bathroom of desolation. I say strangely because at no time did I really start to wonder "who is Jigsaw", it wasn't even on my list of priorities as Saw dragged on and on. We do get to sort of meet the maniac from time to time, and gosh he has more lives than Jason Voorhees could ever hope for. It's been my experience that when something is hit from relatively close range with a shot gun blast they don't tend to get back up. When we do discover who Jigsaw is, once again a less than pressing concern to the audience, I was simply thinking "you have to be fracking kidding me, there's no way that guy could have had the strength to design and build the elaborate game sets". The Director and Writer pull a rabbit out of a completely undersized hat and the audience sees the spare playing cards up their sleeves. Am I getting worse at these illusions, and gosh stop me punning stat!

What Director Wan does get right, and that's a relative "right", is the basic concept of Jigsaw's games and the lengths people will go to in order to "win" them. Would you attempt to navigate a cage fill of razor wire in order to gain your freedom in the face of certain death? If covered in a flammable liquid would you use a naked flame in order to find a safe combination? Would you saw off your own foot in order to escape a prolonged death in a nasty looking bathroom? Amanda certainly showed the lengths she would go to in order to "win" her own individual game. So the basics are there for a squirm inducing ninety odd minutes of mayhem, just how far are these characters prepared to go? We have already been introduced to some of the victims of Jigsaw's previous games so know there isn't likely to be a last minute reprieve, though in a less than developed subplot this actually might have happened if a different Writer/Director team had of been involved. All that is left is the chain, the saw, and the clock is ticking. Unfortunately with the goal line open Director Wan drops the ball, his two main characters simply aren't sympathetic enough to have the audience invest any emotional charge in them, we simply don't really care what the outcome of the current game is.

The basic premise is an engaging one, assuming for the moment the potential audience don't mind grotty bathrooms, but Wan is unable to insert the all important sympathy vote for his characters.

While not even attempting to paint Saw in anyway as a decent must watch movie, it still stands head and shoulders above the normal teen orientated garbage that passes for horror out Hollywood way. Wan does not rely on jump scenes, rips from previous movies, or his characters making the sort of decisions that will leave his audience believing the characters deserve all that happens to them. The Director is able to conjure up fairly ordinary people who are going to live or die by their own decisions in an impossible situation. The movie needed another half an hour or so to have the audience investing in the characters, and to be honest the jury is still out over whether or not Director Wan has the ability to get that happening.

Overall Saw is dirty, nasty, and promises to become gorenography at any moment. It's fairly well situated in the hardcore end of the horror spectrum of various shades of red. Director Wan creeps up to the demarcation line between a horror movie and the simple pandering to the lowest common denominator that gorenography represents without crossing that line. The Director seems to inherently know you risk not only alienating your potential audience but becoming a fringe player by crossing that line. Other Directors, Eli Roth for example, aren't so aware and have gone from "the future of horror" to "what was that guy's name again" pretty quickly.

In terms of style Wan is going at it like a bull in a china shop, with similar results in places. Thankfully he missed the Wedgewood display. We get blue and green lense filters getting a good run, the blue worked (bathroom scenes), the green was simply an indulgence that made me wonder what the hell the Director was up to. Wan also throws out some slow mo and thundered away with sped-up scenes to cover the gore scenes, once again showing commendable restraint. I would be lying if I didn't state that Wan has a handle on crane-cam, used sparingly but effectively, and is all over his close up and medium length shots. Not entirely sure if a stint as second unit Director to a major Hollywood player wouldn't be a good move at this stage of Wan's career.

Leigh Whannell's script is pretty muddled in places, Whannell is trying to cram too much into it in order to justify the blood socked resolution. The final scene itself makes zero sense if you think about it. At stages I couldn't help thinking, why were these victims chosen over the 101 other worthy candidates for the games? Whannell does not spend enough time developing that for my satisfaction. Equally a couple of sub plots simply distracted me from the psychological shenanigans going down in the bathroom. A good Editor would have sent Whannell back to the word processor with about half his script intact.

Leigh Whannell (Adam) manages to nail his role, and was a stand out in amongst some seriously flawed acting going down around him. Whannell could develop into a decent enough thespian, I would suggest he leave the script writing to others. Cary Elwes (Dr Gordon) simply hams it up and appears to have a rather large lead pipe stuck up his arse. That performance was cringe worthy and was so wooden that viewers could be forgiven for wondering if Director Wan didn't owe Elwes a major favour in casting him. Danny Glover (Tapp) goes wildly over the top, it's no wonder his roles have dried up if this is the sort of performance he considers worthy. In defence of the cast, Director Wan may have found himself out of his comfort zone when it come to giving orders to at least a "B" list cast.

T&A is a non starter for ten, Wan is at least trying for serious horror here rather than exploitation.

Charlie Clouser handed in a score that got lost somewhere in amongst the industrial rock blaring out of my speakers in a wall of sound that left me dazed and confused. That wasn't so much a score as an assault on one' senses. What a complete load of bollocks.

Summary Execution

It's taken me sometime to get around to Saw, and I guess for completion's sake the first two sequels. Since the movie was hyped to the heavens by the online "lowest common denominator" rent a crowd I didn't have much hope that I would sit through something worth while. The movie worked for me in a sort of "that's interesting" fashion, and for sure was better than most Hollywood horror flicks, but it's reputation is only partially earned. There's some serious flaws and at least one plot point left hanging. The movie is an honest attempt at serious horror, but it somehow loses it's way to the market. For me it could be summed up in an almost Ed Wood moment, Doctor Gordon puts some weight on a pipe and it noticeably wobbles a bit, if only we had cardboard tomb stones and an inanimate giant octopus the audience would have really got value for money. I appreciated the effort being put into this movie, but wouldn't put it in my top twenty dark genre movie list.

Well as we all know Saw went on a rampage world wide at the box office and turned into an unexpected horror hit as the hype wagon thundered down the straight. To date there have been five sequels of ever decreasing worth with hopefully a seventh movie in the franchise finally finishing things off. I picked up Saw in a box set of the first three movies, only ones ScaryMinds is interested in, for $18 at JB HiFi in the Pitt Street Mall. So if you haven't seen the movie then it's on sale, and should be loitering around the weekly shelves of your local DVD rental place. That's actually pretty good value for money, as the film is worthy enough, just not at full dollar price.

If movies like Dying Breed are your thing then hook into Saw, the movie isn't as good as it's reputation would have you believe, but it's not a bad first up effort from the pairing of Wan and Whannell. Hopefully this review has cut through some of the hype and allowed you to escape the bathroom of must watch decision making.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

Not my cup of tea, but you may like this stark attempt at a horror movie.