31 Screams in October, #29: Saw (2004)

Posted: October 29, 2014 in Movie Review
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Director: James Wan

Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell, Leigh Whannell

“If it’s Halloween…” Screw it, you know the rest. Popularity is both the best and worst thing that can happen to a horror movie. First, the film receives such a positive buzz that everybody and their brother rushes out to see it. Fine, that’s no problem. But then, once the final box office is calculated, the studio in charge decides, “Hey! We can turn this into a franchise and milk it for all it’s worth!” As a result, the inevitable barrage of sequels begins to dilute the overall impact. Furthermore, the more sequels a horror franchise has, the more they stray from the original storyline. It has happened to nearly all the major horror franchises of the last thirty years in varying degrees, with some even taking the story to outer space by the end! With the “Saw” franchise being recognized now as the most profitable horror franchise of all time, it is a strange thing indeed to look back to the original and see how it all started with two men trapped in what one of them refers to as a “prehistoric bathroom.”

“Saw” begins with Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) waking up in a tub in total darkness. We see something floating in the water with him, which then goes down the drain after his toe yanks out the plug while he’s exiting the tub. He’s going to wish that it hadn’t. His foot is chained to a nearby pipe. At the other end of the room is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), who turns on the lights, and is also chained to a pipe by his foot. Both spot a body lying in the middle of the room with a pool of blood coming from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head

Dr. Gordon tries unsuccessfully to budge the door, and then Adam discovers a microtape (with the words “PLAY ME” written on it) tucked away in his rear pants pocket. Dr. Gordon has also been given one, along with a bullet and a key. The key, both men discover, is not meant for their chains. The tape player and gun which the microtapes and bullet go with are found with the body lying between them. Dr. Gordon’s tape tells him he has until 6:00 to kill Adam or else his wife Allison (Monica Potter) and daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega) will die.

A clue leads Adam to dig around in the toilet before finding a pair of hacksaws under the lid. Both try using them to cut through their chains. Adam’s breaks, while Dr. Gordon comes to a grisly conclusion: “He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet.” This deduction leads Dr. Gordon to realize the person they’re dealing with is someone known only as the “Jigsaw Killer” (or “Jigsaw” for short): the very same person for whose crimes he himself had recently been a suspect. At one of the crime scenes, a pen light belonging to Dr. Gordon had been deliberately left behind to throw Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung of TV’s “Lost”).

When they pick up Dr. Gordon, he is able to produce an (albeit embarrassing) alibi: He was with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Before letting him go, the detectives show Gordon a survivor of one of Jigsaw’s games: Amanda (Shawnee Smith, whose character will become more important later on in the series). Amanda had been forced to kill a man by cutting into his stomach whereby she would find the key to a device strapped to her head, referred to as a “reverse bear trap.” Without scenes like this, director James Wan has said the film would’ve been a PG-13 detective thriller. Would that really have been so terrible?

An orderly at the hospital where Dr. Gordon works named Zepp (Michael Emerson of TV’s “Lost” & “Person of Interest”) takes Allison and Diana prisoner. Tapp is shown obsessively surveiling from across the street. He’s getting too crazy for this shit. He’s on the right track, though, and Dr. Gordon’s family will need him before the end.

Dr. Gordon devises a plan that has Adam pretending to be poisoned and die so that Gordon can escape and save his family. Adam’s acting is so astoundingly bad that even I would never have believed him. He gets an electric shock, proving that he is indeed faking it. The fear of not knowing what’s happening to his family eventually breaks Dr. Gordon and prompts him to take drastic measures to escape. The twist ending that follows is one of the other things this movie is best remembered for, which helps explain why all the other “Saw” films have a “twist” as well.

It doesn’t surprise me a bit that the same guy who wrote “Saw” (which I liked) also wrote “Insidious” (which I didn’t). Leigh Whannell has a habit of writing scripts which, upon careful inspection, just aren’t very logical. Certainly, logic is a lot to ask of this genre but, when your whole movie is based upon the idea that the villain doesn’t technically murder anyone, you’re fooling yourself more than you are your audience. His whole excuse is that he appreciates life but his victims (I’m sorry, “test subjects”) do not. So by killing them (or having them find a way to kill themselves), how exactly does HE appreciate life?

As with most first entries in a horror film series, “Saw” differs from its sequels in many ways, such as:

  1. What we aren’t told outright, we must decide for ourselves.
  2. We don’t get much more than a glimpse of the main villain until the final reel.
  3. Most of the gore takes place off-camera. Thus, some of the more cringe-worthy moments are so because of how we perceive them in our minds.
  4. The amount of traps shown here is kept to a bare minimum.

Would the original “Halloween” have been nearly as effective if John Carpenter had given a reason why Michael Myers kills, or if the murders had been depicted with buckets of blood spraying towards the screen? Was Freddy Krueger scary at all once he started spouting out one-liners left and right? Through six sequels, the “Saw” franchise took to answering every single little question each movie brings up, even if only to cover up certain technical errors made by the script. As for the murders, the traps claimed their victims off-screen. From now on, they are brought to us in vivid, graphic detail. As for Jigsaw, there’s very little left we don’t know about him. The first “Saw” remains the best of the lot because at that point we’re still as much in the dark figuratively as Adam is literally.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    The concepts behind this movie sound intriguing, especially since the first one leaves so much to the imagination. This is one of your most complex critiques to date. I’m really impressed by your analysis.

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