Any of you out there snorting in derision at the 5-star rating I’ve decided to heap upon James Wan’s legendarily grimy debut needs to to check some of that Saw related snobbery at the door and wake up to some hard truths – possibly played over a tape cassette while a pallid-cheeked dummy cackles at them from the snowy picture of a tv set. Saw is magnificent. Admit it. No one is saying you have to love the franchise as a whole and no one is saying you have respect the torture porn genre the film helped spawn (although both admittedly have their high spots) but taken on it’s own merits and stripped of everything else that came in it’s wake, James Wan’s debut feature is a twisty, turny, stomach churny masterpiece and a genuine classic of the 2000’s and it’s about nigh time people stopped judging it by it’s sequels/videogames/rollercoaster ride.
Two men awake from being drugged in a decrepit, disused bathroom that makes the one in Trainspotting look like a Kardashian guestroom and pretty much immediately recognize their situation as one quick Uber away from destination: fucked. One of the men, prestigious surgeon Dr. Lawrence Gordon, is a man whose loving family and wealthy bank account hasn’t stopped him from sleeping around or becoming egotistical in his work, while the other is withdrawn low-life Adam, a bottom feeder who takes sneaky photos of people for money. Despite their many differences between them, one thing both men have in common is that is that they’re both chained by the ankle to pipes on opposite ends of the room and in the middle is a apparent suicide victim who seemingly has taken the 9mm route to the next world.
However, upon finding random cryptic clues dotted around the place they correctly surmise that they’ve been targeted by the Jigsaw Killer, a mystery assailant who abducts people he deems unworthy of the gifts life have given them with the aim to give them a new outlook on things by putting them in viciously brutal traps. As Lawrence and Adam try to figure out what it is they have to do (not to mention how on earth they’re going to do it), the game Jigsaw is playing seems bigger than initially thought as outside the bathroom events and a twisted history ensnare other players including Gordon’s wife and daughter and a vengeful ex-detective who’s a couple of bullets short of a full clip.
Who, if any, will emerge from this merciless game as the victor and what condition will they be in – after all, Jigsaw was thoughtful enough to supply his victims with a couple of hacksaws that won’t cut the chains but will cut through flesh and bone just fine…
Coming on strong like the scrappy, baby brother of David Fincher’s flawless Se7en, Saw was patched together (much like one of Jigsaw’s traps) for a ridiculously paltry 1.5 million dollars that through the sheer grit and imagination of it’s filmmakers managed to create a legitimate modern day horror icon that not only grossed over a hundred million worldwide, but went on to spawn an entire fucking empire.
The lion’s share of credit has to go to director James Wan and it’s writer Leigh Whannell, who also admirably cuts costs by pulling double duties as supporting lead Adam, not to mention their innovative crew who all work to make the movie’s weaknesses into it’s strengths due to it’s startling set design, and editing tricks that turned a sow’s ear into a slick purse that’s filled to the brim with rust and gore. The moments in the movie where the film is sped up to give you a sense of desperate panic not only matches the understandable hysteria any particular character is in but it also resourcefully hides a lot of weak points in the budget (the car chase near the end is literally Danny Glover in a car, in a blacked out garage with a smoke machine).
Also adding weight to the project is a small army of supporting character actors which contains Cary Elewes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Myer, Monica Potter and of course Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith (who got impressive mileage from their characters as the series progressed) and they all bring the goods when required with Elewes in particular “Cary-ing” (I regret nothing!) proceedings nicely, especially in a final act meltdown that leads to one of the films many indelible images.
You can see Wan’s talent for creepy shit bursting through here as he circumvents the trappings of the psychological thriller with some genuine horror imagery that’s marked his career from the sickly fluorescent glow of Saw to the cool blues of Aquaman. Jigsaw’s mascot, the instantly iconic Billy the puppet, squeaks into frame on a red tricycle evoking the terrifying doll that lurches out of the dark in Dario Argento’s Deep Red and the scenes of Jisaw stalking his prey in the questionable choice of a pig mask and silk robe evokes the illogically spindly ghost creatures lurch into frame in Wan’s Insidious and Conjuring franchises.
That fact that so much about the first movie struck a chord with audiences is simply without doubt, but if the movie wasn’t as relentlessly tense and well made as it was, then the outlandish twist couldn’t have stuck the landing as well as it did and just remember the first time you ever heard Charlie Clauser’s theme as it signal the first of many times in the franchise that someone during the climax realise they are utterly and irrevocably fucked with all the chills that accompany it.
Separating Saw from it’s multiple follow ups and all the tangled plot baggage that followed (was anyone really enamoured with the Detective Hoffman vs. Jill Tuck plotline) is as vital to rerembering how good it is as separating original The Matrix or Pirates Of The Caribbean from their lesser sequels in the way that everyone naturally does with the Jaws franchise without thinking about it.
A jolt to the horror genre that was as genuinely jarring as being on the receiving end of the instantly legendary reverse bear trap that threatens to turn it’s victim’s skull into the human version of a pedal bin, you may not like what came after but you gotta respect the blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of a bonafide classic.