Directed By: James Wan
Release Date: October 29, 2004
Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover
Two men - Cary Elwes' Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Leigh Whannell's Adam - wake up chained to opposite sides of a grimy bathroom with no memory of how they got there, only to discover that they're now part of a game designed by the mysterious Jigsaw Killer, a psychopath under the belief that he's teaching his victims to appreciate their lives by putting them in life-or-death scenarios. Under the gun of a ticking clock, the goals they are tasked with are simple: Adam's aim is merely to find a way to escape, while Dr. Gordon's is to kill Adam before time runs out or let his kidnapped wife and daughter die if he fails to do so.
Such is the simple premise for James Wan's little horror film Saw, and I don't think anyone could've anticipated the pop culture phenomenon it went on to become when it was released back in 2004. Aside from spawning six sequels - with a seventh on the way next year, bringing the series back to the big screen for the first time since 2010 - it gifted horror fans with a new genre icon on par with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger in Jigsaw, the series' devious mastermind.
I have to admit off the bat that I have somewhat of a soft spot for the Saw franchise. I didn't see the original film until several months before the release of Saw III in 2006, but once I did, I immediately consumed Saw II in order to prep myself for III. After that, it became a yearly tradition among my friends and I to binge the entire series in anticipation of the next sequel. In many ways, the Saw franchise, with its tightly-knit narrative continuity and annual releases, was our modern day Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series; that is, a yearly horror event to look forward to to see what would happen next with Jigsaw and all those caught up in his grand design.
Though the series only became increasingly ridiculous the longer it went on, particularly in terms of the over-the-top traps most people undoubtedly associate with the franchise, I can't say I wasn't entertained for most of it. That said, my interest in the series still rests more with the earlier films, which often embraced the power of psychological tension more than the violence inherent in elaborate traps, a fact no better demonstrated than right here in the original installment.
Revisiting Saw with the knowledge of its blood-filled legacy is somewhat of a fascinating experience, as the film itself is such a relatively subdued affair that it's a far cry from representing what general audiences would describe the franchise as if asked today. While the series eventually found itself trying to constantly one-up itself and shock audiences as much as it could, the original Saw is, essentially, a slow burn, patiently doling out pieces of the puzzle to both its characters and audience to keep everyone guessing at how it all fits together right up until the film's final moments.
Saw benefits from a wealth of simplicity, right down to its premise, modest setting, and fundamental mystery. Discovering who Dr. Gordon and Adam are, as well as learning how and why they wound up in Jigsaw's game in the first place, is as much a game for the audience as it is for the characters, with the narrative itself twisting and turning throughout the film's runtime to expose - via flashbacks - new layers about them both that simultaneously brings them closer to one another and threatens to tear them apart. A handful of other characters turn up within the film, but they're all woven into the tapestry that serves as the background of Jigsaw's game; the focus is always, first and foremost, on Gordon and Adam, and that helps streamline the whole affair.
This was director James Wan's big introduction to the world at large, and it's amazing to look back and see how far he's come as a director since then. Nowadays, he's leveled up, so to speak, tackling The Conjuring films, last year's Furious 7, and the upcoming Aquaman, and it's hard to deny that his skills have definitely improved over the years. Though certain aspects about his first feature length film haven't aged too well - some frenzied camerawork and over-editing feels somewhat tacky now, too try-hard "cool" than necessary, for instance - Wan demonstrated right off the bat that he knows how to pace a film out and milk tension for all its worth, Saw standing as a low budget master class in efficiency.
As I mentioned earlier, the film relies far more on psychological horror than in-your-face gore, and while there's a bucket or two spilled, it's regrettable that it's stuck with the "torture porn" label many branded the series with thanks to its more violent successors. It's ironic that much of the series' iconography, such as Billy the Puppet, the pig masks, the reverse bear trap, and even composer Charlie Clouser's great "Hello Zepp" theme, was all laid down here, yet the elaborate traps and super-graphic imagery weren't. For anyone who hasn't seen the films, it's easy to see why they'd be turned off if they're not interested in the violence of the later sequels, essentially doing a disservice to Wan’s work here in the original, which is easily the most accessible entry for anyone coming in, whether they be fans of horror, thrillers, or mysteries.
If there’s one area Saw tends to stumble in, though, it’s in the acting, which is serviceable if spotty. Elwes hilariously overacts by film's end, Whannell's inexperience shines through via some awkward line delivery, and Monica Potter - who plays Dr. Gordon's wife - frequently delivers her lines as if she'd rather be anywhere else. And while familiar, welcome faces like Danny Glover, Michael Emerson, and Ken Leung show up, none of them are ever really given the chance to stand out, mainly because (again) they're there to supplement Dr. Gordon and Adam's story.
As for Jigsaw himself, actor Tobin Bell is in the film so little yet makes such a great mark with his voice alone. The sequels wisely capitalized more on his physical presence - he really shined the most in the second and third films, in my opinion - but despite his limited role here, he really does a solid job bringing Jigsaw to life. Couple that with a jaw-dropping twist to his game in the closing moments of the film and it’s hard not to see why it instantly left everyone with the desire to see more of and learn more about the character going forward.
In the end, Saw is a ride that's far more accessible to a broader audience than its blood-drenched legacy would suggest. It's dripping in atmosphere and tension, has a great payoff for first-timers with no knowledge of how the film plays out, and revels in the "What would you do?"-type scenarios that make it fun to watch with a group. Its low budget roots have dated it in certain areas, but it still holds up surprisingly well after twelve years, and whether you're simply in the mood for a good thriller or more interested in looking back at Wan's evolution as a filmmaker, I can't help but continue to recommend it, particularly if you haven't already given it a chance because of everything that followed.
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