Friday, October 30, 2020

SAW (2004) Movie Review

Scare-A-Thon Totals to Date:

Total Movies Watched: 29
Total First Time Views: 14
Amount raised for BOXVILLE: $2,462.68

Saw (2004) d. James Wan (USA) (103 min) (4th viewing)

A pair of strangers, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) wake up in a grimy underground bathroom, each chained by his ankle to a drainpipe. Also in said bathroom are a dead body and two rusty hacksaws, too dull to cut through their shackles, but sharp enough to cut through… other things. As the narrative proceeds down its flashback-riddled path, we learn that they are captives of the Jigsaw Killer, whose calling card entails intricate scenarios designed to force victims to kill themselves or one another. It is in these flashbacks that the film’s power lies, depicting hellish scenarios and apparatus from H. R. Giger’s worst nightmares.

Before there was “The Saw Franchise,” there was just Saw, a relatively low-budget thriller from a pair of Australian horror kids who wanted to make a good impression. Strapped for cash but no shortage of imagination, the duo of actor/screenwriter Whannell and director Wan whipped up a short-film scenario that could take place in a single room. The calling card was well-received enough to warrant a small (approx $1 million) budget, with Evolution Pictures creating a genre arm called Twisted Pictures specifically to produce the feature. The movie, shot in a mere 18 days, exploded at the box office to become one of the most profitable horror features of all time, much to the surprise of its participants and creators.

A solid and grim kissing cousin to Se7en, Whannell’s brilliant high-concept scenario cries out for subtle creepiness, but Wan makes the rookie mistake of shifting into overkill far too early and often. Attempting to shock, stun, and bludgeon his audience into submission, Wan employs frenetic editing and overblown industrial music with all the subtlety of a lead pipe. To his credit, it is this approach that keeps the viewer from examining the plot too closely for its multitude of inconsistencies and straight up gaps; we buy it in the moment, even as it falls subject to the “wait a minute” logic police the second the credits start rolling. (Case in point: The mind-blowing, undeniably powerful and shocking twist ending makes ZERO sense in hindsight.)

Oddly enough, it is these “flaws” that created such fertile ground for subsequent screenwriters Darren Lynn Bousman (who would also direct the next three sequels) and the team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (who would script Saw IV-VII) to reverse engineer John “Jigsaw” Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) motives and modus operandi through a series of flashbacks, while conjuring additional scenes of long-dead characters to flesh out the bare bones of Wan and Whannell’s original concept.

However, for this viewer, Saw’s failure to soar lies primarily with Elwes’ cringe-inducing performance, particularly in the third act. Incapable of supplying anything vaguely resembling an honest human emotion and cursed with some TERRIBLE makeup, the former Princess Bride star denies us the opportunity of fully investing in his all-too-horrific fate. (Whannell is no great shakes either, struggling in vain throughout to keep his American accent in place.)

Danny Glover and Ken Leung actually fare the best as a pair of focused cops on the trail of Jigsaw, with capable support from Michael Emerson, Mackenzie Vega, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith, and a curious “Wait, is that…?” cameo from Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers) whose “Detective Kerry” character would become greatly expanded in subsequent installments.

It also bears mentioning that despite the direction the series eventually headed, becoming the poster child (along with Eli Roth’s Hostel) for the “torture porn” subgenre, the 2004 original is a relatively gore-free affair, although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make some rather nasty allusions to the red stuff. The flashbacks to earlier Jigsaw crimes are jarring and unsettling vignettes, and Charlie Clouser’s driving musical score (including “Zepp Overture,” which would become synonymous with the franchise and announce itself as the last great horror theme of the last two decades) combines well with David A. Armstrong’s grim lighting and cinematography to create a thrilling nightmarish atmosphere. (Armstrong would serve in this capacity for all but the final installment, when he passed the reins to Brian Gedge.) Editor Kevin Greutert, who would ultimately direct the 2009 and 2010 sequels, has a fine sense of pacing that works well with Wan’s feverish vision.

While it would be (and is) fun to detail the multitude of minor quibbles and flaws that show up in the final product, there’s no denying that the film sparked the imagination of a hungry horror fanbase looking for something unique in a landscape littered with J-horror remakes and Scream pretenders. Examining the franchise as a whole (as Ian Simmons and I did recently for the Kicking the Seat podcast), it’s fascinating to look back to its humble origins and see where it all began, with a fierce strength of onscreen conviction, a motionless body on the floor, and two chained men staring across a filthy neglected bathroom floor at each other in confusion and distrust.

Saw is available now on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Entertainment and can be easily found on many online retail platforms.

SPECIAL BONUS: Watch the Kicking the Seat round table, recorded October 30, 2020 featuring Ian Simmons and Aaron “Dr. AC” Christensen HERE:

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