We are down to the last 5 days of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature and today we are taking a look at James Wan’s surprise horror hit Saw from 2004. It’s hard to imagine after spawning nine films and becoming such a household name that Saw was once a low budget movie intended to go straight to DVD. Made in 18 days for only $1.2 million, Saw was a worldwide hit, grossed over $100 million and lead to Jigsaw becoming a horror icon.
Saw was somewhat unique for the time and approached horror a little differently. It featured a mixed chronology timeline, limited jump scares, and inventive traps designed to torture victims. Subsequent movies in the series attempted to up the ante but it was the original Saw that set the benchmark. Without further ado, let’s take a look. As always I will give a quick breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like.
We have been reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. I intended these reviews to be a bit of a shorter format but it kind of didn’t work out that way. Still, we have five days remaining so keep checking back. We are featuring a range of movies from horror classics to international hits and a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire K-O-Ween feature by clicking right here.
Saw begins with photographer Adam, played by the movie’s writer Leigh Whannel, unconscious in a decrepit bathtub. He suddenly wakes and sits up pulling the plug of the bath out with his foot and sending something down the plughole. Looking around, he notices a dead body in the middle of the room and another person chained up in the corner. The dead body appears to be that of a gunshot suicide victim. Next to the body there is a tape player. The other person identifies himself as Dr. Lawrence Gordon, played by Cary Elwes, an oncology surgeon.
Both men realise that they have cassette tapes in their pockets. Retrieving the tape player from the body, the two play their cassettes. Adam’s tape instructs him that his job is to survive. Dr. Gordon’s tape tells him that his wife and daughter have been kidnapped and, unless he kills Adam by 6PM, they will be killed. A message hidden in the recording instructs the pair to follow their heart.
Noticing a picture of a heart on the cistern of a toilet, Dr. Gordon instructs Adam to search it. Adam, foolishly, puts his hand into the actual pan of the toilet. It turns out, however, that the message was instructing him to check the actual cistern. He does so and inside is a bag containing two hacksaws. The pair attempt to cut through the chains but are unable to make even a scratch on the metal. It becomes clear to Dr. Gordon that the person who has kidnapped them does not intend for them to use the saws for the chains. They intended to be used for their feet.
Rewinding a few months, we see Dr. Gordon instructing a group of young students on a patient’s cancer diagnosis. The patient, John Kramer played by Tobin Bell, is suffering from an inoperable brain tumour that was found on a recent routine screening. Suddenly, a pair of police officers arrive at the hospital and ask to speak to Gordon.
A series of murders have been taking place involving traps. The killer desires to test his victim’s will to live and a number of people have been killed. Detective Tapp, played by Danny Glover, informs Dr. Gordon that his penlight has been found at the scene of one of the murders. Gordon tells the detectives that he had nothing to do with it and has an alibi. The alibi checks out but the detectives ask Gordon to listen to the testimony of the only person to survive the killer known as Jigsaw. The woman, Amanda played by Shawnee Smith, claims Jigsaw has helped her as he has given her a new appreciation for life.
Going back to the present day, Gordon relates to Adam how he was considered a suspect for the killings. He tells Adam that they are part of a game and the object of it is to survive. It has become increasingly clear that the two are in a fight for survival and at the whim of a calculated killer.
Saw is a psychological horror designed to un-nerve and unsettle the viewer. Featuring a story that unfolds in a mixed chronological manner, we gradually learn more about the cold, calculated Jigsaw killer. The more we learn, the more you fear for the people involved in his games. He is brutal, self righteous, and entirely motivated by a feeling that the people involved in his games are deserving of their predicament. Jigsaw is very different from your standard horror movie antagonist. Jigsaw, himself, never actually kills anyone and does not actively consider himself to be a killer. He is more of an adjudicator there to punish people for taking things in their life for granted.
Taking place almost entirely in one small bathroom, there is something of an “escape room” feeling to Saw. It’s probably fair to assume that the Saw franchise actually inspired the escape room phenomena that has become so popular as of late. Foregoing jump scares for tension that you could cut with a knife, Saw felt very different to many horror movies at the time. It unfolds like a mystery movie gradually feeding you new bits of information to work with. This is incredibly effective at creating emotional swings between hope and fear. You never know what piece of information will come next and what is in store for the characters.
Jigsaw has become an absolutely iconic villain in horror movie history. Featuring a bunch of memorable quotes and some instantly recognisable imagery, it is no surprise at all that he became so popular. With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that Saw was designed as a one and done horror movie. Everyone remembers quotes like “Game Over!” and “I want to play a game”. Tobin Bell’s immaculate delivery is etched into horror movie lore forever.
The thing that set Jigsaw apart, however, is the fact that his approach is so unique. A frail, older, man suffering from terminal cancer, Jigsaw’s motivations are entirely different from those of typical horror movie killers. He is not a maniacal spree killer looking to wreak havoc on a small community. Jigsaw is a calculated villain aiming to force people to appreciate the life they have since his is being taken from him. He rarely actively kills victims. Instead he subjects them to games that lead to their deaths. His games are bound by rules and he insists that they are always fair.
This makes for a fascinating approach to a horror movie. The victims of Jigsaw are, usually, less than desirable people. They have negative traits and, often, are taking advantage of people in their lives. Whether they are adulterers, drug addicts, or simply people who have attempted suicide; Jigsaw aims to force these people to appreciate what they have. When the people die, Jigsaw is able to rest firmly in the knowledge that they caused their own deaths. It is brilliant stuff and entirely captivating. You will be waiting with baited breath for the next message from Jigsaw.
Saw creates a palpable sense of tension from the very get go. Setting up the entire events in the bathroom with the viewer being firmly aware of Adam’s predicament. There is a real sense of desperation and that desperation only grows as we learn more about the game. The revelations are incredibly well paced and just when you think you know what will happen next, the rug is pulled out from underneath you.
We know that all but one of the people who have been forced to play Jigsaw’s games have died. Most of them have died in horrific circumstance. The key thing, however, is that it actually is possible to survive. We are told this early on and it keeps you on edge as you know there is a possibility that Adam and Dr. Gordon will “win” and will not succumb to the game. It’s a fantastic way to build tension and works perfectly.
The timeline really works to the movie’s advantage, as well. When a film jumps around, chronologically, it can do serious harm to a viewer’s ability to stay engaged. With Saw, however, it works in its favour. It is abundantly clear that there is more to know about the characters than what is immediately presented. We know that Jigsaw picks his victims carefully and we know they are usually people with interesting histories. The way the movie bounces around and keeps feeding you information about both Jigsaw and Dr. Gordon helps to keep the viewer engaged. You are always wondering what you will learn next. The pacing is fantastic. Revelations regarding the connections between characters only aids in that. The incredible ending takes this to a new level and is sure to surprise people who are watching the movie for the first time.
A now iconic phrase, Jigsaw’s games are just as important as the story itself. Featuring a number of different scenarios, it is always fascinating to see how Jigsaw challenges his victims. Saw, being the first in the series and on a limited budget, features only a few references to previous games. Subsequent movies would attempt to up the ante and they would become more and more creative and gruesome with each instalment. The lack of games here, however, means there is far more focus placed on the game played by Adam and Dr. Gordon. It develops slowly and, due to being in such a confined space, there is a greater need for creativity.
That’s not to say that some of the previous games shown aren’t horrific, however. The game Amanda is made to play, in particular, is horrifying and totally iconic when it comes to horror imagery. The desperation in the eyes of the characters is amazingly apparent and you entirely buy into the fear they experience.
There are some interesting techniques used to reflect the panic of the characters, as well. Shaking and spinning cameras highlight the anxiety the victims feel. Sped up shots are used to indicate desperation. Calm characters are framed with static shots whereas more highly strung characters are filmed in a handheld style. It’s all very creative and speaks to the abilities of the director given the small budget. Sound production is top notch. We watched on our projector with a surround sound system and the use of spatial sound to reflect the panic of the characters is excellent. There is a large sound disparity between loud and quiet sounds so keep that in mind. Voices tend to sound quite flat, as well.
Holy shit, man!! Some of the acting in Saw is absolutely awful. Don’t get me wrong, Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is brilliant. An entirely understated performance that feels sinister and calculated. He is perfect for the role and his absence in later movies was sorely felt. Danny Glover is also on point as Detective Tapp.
Cary Elwes, however, as Doctor Gordon is shockingly bad. What is it with movie makers asking this mother fucker to do American accents? He can’t do them, end of discussion. His accent slips repeatedly and his performance is so unbelievably wooden at times it is hard not to laugh. There are scenes where he is screaming to a camera that had my sides splitting with how bad it was. I always thought he was hamming it up in Liar Liar but I am now thinking that is Cary Elwes actually trying to act. I loved him in Robin Hood Men in Tights but, for me, he is a dude with far more misses than hits. Saw might be his magnum opus of horse turd, however. He is dreadful.
For some reason, Leigh Whannel, one of the writers of Saw, figured he should play a major part. Well, as Adam, he is slightly better than Cary Elwes but Adam spending the entire movie talking to his own foot would have been an improvement on Cary Elwes. Whannel is not good! He does have a few moments that will make you chuckle but there are certain scenes that are painfully awkward. The fact that the two worst actors in the movie spend the most time interacting makes for some legitimately toe curling scenes. Its not far off something you would see in drama class at high school. It doesn’t have a major impact on the movie, however, as Saw is just so damn compelling. It does add to an overall feeling of cheapness, though.
Nine movies in and more on the horizon, it is easy to forget that Saw is basically a cheesy B-movie that was intended for a straight to video release. On a re-watch, 18 years after its release, this is more apparent than ever. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio feels out of place for a movie set in a small confined space and makes the movie feel like a TV production. Some of the filming techniques, though effective for some scenes, can look a little comical nowadays. Saw basically pioneered some of the techniques used to highlight character desperation and many filmmakers imitated the style. In 2022, it looks very dated and the lack of refinement shows.
Many of the scenes have a distinctive B-movie feel to them. There is a revelation later in the movie that leads to a heated discussion between Adam and Dr. Gordon. This whole interaction feels like something out of American soaps like Dallas or Dynasty from the 80s. There is a strange Twin Peaks feeling to the movie, at times. An almost surreal disconnection between the events on screen and what the character’s are saying. I actually feel as though this gives Saw a charm that the later movies lacked. It is hard not to notice, however, and people watching for the first time will probably pick up on this pretty quickly.
James Wan's Saw is a fun and suspenseful horror movie highlighted by a fantastic performance from Tobin Bell as the iconic Jigsaw. Featuring a killer with unique motivations and inventive traps used to punish victims, Saw felt very different from movies released around the same time. Spawning eight further movies, the Saw franchise is still going strong and it owes it all to this movie.
Intended to be a straight to DVD one and done horror, some of the issues caused by the low budget impact the movie slightly. Terrible acting from Cary Elwes doesn't help offset some of the cheesiness of the dialogue and there is a distinct B-Movie feeling to everything. The always compelling story and gripping progression keep you engaged, however, and manage to make the acting woes far less of a problem. The continuous feeding of revelations to the viewer lead up to an incredible twist and put a full stop at the end of what is an entirely satisfying and, above all else, fun horror movie.