That title is probably less clever than I think it is.
It is kind of hard to think about Saw as a stand-alone project with the eight (yes, you read that right) films in this franchise, but there was a time when this was a creative work. Saw is also an incredibly important Hollywood film because it proved these movies can and will make money. Sure, it is easy to hate on what the franchise has become, but it is hard to deny that a horror film that makes nearly 55 times its budget is an important moment for the genre.
I think the success of the first film comes from the idea of filming a horror film like a mystery. In a way, this film works as a sort of whodunit (only take that comparison so far). We follow two men Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the film) and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) who find themselves trapped in a disgusting bathroom, chained to the floor, and a corpse between them. Cryptic clues are scattered around the room, and it is discovered they must make life or death decisions, or the consequences will reach beyond just them.
We also follow detective David Tapp (Danny Glover), who is working relentlessly to catch new serial killer named Jigsaw. Jigsaw tests his victims by putting them into incredibly dangerous situations to test if they want to live.
Let’s slow down here.
Since I plan on watching every Saw film, I may as well discuss Jigsaw a bit here. Spoilers may follow.
Jigsaw is a murderee—no matter how much the film tries to persuade us he isn’t. Setting elaborate traps for people to fall into is not a whole hell of lot different from just stabbing someone. Semantics aside, this man is a killer, and his warped idea of having his victims grow to appreciate life is pretty lame. As the series goes, the traps will become even more ridiculous (and unlikely to survive), and this argument more or less goes out the window aside from tough guy one-liners about “appreciating life.” The first entry does a better job at at least hinting that some of these situations are survivable (though even these are unlikely). Oddly, Dr. Gordon and Adam are in the most patient and safest trap. Time is their enemy, but they have a lot of it (a whole movie’s running time even), and this is far different from most victims who have two minutes or sixty seconds.
Jigsaw is an interesting, but sloppy villain. The franchise goes on to explain too much about him and make him too smart. The elaborate traps are what drew people in, and the series would have been better to focus on this. Part of the reason this film works so well is the killer is not present. We do not know who he is until the end, and this absence makes his motivations more mysterious, and thus, more interesting.
Saw was done on the cheap, and quick-cuts, blurred effects, and other tricks are done in an effort to keep the budget down. Here, they seem like interesting and creative tricks, but unfortunately, these have now become tropes in the gorror genre. What was once interesting or creative here has now been done to death (including by the very franchise that created it).
A lot of people were worried about the blood and gore of this film. While there is some gore, this one is by far the tamest, but also perhaps the most disturbing. Not showing us everything in graphic detail means we have to imagine what is going to happen. We also have what feels like real people in these situations (unlike the sequels) and this makes connecting with them a bit easier
The movie paces surprisingly well, but there are moments that tend to drag. Further, some narrative threads aren’t fully elaborated on (and sloppily cleaned up by the sequels). I think a lot of thought went into the creation of this film, but somewhere along the way it begins to suffer from the one-upping ideal of horror. This film keeps things surprisingly sane, but as we will see in coming days, things go off the rails quite quick.
As a stand alone film, Saw is an interesting mystery that gets the viewer thinking about things outside of the film. While it is flawed, perhaps even deeply flawed (not going to spoil the twist at the end), it marks an important turn in the resurgence of R-Rated mainstream horror. I think this one is worth watching, though I am not sure how well it will age for a new audience. 7.5/10