Has it really been a decade since this surprise hit horror behemoth kicked off? It’s really quite remarkable that SAW was as successful and influential as it was considering it wasn’t originally even going to get a cinematic release.
It’s a simple idea – two guys (Carey Elwes and Leigh Whannell) awake in the worst bathroom since TRAINSPOTTING, chained to a pipe and with no memory about how they got there. When they eventually cease squabbling and doling out blame, they both try and work out why they are in their current predicament, and attempt various futile escapes, all the while a group of cops hunt a serial killer “who has never killed anyone”, and who in all likelihood is pulling everyone’s strings.
Much of the criticism levied at Saw seems to come from those who either haven’t seen it, and/or those who are just conflating what they’ve read about the wider film series and what it represents. For one thing, the first Saw isn’t actually that gratuitously gory. There are nasty ideas, sure, and the odd blood splatter, but we don’t actually see that much, and clever editing is employed pretty much throughout (admittedly often for reasons of budget rather than taste). The sequels became steadily more extreme and convoluted, and rarely, if ever, managed to equal what was achieved in this first chapter, and yes, they did become pure spectacle through the lens of so-called “torture porn”. You did at least get much more Tobin Bell, which was nice.
Really, the first Saw movie is tonally closer to a horror-tinged police procedural/murder-mystery than an outright scarefest (much like its clear influence and much more of a critical favourite, SEVEN) and in that regard it works solidly – the mystery, the intrigue, the layers being slowly but surely peeled back, as well as the steady build of tension are all very well executed, in addition to the plot being lean and (mostly) no-nonsense. It of course contains the series’ first, and arguably the best (perhaps with competition from SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER) almighty plot twists, and as surprising as it was on the first watch, the clues are all there in plain sight, but the filmmakers expertly diverted our attention elsewhere.
The fears that Saw taps in to were perceptively cherry-picked by creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan to best affect an audience of 2004. The paranoia of constant surveillance and the danger of fanatical madmen and their disciples understandably struck a chord with a world still reeling from the nightmare that was 9/11. I seem to remember comparing Jigsaw to Dick Chaney in an essay on the horror genre and society at university, mostly because I couldn’t find an appropriate quote that compared him to Bin Laden (it could have gone either way).
Jigsaw, or rather John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is not only the plot anchor, and main driver for the story moving forward, but perhaps more than any other modern horror villain he’s also the emotional anchor. As insane as he is, you can almost understand what he’s getting at, why he wants to achieve what he wants to achieve. It all makes a certain kind of depraved sense. You can’t avoid the fact that Bell’s seductive, chocolatey voice helps sell any point he’s making, either.
It’s not a movie without faults, of course. I wouldn’t say anyone in the cast apart from Bell and maybe Shawnee Smith is at their best in acting terms (Danny Glover really is getting too old for this shit), and it was only in the sequels that we were really allowed to get under John Kramer’s skin. The onslaught of dramatic editing at certain moments in the film, though striking, could be considered over-doing it somewhat. I wouldn’t even call it particularly scary, since it’s pretty low-key and only directly involves a small number of characters, the pure carnage of the more explicit sequels could arguably linger on the mind more, though there are always those who would insist that less is more (which it often is).
I like Saw, I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s as lethal, rusty and immoral as many of the antagonist’s traps, but it has a definite point to it unlike the increasingly tenuous and profiteering sequels. Ten years on, it leaves a pretty-much dead horror subgenre in its wake. I don’t know whether it kicked off the Torture Porn trend, but it certainly popularised it, and energised it for a good half-decade at the box office. The wider story of Saw had highs and lows. The key highs were here at the start of the Jigsaw saga, and at the very end, when the filmmakers decided to go for broke. If you’ve thus far avoided the Saw franchise, I’d highly recommend you see this initial entry, then maybe just see SAW III and SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER. You won’t be missing all that much by skipping the rest. SSP