Here’s some useless information you may not know about me – I’ve never seen any of the “Saw” movies. At least not in their entirety. I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there but not enough to tell them apart or to even care. Frankly it’s a brand of horror that doesn’t appeal to me and what I’ve seen has given me no reason to spend my time on them. Yet that’s exactly what I did.
I decided to watch 2004’s “Saw” for several reasons. 1) It’s the Halloween season and what better time to catch up on some horror movies. 2) I discovered that the original “Saw” marked the feature film directorial debut for James Wan, the man behind the two “Conjuring” films which I happen to really like. 3) “Jigsaw”, the eighth film in the franchise (yes I said eighth), came out over the weekend. 4) It just happened to be on television.
Despite my general apathy for this franchise it has been incredibly successful. Starting in 2004 one “Saw” movie came out every year for seven years. Each film was made with a tiny budget yet each cleared $100 million at the box office with the exception of one. But it all sprang from Wan’s film which turned out to be a tad smarter and craftier than I expected.
The “Saw” franchise is synonymous with the term “torture porn” and deservedly so. But that’s a title earned by the sequels. Wan’s film is an exception. It’s unquestionably a horror film, but it’s just as a much a suspenseful mystery told with a surprising Hitchcockian flavor. Now don’t get me wrong, “Saw” doesn’t break new ground nor is it particularly good. But it is a far cry from what the franchise would become.
A huge part of the movie takes place in one space – a filthy rundown bathroom. Inside two men wake up with no prior knowledge of how they ended up there. They are chained to walls opposite of each other and between them lies a body in a pool of blood. We learn the first man is Lawrence (Carl Elwes), a successful oncologist, husband, and father. The younger man is Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a streetwise photographer.
With seemingly no connections, the two try and piece together who put them in the room and why they are there. This is the basis for the mystery aspect of the story. The horror side comes from Lawrence and Adam’s efforts to escape. There are some pretty graphic scenes but more of the focus is on the psychological. None of it is particularly scary but it’s just engaging enough to keep your attention. Danny Glover pops up as a police detective whose own case intersects with this one. Monica Porter is good playing Lawrence’s wife Alison.
While a chunk of the film takes place in the bathroom, we spend a lot of time with Glover as well. Unfortunately his hunt for truth is fairly generic. There is also a lot of narrative backtracking through flashbacks that Wan leans heavily on. For the most part it works but it also feels like a necessary device. And while all the story pieces do eventually fit together, there is still a lot that we are expected to simply accept.
“Saw” is an interesting debut from James Wan. It should be commended for attempting to tell a compelling story and for extending itself beyond its tiny budget. But despite its good efforts “Saw” never fully clicks. It’s a far cry from the ridiculous gore-soaked torturefest the franchise has since become, but it still isn’t particularly good horror. At the same time it is a bit better than I expected.
VERDICT – 2 STARS
I agree completely! While I thought the original saw creative and entirely original (albeit, goretastic) I hated every subsequent movie. I found them gratuitous and unnecessary. Fantastic post!
Thank you! I’m trying to rationalize watching Saw II. I’ve seen bits of it (and most of the others) but I just can’t muster up any excitement for it.
You’re not really missing much aside from more elaborate (read disgusting) traps. I can’t remember much of it but I do know I stopped watching after the 3rd one.
I can see that. It seems that they really ratcheted down on the gory traps. That can only go so far.
Reblogged this on Reads & Reels and commented:
Very insightful review of the original Saw. While I found it original and terrifying, I think the rest of the franchise is gratuitous “torture porn” as this blogger notes. What do you guys think?
That’s a very fair review Keith, I take all of your points and while I have a soft spot for this really early Wan film it was evident from the first time I, ehem, Saw it that there were a lot of issues with the piece. I think this thing was shot and wrapped in 17 days or something crazy and that kind of pace, no doubt budget-related, is written all over the wall at times. Good to see you give a look at it, and as a fan of the original I might humbly suggest you stop at this one. It’s rapidly downhill from here from a narrative perspective. The whole thing becomes a mess.
Thanks man. I do respect it. I hope I conveyed that in the review. The bits i’ve seen of the others really do seem ridiculously gratuitous and pretty dumb. Funny thing is, I’m not opposed to dumbness or gore in my movies. It just seemed that all of the following Saw movies basically tapped into the exact same thing. Hard to be interested.
Yeah that definitely came through.
And yeah that’s exactly it. The gore and all that is just so repetitive it loses all meaning. I stopped at 3.
Yet it still has its audience. Over $100 million earned for each film but one. That amazes me!
Which one did not? Was it the 3d one?
It was actually Saw VI (not that I can differentiate it from the other sequels)
I have no interest in the franchise too, but the first film wasn’t that bad, as you rightfully note. I’ve always seen it as a thriller though.
I think you’re right. It definitely sells better as a thriller. From what I’ve seen of the rest of the movies…ugh
Well, I don’t think they are technically “bad”… We are just not their audience, Keith. Almost of them did a good cash-in, so some people are interested. IMDB ratings are not that bad too for this kind of controversial films… I could take into consideration moral and ethical problems that these films may cause – I certainly wouldn’t like my kids to watch it – but that’s a long topic…
P. S. The latest movie, Jigsaw, was just released and it is performing very well too for its modest budget.
I saw it won the box office. This thing definitely has an audience.
I don’t mind this opening movie, I thought your review very balanced and full of good points. Later entries sort of derail things.
That seems to be the general consensus. Tempted to go a movie or two further into it. Doubt it though.
Just don’t eat anything while watching.
Best being prepared. The same with Hostel.
Now I am the only one who has never seen this (and can say with certainty I never will). This brand of horror also doesn’t appeal to me. Ick.
Great review Keith. Happy Halloween!
Thanks! You too. You aren’t missing much. Although I will say this one is quite different than what the series became known for. Still, you’re movie watching reputation won’t be hurt by skipping it! 😀
I liked Saw and Saw 2, but I hated the 3rd so much that I never bothered with the rest. For me, the ending of the original Saw sold me on it. I enjoyed how creepy it was throughout but I did not see that big surprise coming at all, so it elevated it for me in that sense.
Okay, that is a good point. The ending (despite being a but ludicrous) definitely catches you off guard. In fact (without spoiling it) I had forgotten about that particular ‘piece of the equation’.