The following contains spoilers for Saw (2004).
Do you remember what got you into horror? For me, it’s as clear as day. In my first year of high school, my best friend was hyping me up for an upcoming movie known as Saw 3D, also known as Saw: The Final Chapter. The squeamish youngster I was, I had not seen any of the prior six films. However, not wanting to appear uncool, I embarked on a quest to watch all of them. I remember the Friday clearly, where I popped in the Netflix DVD I received in the mail, and then, I was never the same.
Saw (2004) is the first horror movie I ever loved. And maybe it’s because of the intensity of the concept. Two strangers, photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and doctor Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in a dilapidated bathroom, chained to each corner, with only rusty hacksaws to free themselves. A man dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound lies in the middle of the room. It’s not long before they realize that they’re in the clutches of the Jigsaw Killer, an enigmatic figure who puts his subjects through “games” that often prove fatal. Meanwhile, detective David Tapp (Danny Glover) follows Jigsaw’s trail.
Directed by horror auteur James Wan in his first feature and written by Whannell, there’s a lo-fi charm to the inaugural series entry. Perhaps by necessity rather than design. On a budget of $1.2 million, Saw has a grimy, at times minimalistic design. Through clever use of lighting, something as simple as a bathroom or a dingy apartment has all the sinister notes of a haunted house. Moreover, the traps Jigsaw lays – though somewhat sparse in this first installment – are iconic. No one can forget the shock of seeing the reverse bear trap for the first time.
There’s very little room for narrative fat in Wan and Whannell’s film. The dual narrative structure, supplemented by bountiful flashbacks, moves with the speed of a bullet train. Although comparisons to Se7en have been made, Saw tells its grisly narrative just a bit sharper. More bombastic, at least. Each layer uncovered makes the story ever clearer. The closer you get to unraveling the mystery, the more you can feel your hands dig into the side of your chair as you struggle for breath. Saw has its scares as a function of the narrative. Not the other way around.
It must be said, there is one element where Saw stumbles, and that’s in the performances. Cary Elwes, until he starts screaming his head off, sleepwalks through the role of Dr. Lawrence Gordon. For as memorable as Adam is, he’s also quite goofy, and Whannell would ultimately improve his acting a lot more in the Insidious films. It’s a relief, then, that we have a veteran like Danny Glover leading the B-plot, giving his all as he tends to do.
Speaking of giving its all, Saw becomes a stone-cold modern classic in its ending. After a preceding 90 minutes’ worth of mounting tension, dismemberment, and all that fun stuff, the dead man in the middle of the room stands up and reveals himself to be the Jigsaw Killer. Through a montage, backed by an absolutely banging Charlie Clouser theme, we learn that this man is John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a cancer patient of Gordon’s who has been manipulating things the entire time. It’s flabbergasting, but it also makes total sense. As Jigsaw slams the door, the audience almost doesn’t know what hit them. It’s a bonafide magic trick.
And that’s what makes Saw hold up. It may not have a lot of the key elements of the series that the sequels introduce. It’s not even Wan/Whannell’s best collaboration – that goes to Insidious. But what it does have is that element of surprise. Of ambition. Saw aims to take you on a ride, and instead it gives you the whole theme park. As Jigsaw shuts the door to the room and mutters “Game Over”, the viewer doesn’t know what hits them. No wonder this movie turned me into a horror fan. It gives you a rush, one that you keep chasing. A true gateway drug. – James Preston Poole
Saw is now streaming on HBO Max, available in digital HD, and on home video.