Sunday, October 13, 2013

REVIEW: Saw (2004)

A couple of years ago, I finished up watching the entire Saw series, even reviewing the last two. And I still stand by what I said about those movies back then: they are garbage. But far be it from me to deprive the Internet of my opinions on the very first Saw film and the one to kickstart a modern revival of the horror genre.

Director: James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannel

I remember seeing this right after it came out. I was about 13 or 14 and I had never seen most classic horror films – I was just getting started on the genre. I remember sitting in my house and watching this on our big screen TV. I also remember being spellbound by just how crazy this shit was – I mean for someone my age back then, this was pretty hardcore. As I continued to get into horror films that summer, this one stuck with me.

And it was quite a revolution back in 2004. Back then, when all we had was shitty sequels to low-grade American parody-slasher films and remakes of Asian horror films, something like Saw was a big breath of fresh air. Looking back with the knowledge I have about the genre now, I really think this was a good thing for the genre. It was a unique concept for its time and really set the stage for…well, a whole bunch of crappy direct-to-DVD torture porn films. But the point stands – for its time, and in the climate of horror films at the time, this was a refreshing change.

But does it hold up now? Let’s find out.

We start off with two guys waking up in a dingy, dirty old bathroom. Because all good horror stories start in the same manner as your average drunken trip through the underbelly of Europe. But as Hostel was a few years off, we actually see something else is going on – there’s a dead body in the room with them. Chained up and unable to get out, they find some tapes that inform them of why they’re there: Dr. Lawrence Gordon, played by Cary Elwes, is there because he never did anything as good as The Princess Bride again. Adam, played by writer Leigh Whannel, is there because he helped to spawn this entire series. And both of them are there because they didn’t value their acting lessons enough to actually apply any of them in this movie.

Oh, OK, those aren’t the real reasons – could you tell? But it does point out another thing about this movie…the big theme behind it is that the Jigsaw Killer, the series’ villain, wants to show people the folly of their ways and make them see why they should appreciate life more.

Some tapes in their pockets reveal the objective of the whole game: Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam by 6:00, or else Gordon’s family will be killed instead. Also, apparently, the dead guy on the floor was poisoned and shot himself in the head because of it. They figure out they’re being watched through a two-way mirror with a camera behind it and break the mirror, revealing the camera.

We then get to see some of Jigsaw’s impressive resume. Through flashbacks we see some of how Cary Elwes’ character Dr. Gordon was involved with the case, as they suspected him of being Jigsaw after his pen was found at a crime scene. Apparently Gordon’s sins included being a condescending jackass to the orderlies at the hospital just for saying they knew the patients’ names:

How dare you care about people, you sniveling snot-wart?! Allow me to laugh at you and mock you in front of everyone! I WAS IN THE PRINCESS BRIDE! I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT! MUWAHAHAHA!

And we get some of Jigsaw’s finest moments, sure to make it into the family album, such as putting a man who cut himself into a pit full of barbed wire and forcing him to crawl through them to escape…


Putting a guy who claims to be sick to get out of going to work into a room full of broken glass with a flammable substance smeared on his body, and then forcing him to hold a burning candle as he has to read letters on the wall…

Poor John Cusack, never had a chance after he made Identity...

And putting a drug addict into a room where she has to stab another guy in the gut to get a contraption off her head that would have ripped her head in half.

Oh stop crying, at least you don't have to be in the sequels!

…okay, so they’re all pretty unrealistic and elaborate traps. And honestly, they only tenuously seem to have anything to do with the alleged “crimes” these people have committed. Frankly it makes Se7en look like a down-to-Earth True Crime story in comparison.

The violence in this got its bad rap as torture porn and needless violence, but really, this movie doesn’t have a lot of that. The sequels get way more over the top, but this one remains pretty squarely focused on telling a story and on having a message to it. The amount of actual gratuitous gore and violence is fairly low in comparison with other movies of its kind. The implication of the violence is really what the makers of the film were going for – plus the dingey, dirty settings add a very grisly atmosphere to the whole thing. It really does create an atmosphere of being stuck in a run-down, shit covered bathroom.

So most of the movie that isn’t flashbacks is just Gordon and Adam trying to figure out how to get out of there. These parts are actually fairly good, and as bad as their acting is, I like the characters well enough to be invested – and seeing them try to figure shit out is fairly entertaining. It’s actually a fair bit more character driven than any other Saw film would ever get, which is nice – it’s nothing amazing, but the characters are at least characters, rather than compilements of cliché like in later films. They find some rusty old saws (TITLE DROP!!!1!!!1) in the toilet and also a great family picture of Gordon’s wife and daughter:

Aw, how sweet; the best Manson Family photo ever.

Then we get another flashback to show the last time Gordon saw his family. Apparently Gordon was a giant jackass who, when confronted with the reality that his daughter had a nightmare about a man being in her closet, doesn’t even look at her and instead keeps typing on his computer.

"I'm almost done with this level of Candy Crush Saga!"

To his credit, I guess he goes and comforts her afterwards, so it’s not too bad. Then he and his wife have the most generic, nonspecific argument ever as she accuses him of not being happy. He says he is, she says “I’d rather you just break down and tell me you hated me; at least there’d be some passion in it.” I really hope Leigh Whannel doesn’t try his hand at writing romantic dramas any time soon. If somewhere in the world, there exists a superstore for phoned in, generalized movie arguments, this one would be the best seller.

Gordon leaves and then we get a shot of the daughter in her room. And you remember when I said she was scared because of a “nightmare” about a man in her room? Wellllllll…

What happens when Linus from Peanuts grows up and goes insane...

Heh heh…that’s actually pretty funny. Apparently the kidnapper is Zepp, that orderly from before who Gordon made fun of just for knowing patients’ names. He wears all black and likes to hold stethoscopes to his captives’ chests while holding a gun to their heads to see if their heartbeats get faster. How interesting…and utterly pointless…

We see later that he's being forced to do this. Which is odd because it sure looks like he's enjoying this shit much more than any normal person would under the circumstances.

Meanwhile in Not Flashback Land, a note on the back tells Adam to turn off the lights. Despite his confusion, Gordon does and they find an ‘X’ on the wall that leads to a box full of bullets, two cigarettes and a note that tells Gordon he can use the poisonous blood on the floor to put in the cigarette and kill Adam with. Instead, Gordon turns off the lights and they make a plot to pretend Adam is dead. But then the Jigsaw Killer whips out his secret weapon, electrocution:

Should've had this sign in the room with them.

We also see that Danny Glover is playing a washed up, obsessed cop character who slowly goes crazy over the whole Jigsaw case. Danny Glover playing an old cop? How unique. That kind of thing has never been done before and is totally original for an actor like Glover!

So, yeah, if you want a realistic portrayal of a man’s descent into insanity, you might want to stay far away from this movie. Because unless you think decorating your apartment like John Doe from Se7en and talking to yourself in a raspy voice while laughing like a child molester is captivating, you may be disappointed. But how did he get like this when he used to be a pretty straight detective?

"I'm so obsessed! I'm an obsessive cop to END all obsessive cops! LOOK AT MY OBSESSIVENESS!"

So apparently Glover and his partner, Ethnic Stereotype to Show We’re Not Racist, went to this warehouse where they suspected Jigsaw called his home. Because of the Law of Movie Implausibility, they’re of course exactly right, and he has all his killer contraptions and what not just laid right out in the open for any random loser passing by to see through the windows. Since it’s right in the middle of the city, what are the chances that’s never happened before? Apparently pretty high.

So now we come to the portion of every horror movie that I like to call “We Don’t Understand Anything About Policework.” Here we have several different items to check off. Usually I just do a long paragraph of ranting and swearing about it, but honestly I’m just so tired of that. Sooooo it’s checklist time.

[x] Not calling for back-up or even bothering to get a search warrant? Check! Even when they realize it is Jigsaw’s lair after all, they still don’t!

[x] Waiting for him to get further inside the building and even far enough to activate a trap and slit Glover’s fucking throat because “they want to see his face.” Uh. See his face AFTER you arrest or shoot him? What’s the logic there? They could have just shot him right when he came in the door, but nooooo, so Glover’s throat gets cut and we get the next item on the checklist…

[x] Activated a trap that almost killed a guy.

I hope this guy got a nice spot on Jay Leno and a lawsuit settlement with the city police force after this.

But hey, I get it. It’s tough fighting a guy who has the foresight to tie some guns to the roof JUST IN CASE some cops happen to be chasing him down that specific hallway, with a trip wire designed to shoot the guns automatically if someone runs into it. Wow, that is specific.

I just hope he didn’t forget to take the wire down when the owner of the warehouse or someone came to inspect it. “Hey, Jigsaw Killer, I’m here to install your wireless internAAAAAGGGGHHH!” *splat*

Tragic. But what’s even more tragic, is that the Jigsaw Killer seems to think wearing a robe more befitting of a female Marvel Comics villain is scary somehow. Dude, you look like Todd MacFarlane’s conception of the grim reaper. It’s not at all effective!

Back in the dirty old nasty bathroom, Gordon receives a call from his family at gunpoint, and they tell him Adam has known him the whole time and is lying about some things. This prompts a long flashback that tells the story of how Gordon got captured in the first place. Apparently while trying to call his family, he got snatched by a man wearing a pig mask – not on the all-time manliest ways to get kidnapped.

Is there a reason for the pig mask? I mean, wouldn’t any mask technically work? Personally I would like to see this mask on the kidnapper next time:

Some people tell me there are very distinct reasons I’m not in the horror movie making business. I never know what they’re talking about.

So yeah, I guess we get quite a lot of gunshots, wrestling and running around after that as Gordon is under the impression that Zepp has murdered his family. He then undergoes the fascinating and nuanced style of acting commonly known as “which accent do I have?” Really it’s been sort of a problem all movie, but here it just gets to staggering levels of silliness: basically Elwes does this thing where he gets angry and starts shouting like a drunken maniac, but then when he gets sad a few seconds later, he talks like a prissy little girl afraid to miss her first day of school.

The emotion is real, but the way he’s conveying it is just so silly. It totally throws off what should be a very tense moment. I mean jeez, the only way he could get even more melodramatic would be to do something totally over-exaggerated like cutting off his own foo---

Oh. Well. Erm. Hmmm.

I guess if I said this scene wasn’t effective, I’d be lying to you. It really was very shocking the first time I saw it, all those years ago when I was a kid. It did its job and established the horrible price Gordon paid for his indiscretions, namely being so apathetic about his family. And now he’s literally lost a foot for his family in the end. The problem here is that the character development wasn’t deep enough to really make this as effective as it maybe could’ve been, but even so, I don’t think the film was ever intended to be a character study or anything. It works for what it is.

Then Gordon crawls to the dead body, grabs the gun and shoots Adam in the shoulder. All I can think here is how funny it would be if this bathroom was actually in use and had just been abandoned for the weekend. Maybe it’s the bathroom of some corporate building. Then the janitor comes in Monday morning and finds…well…


After Gordon crawls off to be doomed to appear in the last movie in the series too (SPOILERS!!!111!!), Adam is bleeding to death and looking for a key in Zepp’s pockets to unlock his chains. However, he just finds a tape recorder in there that reveals Zepp was never the Jigsaw Killer at all. But you know who IS the Jigsaw Killer? That dead body on the floor the whole time!

This scene, where he gets up, is probably the best in the whole movie – most of the movie’s flaws are completely redeemed by scenes like this, as well as the ending climax in general. Good shit.

Through some snappy flashbacks, we establish that the Jigsaw Killer’s real name is John and he was the patient Zepp got made fun of for connecting to earlier. Apparently John has an inoperable brain tumor and thus wants to show people how much they don’t appreciate their lives, teaching them “lessons” through sick torture games where they have to fight to survive. Man, cancer can make people do some bizarre things!

He tells Adam the key to the chains was in the bathtub, which flushed down the drain as soon as Adam woke up and accidentally unplugged the tub. Whoops! Then Jigsaw leaves Adam in the dark to die, saying “Game over,” and that’s it – we close out on the credits with Adam screaming over top.

So that’s Saw. It has its moments, and while I don’t love it like I once did, it’s still pretty decent overall. The main problems it has are that it’s just too shallow to really reach the kind of depth it’s going for. It’s trying to tell a story about people who don’t appreciate their lives learning lessons. But I don’t know, I don’t really get a sense that these people would ever really learn anything from these. Shawnee Smith’s character did, but what the hell did hers have to do with drug addiction anyway? She has to cut open some guy’s stomach to get a bear trap off her head? C’mon. The one in the second movie about the syringes was a better representation of that, even if it was a lot dumber than what we got here. Mostly these “lessons” just come off as needlessly complex.

That’s the other problem: it’s just too convoluted. All these different variables, the elaborate set-ups, the traps…it’s fun, sure, but it doesn’t really instill fear in me. It’s too far-removed from reality to ever really feel like “gee, that could happen to me.” Which is the most important thing in any horror movie, bar none. The closest it gets is just the scenes where the people are unsuspectingly awaiting kidnapping in the dark of their homes, which isn’t the bulk of the movie.

I enjoyed the “one room” scenes with Whannel and Elwes the most, as those were by far the most original scenes, and the ones the movie should’ve focused on more – Danny Glover’s cop character got far too much screentime in comparison, and the story with the kidnapped mother and daughter wasn’t all that interesting. The Whannel/Elwes scenes were cool because, like I said, seeing them figure out why they were there was cool. The chemistry they had on screen was pretty good and their characters were the most interesting ones in the movie.

So this is still the best Saw movie. It’s got a sort of underground charm to it that the others did not have. It’s just ironic to me that this movie, which was so refreshing for being an underground, bloody horror film in an age of corporate sell-outs and “ironic” attempts at pleasing the mainstream, quickly turned into exactly what it was fighting against with the sequels. The sequels all got less and less interesting because the traps were harder to get out of and the films became less about storytelling and more about the amount of plot twists crammed in per scene. And as such, they got less entertaining over time.

But at least we have this one. It may not have influenced horror’s most honorable subset of films, but it did make a mark and at the time, it was important. Entertaining if nothing else.

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