This review of Saw is part of the Saw Franchise Retrospective series in anticipation of this month’s release of Jigsaw.
The first image we see in James Wan’s Saw, now somewhat of a perennial torture porn classic, sets up the illogical world that this series is grounded in. A fitting introduction, one might say. We see Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also serves as screenwriter) underwater in a tub with a key dangling in front of his face. He is holding his breath, but also unconscious. When he wakes, he yanks open the drain and the key disappears forever.
How long was he out? How could he be alive after being unconscious underwater? Why place the key in the tub if it is only going to float down the drain? Is it a cruel irony? If so, what’s the point? It isn’t like Adam was awake to see the key. And what if he somehow kept the key from floating down the drain in the first place? Would it have unlocked his chains and nullified the entire plot? What would he and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) have learned, then?
This is our starting point. From here, Saw continues on its nonsensical psychological thriller way, weaving a puzzle whose pieces are held together by the glue of contrivance.
Thus sets the tenor of the entire Saw franchise, a tenor that rings out as a question. Is the franchise about the head games supposedly underlying the script, or is it about the gore games contained on screen? The first film in the franchise appears to try to have both and utilize them earnestly.
As such, there is a certain DIY drive that gives Saw its charm. It is not so much about the elaborate traps and CGI blood spatter as it is about piecing together what the warped mind of this killer has in store for his victims. This sets it apart from the slasher films from which this franchise feels borne out of. The killer has motivations. The killings are more than mere hack and slash.
This is undoubtedly where the Saw franchise got its footing, a stronghold that reaped box office benefits every year for seven years. Whether derided or loved, the franchise found success.
And it started here. Plot contrivances aside, it is a fairly engaging genre film. The script may not be stellar, but the cast sells it realistically. Danny Glover and Ken Leung make the law enforcement archetype more than just an obligation. Cary Elwes is pretty fun to watch as a captor (Whannell may be a bit overbearing, in contrast). And Michael Emerson channels his inner creep as he does so affectionately in Lost as the hospital janitor Zep (his namesake song, a compelling work by Charlie Clouser, would go on to become the de facto theme song for the franchise).
Visually, Wan makes good use of the space of this dingy bathroom. He makes it feel uncomfortable and smaller than it actually is by isolating Whannell and Elwes in their own shots. The film also makes good use of slick scene transitions (transitions that become less slick as the series goes on).
Despite what works about the film, what makes it such a fan favorite, Saw is an admittedly cheesy film. The plot holes are widespread, the conveniences that link the rest of the plot points are obvious, and the script cracks with strange bits of dialogue. While not as much of an exploitation film as the latter films tend to be, the twists in the narrative don’t hold up to much scrutiny when it comes to the awe of it all.
The worst of the reviews for Saw derided it for its gleeful fetishization of violence and the idiocy of its plotting. Little did they know what was coming. Now, the first film in the Saw franchise feels quaint. It also succeeds at its premise much more than future films would. Perhaps only through comparison, Saw is an adequate horror film.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)