The Revisit – Saw (2004)

On August 11, 2015 by Garrett Collins

Note: If you have not seen the first Saw film, I recommend not reading this until you have. I am going to spoil the hell out of it. On another note, I also recommend drinking while reading this article. It’s the only way I can come off as a smart writer. Thank you.

downloadSo you know that little movie which came out about cars and made a $1 billion called Furious 7? Once upon a time, eleven years ago to be precise, James Wan, the director of that little car movie, started a horror uprising. Saw, Wan’s directorial debut, was released with little fanfare and ended up making over $100 million, spawning six sequels in the process. Much like New Line Cinema is considered the ‘house that Freddy built,’ I am pretty sure Jigsaw can claim he did the same for Lionsgate. At the time of Saw‘s 2004 release, no one had ever seen anything like it. Or had they?

Saw is one of those movies that someone either really likes or really hates. What it helped spawn, the ‘torture porn’ sub genre of horror, has had its fair share of debaters both for and against its merits. Zombie master George Romero has said that he does not get these types of films because they lack metaphor. He may have a point. But my whole approach to the horror genre is pretty much my approach to anything within the business. All press is good press. So whether it’s remakes, found footage, or ‘torture porn,’ as long as the genre is in the press, it can only mean good things.

Background: To this day, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell swear they do not see their project as anything other than a scary thriller. Starting off as a 30 minute student film, expanded into a reel for studios, and eventually turned into a Lionsgate feature, Saw is generally credited with giving birth to the Americanized version of the ‘torture porn’ series of films which enveloped cinemas in the early 2000s. The traps they concocted for the film were not meant to titillate an audience -which I feel later sequels did out of necessity to the franchise- as much as have the characters do much like they hope their audience does, which is question their morals. Something to keep in mind about Saw is that it was meant to be a straight to DVD title. It was only after a successful Sundance screening that Lionsgate had enough confidence to release the film theatrically in October. That’s right. A horror movie was released October 29th. Go figure it’s successful, right? Oh, and speaking of confidence, Wan waved his direct working fee in exchange for points on box office returns. I wonder how that turned out for him.

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Me, I have two words which describe what made me look forward to watching Saw: Fangoria Magazine. A longtime horror fan, I knew the genre once again needed a shot in the arm. The low end spoof franchises never held my attention, and the one note, self referential horror films which followed in Scream‘s wake were long past being interesting. So I picked up a copy of Fangoria one day on my way home from college and saw the famous picture of Cary Elwes reaching for a cell phone just out of reach on its cover, and I was immediately hooked line & sinker. Wan and Whannell were given a six page spread cover story, which would make me already cry victory if I was in their shoes. I showed that magazine to my girlfriend at the time, and I could not wait to see what the new revolution of horror would bring. Finally something new. Something different. But was it? I’ve been let down before. On opening day, I was fixing to find out if this was one of those times.

What I Thought Then: The final twist of this movie, Jigsaw being in the room the entire time, was just the cherry on top of the delicious horror sundae I found Saw to be. The word that came to mind after the film ended was refreshing. After the onslaught of bullshit films like One Missed Call and Dark Water, I was ready to be blown away again, and Saw accomplished just that for me. It was full of nihilistic and schizophrenic style panic. This was the most jolted I had been at the movies in quite sometime, and though it seemed awful violent at the time, I respected the suspense that was built around it. It was so refreshing to see a film actually take its subject matter seriously, and no winking or references to past franchises were in sight. Though Wan did slickly enter homages when he could. For example, the shot of us seeing nothing but the black leathered glove wearing hands of the killer is a direct homage to early films of Dario Argento.

I knew then that we were watching a director on the rise. Wan was given just over $1 million to make the movie as suspenseful as he could. This forced him to build Billy (Jigsaw’s doll) himself out of clay, paper-mache, and black ping pong balls, with Wan painting the irises for the eyes. This was the first time I felt a horror film was made by horror fans my age for horror fans their age. It felt like the perfect mismash of Seven and Silence of the Lambs, two of my favorite films from the 90s.

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Before I get to the next part of this article, I want to commend the makers of Saw for one more thing. I compare what they did with the sets to how George Lucas constructed his for Star Wars 27 years before. Wan made his sets ‘used.’ Everything felt so grimy and dirty that I could literally taste the rusted steel in Shawnee Smith’s trap. My girlfriend and I could not stop talking about the film for days afterward. Perhaps unironically, we broke up a little over a week later.

What I Think Now: I had not seen the first Saw since days before the release of Saw 3-D. After watching it this time, I came to one conclusion: Saw is not a very good movie. Don’t get me wrong. It was jolting, and it was internally painful. But now when I watch the film, its plot holes are ridiculous. The idea that Jigsaw could lie motionless on the floor for 90 minutes is laughable, especially considering the electric shock Zep sends through Dr Gordon and Adam would have no doubt hit him as well, considering they were on a wet floor.

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Speaking of Dr Gordon, this would lead me to Elwes. Now, I did not think about it at the time, because I was so encompassed in the film. But I am highly convinced that Elwes had no idea of what kind of film he was making at the time he shot Saw. His B-movie level reactions, especially towards the end, are almost enough to take me out of the film. People make fun of Sofia Coppola’s acting in Godfather 3. In my opinion, Elwes gives her a run for her money, and I do not feel Wan was seasoned enough to know the actor had no idea he was in a movie that was actually being serious about its situations. Not that Whannell was any better.

The danger of stretching a simple idea of two men stuck in a bathroom into a 90 minute movie about how those guys got there and need to get out of it is that it feels just like what it is: stretched out. Don’t get me wrong. Wan does what he can, and needs to be commended for building the world that would expand into a universe later on. But the simple truth is I found Saw almost unwatchable this time. It has a couple thrilling moments, and I congratulate it for introducing us to not just one (Jigsaw) but two (Billy The Puppet) new slasher icons. But I feel the film’s brief Halloween 2014 re-release flopping at the box office is enough to prove to me that Saw is not the legacy I originally thought it was. I’m glad it gave Wan and Whannell long lasting careers, as they both seem like nice guys who made the film they wanted to make. But the over enthusiastic fan of the film I was eleven years ago has almost disappeared.

In Conclusion: Make no mistake about it. Saw is an innovator. Notice the quick cutting, senses jolting style Wan first-saw-movie-coming-back-this-halloweenclarifies victims’ paranoia. Future directors Darren Lynn Bousman, David Hackl, and Kevin Greutert took this style and amped it up with steroid induced intensity. Its style has been copied many times over by many horror films. In fact, if there is one thing that was kept consistent, at least through the first three films of the series, it was its ticking clock aspect of the story. In Wan’s first film, we knew someone would eventually cut their foot off. In the second film, we knew someone would cut flesh from the back of their neck off. And in the third, we knew eventually Jigsaw was going to get a gratuitous operation. Wan’s was the best, as the saws being used on chains made them wear down, which means when Elwes finally uses it on himself, the knot in my throat which was building and building over an hour and twelve minutes of its running time was finally let out. Though that metaphor can also be attributed to my overall feelings of the film’s lasting effect on me.

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