Horror, as with many other genres, has had several evolutionary branches develop over the decades, and different decades have had different branches take prominence. Monster movies, psychological thrillers, haunted houses, slashers, and even parody-homages have held the top spots at various times. The pendulum is swinging back to possessions now, but for a while in the mid-2000s, the genre of choice seemed to be films which focused on the fear of physical torment. Dubbed “torture porn” by its detractors, the most prominent of these films and the progenitor of most of them was 2004’s Saw.
Not one to shy away from disturbing content — at least, not within the month of Halloween! — I took the plunge and checked the film out this year.
The nice thing about the decision to watch a film like this is that it’s pretty much guaranteed to be better than the decisions of the characters.
Saw begins well enough. A photographer awakens in a bathtub in a dark room. He soon discovers two things: he’s chained to a pipe, and he has a cellmate. Once the other man, a surgeon, finds a light switch, they take assessment of their situation, and discover that neither can remember exactly how they got there. They soon realize they’re in the hands of “the jigsaw killer”, a serial killer whose modus operandi is to lead his captives to kill each other or themselves in their attempts to escape, allegedly to teach them to value the lives they’ve been taking for granted. Sure enough, messages on audio cassette confirm their situation, as the doctor is told that unless he kills Adam by 6:00, his wife and daughter will be murdered. As the doctor relates to the photographer what he knows of the killer, from being questioned during the investigation earlier, the audience is shown flashbacks of the killer’s earlier victims and death traps.
Curiously, this actually serves to weaken the suspense in the film. Besides the general sloppiness of flashbacks within flashbacks, by having Dr. Gordon relate twice-told tales, it takes some of the realness away from the killings. Coupled with the death traps being over-elaborate to the point of imitation Bond villainy, it makes it rather difficult to buy into the fear of the situations. Director James Wan then compounds this problem with some strange directorial choices, such as having the victims attempt their escapes in fast forward while adrenaline-charging music plays. It feels more like an action movie than a suspense film during these moments.
The puppet’s creepy, though. I’ll give it that.
There is one bright point to the flashbacks, and that’s Danny Glover as the detective who is trying to track down the jigsaw killer. Glover doesn’t get a lot of screen time compared to the main characters, but he puts such nuance into his role — no doubt aided by the viewer’s familiarity with him in weary cop roles — that it’s easy to get a sense of personality for his character.
That aside, the film is actually far superior when it’s just dealing with Adam and Lawrence in their cell. As the old masters of suspense knew, sometimes the scariest thing to show is nothing at all. Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote the film with James Wan, plays photographer Adam and is a natural at depicting somebody who expresses their fear through outrage. He’s angry, he’s mouthy, he’s almost out of control… and he’s in stark contrast with his cell mate, Dr. Lawrence Gordon. It’s always a pleasure to see Cary Elwes, whose talent tends to far exceed the movie offerings he seems to get, at least outside of The Princess Bride (though I’ll admit to having a soft spot for Robin Hood: Men in Tights, it would be a fib to say it was a great film). Here, Elwes plays Gordon with a sense of reserved calm; he knows he’s in trouble and there are times when he gets emotional, but he’s clearly applying his ingrained tendency to medical detachment. It makes it that much more powerful when he does let loose his emotions. When the film focuses on just Adam and Lawrence and their situation, it succeeds at being a suspenseful film far better than it does when it’s trying to show the pain and suffering of prior victims. Of course, there are still moments when the directing gets in the way, such as intermittent viewings through a closed-circuit camera. During these shots, it is difficult to see or hear what is going on, and the gimmick serves little purpose other than to remind the audience that somebody is watching, which is patently clear from the beginning. I also have to take issue, if only slightly, with the final twist of the film. Without spoiling anything, it relies on a trained medical professional failing at one of the key skills a medical professional is trained at. I’m willing to forgive it under “he was stressed”, but it was nevertheless a small concern.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is one more thing that I have to say about my personal viewing experience with the film. As I’ve stated in years past, one of the things I’m always curious about is whether or not a horror film will give me nightmares — no film of any genre has since I was a small child. I’ve had a personal rule that if any horror film should succeed in giving me a nightmare, I would automatically raise its rating by one point. I have to admit that when I went to bed after watching Saw, I did indeed have a Saw-inspired dream. It was not, however, a nightmare, as I wasn’t frightened or distraught in the dream. I was instead rather peeved, and spent the dream berating the killer’s hypocrisy and baseless assumptions in his motivations. As a conscious individual I am of course aware that a fictional serial killer is pretty much the last place one should look for warranted assumptions and internally consistent logic, but apparently my subconscious is an even harsher critic than its waking counterpart. So I’m afraid I can’t give Saw the nightmare bonus, as the dream it inspired did not qualify.
On the whole, Saw is a rather uneven experience. The acting is very good, and the basic plot is indeed worthy of suspense. But it’s a better film and a scarier film when it’s not dealing with the torture and gore that are ostensibly its reason for existing. In a way, it should have been an even lower-budget production; remove the fancier deathtraps, and it’s a more visceral experience.