Thursday, October 16, 2014

SAW Retrospective: Saw (2004)

Director: James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannel, Michael Emerson, Monica Potter, Dina Meyer, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell
Rated: R

I'm a kill you, you sick asshole!
    ~Detective David Tapp

Believe it or not, its been 10 years since the original Saw surprised audiences back in October of 2004.  Even more surprising, this film wound up launching THE popular go-to multi-sequeled franchise of the 00s.  Every Halloween you could bank on a new entry in the franchise.  And in its own unique turn, it became what I call the "General Hospital of horror franchises".  Its a series that kept tight in its continuity, rewarding fans who kept paying attention and coming up with insane twists based on who is left character wise and how they can prolong the lifeline of the series.  We'll get to more of that later on, but I felt it worth noting to start out.  Some may have found the franchise tiresome, but anytime we keep compounding more and more of these I find it pretty fun.
Going back to 2004, I was extremely eager to see this movie.  My friend Cameron and I had been reading about it for about a year since it was making waves around film festivals.  The concept sounded really awesome.  Finally in October it was released, and we went.  I was not disappointed at all.  In fact I went to see it later that week with a couple of other friends.  When it came out on DVD a few months later it was one I had to introduce others too.  I've always had an affinity toward these low budget, strong concept horror movies that seem to excel.  This film also felt like it was taking place in the same world as Seven stylistically so it also had a lot of appeal for me in that regard.  After seeing it then, I never thought it was something that you'd make a sequel to, but I was clearly wrong.
Returning to the original film is somewhat of an eye-opener in how much not like the series' reputation it is.  Later on Saw and Hostel films will result in people calling them "torture porn" in which this original film is none of that.  Like predecessors in the genre before it, Psycho, Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, people would think they saw much more graphic violence in this film than they actually did.  The first movie is extremely tame compared to the heights that some will give it.  Even the memorable cutting the foot off at the end isn't very bloody or visible at all.  Its what people thought they saw that seems much worse.  This film is much more built around being a mystery-thriller with the backdrop of horror affects rather than a straight rip down gore alley.  It doesn't even have that green filter washing in every scene that you think has been the norm for the series since the get go.
The aspect that keeps this film working for me is its joy in putting together a puzzle.  We'll talk about some faults in second, but right now I want to point out what this film has above all else.  It may not be the best written or made film in the franchise, but its at least something that goes beyond "figure this out in 2 seconds or you will be violently annihilated."  While you're really uncovering things as soon as the characters do, the film at least lends itself to having the audience look for clues and try to solve riddles in order to get Adam and Lawrence Gordon ("I'm a doctor") closer to the escape from their chained room.  On top of that, you get not one but two mysteries.  The other is the identity of Jigsaw as the film clearly plays that its one of the members of the cast.  And I must say, upon my first viewing, I did not recognize Tobin Bell in the hospital bed.  This time watching it, it is such a brief shot with him laying, head turned.  Bell also had a shaved head which I'd never seen him with before this.  So, be it my surprise when I discovered it was him at the end.  The whole movie I was just praying it was the super obvious Zep behind the whole thing.  But hey, Michael Emerson, this couple with some TV guest spots landed him a pretty solid career since.
Revisiting Saw, its not as strong as I remember my initial theatrical outing and subsequent lovefest with it on DVD when it arrived.  Scott Mendelson and I were once discussing the film and mentioned that it feels like a film that's almost there and feels like its a draft or two from being perfect.  And I have to say he's right on the money.  This film has a great concept (even if its ignorant with its "He's never technically killed anybody"...yes, yes he has) and a cool mystery to run through.  However, its dialogue is clunky, forced and really awkward a lot of the time to get its story moving.  The film also gets some of the most bizarre performances from notable strong players.  Danny Glover is just straight up weird and completely inconsistent in the movie.  Cary Elwes almost looks uncomfortable with the material at times and when the film calls for big emotions, the veteran can't seem to handle it at all.  Monica Potter, not normally a strong actress, but is usually serviceable is incredibly wooden in the film.  There are also events surrounding Zep that make absolutely no sense if he's not Jigsaw.  Its got a difficult time with its red herrings and if you spotted Tobin Bell early on like I missed when I first saw it, and minutes ticked by without seeing him again you just knew he was it (oh yeah, plus his extremely distinct voice).  For many general audiences though, I'm not sure how many subscribe to the Tobin Bell newsletter prior to Saw though.
With all those shortcomings, I still enjoy the mystery, concept and design enough to overlook a lot of it and still have fun.  I even have fun in unintentionally funny areas of the film.  There's an appreciation I have for the low budget nature of this film.  90% of this movie was shot in one warehouse.  And its neat knowing that to see how they redressed sets and pretty much created every room in the film.  Now, I'm too forgiving of all the low budgeteering, as this movie contains maybe the single worst car chase ever caught on film.  Watching it now, the film oddly looks similar to film stock used in the 90s that it could almost pass for a 90s film.  There are some cool riffs on scenes in previous horror movies and memorable moments abound too.  The killer's motif and traps also are a nice homage to Vincent Price's Dr. Phibes, too.  It may not be as "incredible" as I once thought, but I still have a good deal of fun with the original Saw.  And those apprehensive about these films from the get go, know that this a rather clean affair and more mystery based setting itself apart from the paths this series would later take.

NEXT TIME:  There is a new kid on the block to trade wits with John Cramer

Saw is also returning to theaters this year and here's the trailer for that!

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