Now that the snooze-fest Transformers: Age Of Extinction is out of the way, we now return to our regularly scheduled programming. Originally for the month of October I had planned to do a collection of widely varied horror flicks covering every category, BUT that changed when I got my hands on the entire Saw collection on blu-ray. Seven movies that completely transformed the modern horror genre, although the big question is was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Up until the first Saw movie in 2004, the mainstream horror genre had been kind of spinning its wheels as the trend at the time was a heavy infusion of sci-fi and/or action, leaving us with “classics” such as Dreamcatcher, Feardotcom, Ghost Ship, Resident Evil, Ghosts of Mars, Thir13een Ghosts, and Hollow Man. On the franchise side you had Friday The 13th and the Halloween series steamrolling their way towards a reboot with disappointing outings, while the only new franchise to launch was Final Destination, which, while being very entertaining, is BARELY horror.
Sure, some gems did sneak out during these dark times like 28 Days Later, the American remake of The Ring, and the WAY BETTER than it had any right to be reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but for years it was just crushing letdown after crushing letdown. Saw changed ALL of this, bringing horror back to its low budget roots with a film that was harshly violent with very sharp elements of suspense and intrigue to it.
You've seen the formula a hundred times since then: a film with a SHOCKINGLY tiny budget, usually takes place in a very small location usually no bigger than a house, and has a greater focus on character interactions than the eventual torrent of blood and gore it inevitably erupts into. Saw, a labour of love from first time filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell, had a budget of around one million dollars and would go on to make over TEN TIMES THAT worldwide. Hollywood could not sign contracts fast enough to duplicate this formula after the box office receipts started rolling in, and suddenly damn near every horror movie (and plenty of non-horror movies as well) was emulating Saw until 2007 when Paranormal Activity threw down its atomic bomb of a game changer, but we'll be getting to that in due time.
If you can't tell by now, I LOVE this movie. It's far from perfect (as you'll soon see) but still stands as one of the most refreshingly original horror movies in my all time favourite genre, embracing everything suspenseful horror movies are supposed to be about. Keep an eye out for any suspicious characters wearing a pig mask as we begin the next film retrospective with A Ghoul Versus Saw!
Our film opens with a young man waking up in a bathtub, but unfortunately this doesn't signal the aftermath of one of the craziest parties of his life as he finds his leg is shackled to the floor. A quick shot also shows a key going down the drain of the bathtub as he struggles to get out of it. He starts screaming for help in the dark room, a male voice quietly replying there's no point in doing that. The other man turns the lights on, and we get the full reveal of where the majority of this movie is going to take place: a filthy old bathroom with each man chained on opposite sides of it.
But this isn't just any old filthy bathroom, for lying on the middle of the floor is a man lying in a massive pool of blood coming from a gunshot wound on his head. In his right hand is a tape recorder, in his left a pistol. The young man starts freaking the hell out, the older man trying to calm him down by getting him to talk. He introduces himself as Dr. Lawrence Gordon, played by the eternally dashing Cary Elwes, and the younger man says his name is Adam.
Adam is actually played by the screenwriter of this movie, Leigh Whannell, one of the main points of their contract with Lionsgate Films was that he be allowed to play the main role. Whannell and Wan turned down much more money from other studios who wouldn't agree to this, but had the final laugh when this became a runaway hit.
Neither man can remember how they wound up here, Gordon reasoning whoever kidnapped them did it for a specific reason or else they'd be dead by now. Adam researches his pockets, finding an envelope with his name of it sealed in a Ziploc bag. Inside is a cassette tape with the words “PLAY ME” written on it. This causes Gordon to do the same, also finding his own cassette tape with the added bonus of a single bullet AND a key. They take turns trying the key on the padlocks holding their chains together, but no luck.
Adam goes for the tape recorder in the dead man's hand next, and this is where I want to point out how EXCELLENT the score for this movie is. Wan's already intense atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the music, which was created by Charlie Clouser, an ex-member of the band Nine Inch Nails. I know, this is the WHOLE POINT of a score but this one really stands out when compared to most horror movies. Using his shirt and the stopper from his bathtub, Adam is able to snag the tape recorder and play his tape. A very creepy voice starts playing:
“Rise and shine, Adam. You're probably wondering where you are. I'll tell you where you might be. You might be in the room that you die in. Up until now, you've simply sat in the shadows watching others live out their lives. What do voyeurs see when the look into the mirror? Now I see you as a strange mix of someone angry and yet apathetic. But mostly just pathetic. So are you going to watch yourself die today, Adam? Or do something about it?”.
Gordon throws Adam his tape, hoping for some actual information.
“Dr. Gordon, this is your wake up call. Every day of your working life you have given people the news that they are going to die soon. Now you will be the cause of death. Your aim in this game is to kill Adam. You have until 6:00 on the clock to do it. There's a man in the room with you. When there is that much poison in your blood, the only thing left to do is shoot yourself. There are ways to win this hidden all around you. Just remember: “X” marks the spot for the treasure. If you do not kill Adam by 6:00 then Alison and Diana will die, Dr. Gordon. And I'll leave you in this room to rot. Let the game begin.”.
Gordon looks at the clock on the wall, seeing it is a little past 10:30. He demands Adam throw him the tape player, listening to the message again. At the very end they can hear the voice whisper “Follow your heart”, Gordon noticing a toilet near Adam has a heart painted on it. Doing his best impersonation of James Sunderland from the video game Silent Hill 2, Adam sticks his hand inside the filthy toilet but finds nothing of use. He searches the tank next and finds a bag, quipping he wishes he'd searched that first. Ha!
Inside the bag are two SAWS, the men trying to use them to SAW through their chains but they're way too thick. Gordon says their abductor doesn't want them to cut off their chains but instead their feet, realizing he may know who is behind this: a killer that the police once suspected him of being. This segues into a flashback of police detective Allison Kerry, played by the always good Dina Meyer, guiding two of her colleagues through a crime scene. It is quite horrific, a man trapped in a cage filled with razor wire who ended up cutting himself to death trying to escape. The coroner shows them a tape player they found at the scene, playing it for the detectives.
The recording details the man, Paul, had tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists but the captor wonders if it was only for attention so he's put Paul inside the cage to see if that was the case. He has two hours to escape the cage or else the door will seal forever, as we get sped up footage of Paul trying to tunnel out only to sustain severe cuts.
Detective David Tapp, played by Danny “I Will NEVER Get Too Old To Be Completely Awesome” Glover, notices a piece of skin has been cut off the body in the form of a jigsaw puzzle piece. Gordon narrates this earned the kidnapper the title of the “Jigsaw Killer”, noting he's technically not a killer as he always finds ways for his victims to kill themselves. We cut to another victim, a man who was faking being sick in an insurance fraud scheme that ended up burning himself alive. Kerry found a clue at this one: a penlight.
They trace the prints on the pen to Gordon, who works as an oncologist at one of the local hospitals. He is detailing the state of one of his patients suffering from a brain tumor to a class of young students, interrupted by one of the orderlies who tells him the man's name is John instead of just “patient”. The orderly is Zep Hindle, played by the EXCELLENT Michael Emerson of Lost fame. He was already somewhat famous for his Emmy award winning role as a serial killer on Generic Lawyer Show #4,290,511 The Practice, but for many, like myself, this was our introduction to one of the best actors working today.
Emerson excels at playing exceptionally creepy characters and Zep is no exception, as he has mastered one of the most unnerving stares I've ever seen. This scene is very well done, as we learn he cares a lot about the people he's helping while Gordon is a very detached man who is just going through the motions of his job. It's also noticeable for one of the young doctors making googly eyes at the handsome Gordon, because DUH LOOK AT HIM. One can't help but notice his attention is drawn to her over the rest of the class. For those of you keeping score at him, this is how you SHOW instead of TELLING. This barely two minute scene has told us more about these characters than an hour of a Michael Bay movie could ever hope to portray.
For what it's worth, we get a very brief shot of John lying in bed no doubt dreaming about his bitching soul patch. Gordon is interrupted by a page to his office, where he finds Tapp and Detective Steven Sing waiting for him. Sing is played by Ken Leung, not only continuing our theme of this film having really good actors but he's also an alumni of the show Lost, where he brought the hilarious Miles Straume to life.
Tapp and Sing question Gordon about his whereabouts the previous night but he is reluctant to answer so they take him down to the police station for questioning. We learn his refusal to cooperate was due to the fact he's having an affair and that's where he was last night. His alibi checks out, but before they let him go they have him listen in on the testimony of a Jigsaw victim that actually survived her trial.
Her name is Amanda Young, played by the multi-talented and absolutely stunning Scream Queen Extraordinaire Herself, Mrs. Shawnee Smith. Not only is she an incredible actress that can do every genre, she's also fronted both a heavy metal band AND a country band. Amanda details her ordeal, waking up in a chair to find herself caught in one of Saw's most famous images: the Reverse Bear Trap. We'll cover the traps in later movies as they undeniably became THE defining characteristic of the series in the same way we all have our favourite death scenes in the Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies, but here they were just an element of a MUCH larger story.
From one iconic shot to another, a television screen flashes to life across from Amanda as we're introduced to the face of Saw: Billy The Puppet, a puppet so creepy he'd send Chuckie crying home to his mum. Billy drops franchise catchphrase “I want to play a game” as he tells Amanda she has one minute to find the key to her trap before it rips her face apart. He helpfully tells her the key is in the stomach of a dead man lying on the ground next to her, but it turns out he was fibbing about that part and the man is still alive. With less than thirty seconds to go and panic in full effect, Amanda starts stabbing and stabbing until she finds the key to free herself.
This is actually one of the most contentious points of the series, as the man Amanda killed was never given any kind of chance to save his life. This goes against everything Jigsaw stands for, as he always gives his victims an opportunity for redemption. I suppose you could make the case the man failed his trial earlier and this was the consequence or that this was never meant to be a franchise and they didn't put all that much thought into it, but with the meticulous planning of the later films this scene does tend to stand out. Billy rides into the room on a tricycle, giving us the Jigsaw creed:
“Congratulations, you are still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you, not anymore.”.
Tapp brings up how Amanda is a junkie, reasoning that's why Jigsaw picked her. She admits Jigsaw helped her, much to the detective's shock. The film returns to the present where Adam figures out they're being watched by a security camera as a quick cut shows a mystery figure on the other side observing them via a monitor.
Click here for Part 2!