Don’t think I don’t hear your gasps in disgust all at once. The Saw franchise has become synonymous with “torture porn” filmmaking: how many ways can we pull the human body apart, limb from limb, organ from organ and still make it watchable? Each subsequent Saw movie seems to up the ante when it comes to the depiction of violence. By the time Saw III came around, which featured a giant vat filled with pig’s blood derived from a slaughter-by-numbers assembly line, I think the nation collectively threw in the towel. Gradually the franchise became less concerned about maintaining a cohesive narrative tied to a villain for the ages, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), and more about finding new ways to punish his victims. But, as we all know, Saw didn’t start out this way. Whether it be Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream or Friday the 13th, you can pretty much guarantee the first installment of any popular horror franchise is a work of art; the rest, meanwhile, are about as delectable as reheated leftovers. Saw falls in the same grouping. Director James Wan – now the undeniable master of contemporary horror – pummeled audiences with a heavily atmospheric, gruesome, thematically rich plot that managed to both hybridize the genre and revolutionize it. With 2004’s Saw, Wan ushered in a new era of Hollywood, one that would rely on micro-budget horror films to make up for the multitude of losses throughout a given year. More than anything, though, is this opinion from yours truly: Saw is without a doubt my favorite horror film of all-time.
Tough statement to swallow, I know. It may be a generational thing – certain horror films connect with you more because you were there to experience its zeitgeist stature firsthand. All I can do is speak for myself and say that Saw was really the first of its kind to make me interested in the genre. For the longest time, slashers, monster flicks and supernatural movies did nothing except repel me away from ever stepping foot inside their walls. I could not get past the “pop-outs,” scary make-up jobs and gruesome images I’d take with me to my dreams. It wasn’t until watching Saw that I realized horror could originate from a place far more frightening than a mask: the very psychology of human behavior. When that behaviorism is put to the ultimate test, what unfolds is both catastrophic and cathartic. In the case of Saw, we see redemption and penance go hand in hand. None of Jigaw’s victims are innocent; they’ve got their demons they need to overcome but doing so isn’t as easy as saying a few “Hail Mary’s” and all will be forgiven. Jigsaw makes these sinners work for their salvation. It is by no means easy to watch, nor is Jigsaw some antihero we should erect a statue for anytime soon, but there is a precision to his madness that elevates him above many stupid, hackneyed horror villains that precede him, who have no sense of order and are just animalistic bloodspatterers.
From the get-go, audiences are thrust into a situation that offers no explanation or context. All that is apparent is that two men, Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), find themselves chained up in an abandoned bathroom with a dead man on the floor, his brains blown out by his own hand…or so it seems. The film immediately establishes its tone, mood and iconic color palette. Green has never been more sickly menacing, while blue has never seemed so severely lifeless. Wan pulls the life force out of us with his elaborate mise-en-scene. Jigaw’s lair is probably the single most terrifying man cave I have ever seen. However, the film doesn’t just rely on visuals and heinous acting (minus Tobin Bell) to sell itself, like most horror films do. The movie works as well as it does because of its narrative structure. It uses flashbacks effectively to fill in the vague introductions of both the characters we meet and the villain who sets all his dastardly plans in motion. What I love about Jigsaw as a villain, specifically in the first Saw, is how omnipotent he truly is. He’s set traps and kidnapped victims before the film even starts — you truly believe he’s one step ahead of the audience and seven0thousand steps ahead of his prey.
Wan’s Saw is also one of the very few horror films that jumps off from the middle of the story, kind of like how the classic film noir flicks used to do it. By doing so, Wan and writer Whannell have us looking forward to the flashbacks as much as what’s ahead, always knowing that everything we see completes more and more of the elaborate puzzle. This is not a movie that’s missing key story elements or details to complete the whole bloody picture. All the clues and warning signs are at your disposal, and yet Saw still manages to shock you to your very core with its twist of all twist endings. I don’t know a single person who has watched Saw for the first time and correctly foretold the ultimate reveal. It’s a testament to Saw’s writing that the film’s ending leaves your jaw stuck to the ground longer than any prior violent imagery did. The fear and realization in that moment is truly incomparable, knowing full well there was never going to be a shot at a happy ending despite a few rays of hope scattered here and there. Oh Saw, you viscous, smart, elaborate, brutal creature, you!
Saw is the movie that got me hooked on horror. It showed me that horror can be complex in its execution, that it can be brainy and thematic without diluting the innate feeling of dread. You have moments of legitimate shock (the conclusion), moments that make you jump three feet out of your seat (the man in the pig mask lunging straight into the camera), and moments that seem so beautifully bizarre, they could only come from the mind of a mad genius (Billy the Puppet riding his tricycle to Shawnee Smith’s Amanda). Coupled with one of Danny Glover’s last truly memorable performances, Saw is an ensemble horror flick that gets you to care about its characters whilst guiltily remaining in awe of Jigsaw’s puppet-mastering all throughout. Great horror films stick the knife in you, and make you feel the pain but never go for the kill. Saw’s sequels tend to go for the kill from scene one, which naturally prevents many a viewer from sticking around for the entire duration. That a horror film can make you think on a deeper level than most, fear on a deeper level than most, and react on deeper level than most means it’s an instant classic. Forget about the trash that came afterward – let us praise the towering, singular achievement of Saw. Without Saw, there would be no maestro like Wan around to uphold the high standard horror aficionados expect from the genre.