Movie Information

Genre: Horror
Director: James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Leigh Whannell, Ken Leung, Michael Emerson
Rated: R

If you’re going to see Saw, be prepared for plenty of grisly doings, including the performance of actor Cary Elwes, who offers one of the most classically awful performances since the advent of the talking picture. Indeed, I have yet to encounter a limburger cheese less aromatic than his performance here. And while I won’t deny that his performance has a high amusement value, I doubt that was his intention.

Co-star Danny Glover makes a vain attempt to keep up with Elwes in this regard. But though he alternates between some high-caliber scenery-chewing and a sense of “When are we gonna make Lethal Weapon V?,” Glover nonetheless comes across as someone who at least didn’t wander in from a community theater production of Night Must Fall in Dubuque.

Of course, Glover is only in this low-budget horror flick because his career has stalled. Elwes is here because his career never really took off in the first place. The same could be said of the film’s third “name” star, Monica Potter, and she does nothing to really distinguish or embarrass herself here, which rather describes her entire career.

The movie itself is the brainchild of two Australian film-school grads, James Wan (who co-wrote the story and directed) and Leigh Whannell (who wrote the script and co-starred). While the concept is not very original (overall it smacks of a low-rent Se7en), the film could serve as a model for ambitious young filmmakers with limited financial resources. By keeping the film simple and mostly making a virtue of their meager million-dollar budget, the filmmakers make Saw work more than might be expected.

And there’s no denying that this movie has many critics jazzed up. Just take a quick scan of Saw‘s reviews and compare them with those of most recent horror films. Sure, the reviews are split just about down the middle, but that’s pretty good when it comes to this genre. Look at the reviews for such far slicker, more professional and more accomplished thrillers as Jeepers Creepers 2 or Exorcist: The Beginning, and you’d think Saw was the Citizen Kane of splatter.

Horror fans know all too well that most mainstream critics have a tendency to go easy on low-budget pictures with vaguely artistic ambitions and a history of festival-circuit kudos. If you doubt that, check out the good reviews that accompanied last year’s Cabin Fever, a movie that was greeted with shrugs by most horror fans, who rightly felt it was nothing new.

Outside of the lackluster performances, this movie is at least more deserving of praise than Cabin Fever was. When Saw sticks to its basics, it’s lean, mean and more than a little disturbing. Here’s the story: Two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) and Adam (Whannell), awake to find themselves chained to pipes in what can only be described as the public toilet from hell. That by itself is unsettling enough — but then there are the tape-recorded instructions they listen to.

Gordon is told that he has to murder Adam in order to save his wife (Potter) and daughter (Mackenzie Vega, Made) from being offed by the unknown madman who has imprisoned them. As events unfold, they find they’ve been supplied with hacksaws, but the tools are useless on their chains and it becomes clear that they must saw off their feet in order to get loose. Yes, it’s grim, sadistic stuff, but that’s only the beginning of the film’s catalogue of gruesome concepts, which are a cross between the “fitting” punishment killings of Se7en and the jokier “creative deaths” that kept The Omen movies going for three sequels.

These various outrages are designed by a serial murderer known as the “Jigsaw Killer” who puts people in situations that require them to commit either suicide or murder — in order to get them to “appreciate life.” Realizing that the film would be more than a little dull if it never got out of the toilet, Wan and Whannell have fleshed it out with flashbacks that fill us in on the two main characters’ backgrounds, as well as those of the “Jigsaw Killer” and the slightly unhinged detective (Glover) who pursues him.

That’s good splatter-film material, but Saw ultimately loses its edge by overcomplicating the connections between the characters. This blunts the fear factor because the situation was much more disturbing when it appeared random. The fact that Saw also wants to be a mystery also muddies the water, especially since one aspect of the mystery is so transparent that it’s laughable. In addition, the mystery madman’s disguises are overused, and one looks like it was purchased at an auction of costumes from The Village. And when the film overreaches its budgetary restrictions with a chase scene that suggests more than it actually shows, the film looks like nothing so much as an ambitious student effort.

With all these problems, why do I assign a rating that borders on a recommendation? Simply because Saw is a good deal of nasty fun if you care for this sort of film. You may find yourself laughing as much as shuddering — and goodness knows that’s all you can do with Elwes’ performance — but that doesn’t keep the movie from being entertaining. It’s the kind of horror film where you’re apt to find audiences shouting instructions to the characters. (After one of Elwes’ gamier outbursts of histrionics, I couldn’t keep from saying, “Please don’t do that again.”) So you can expect at least one of those idiotic moments where the heroes snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by not offing the killer when the chance presents itself.

But that is exactly the appeal of this sort of movie, and on that level, you could do a lot worse than seeing Saw (like seeing the currently showing The Grudge, for example).

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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