After suffering through the monotonous "Suspect Zero," I was ready to say that
serial killer films were a thing of the past. How many more variations can one
find in the confines of a serial killer story? Even Hannibal Lecter was reduced
to cartoonish size in "Hannibal" and "Red Dragon." The best film on serial
killers is still "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" for its grim reality and
lack of irony, and also for not sticking close to the genre's penchant for
unrelenting gore. "American Psycho" was an antiseptic joke on consumerism, but
an entertaining joke nonetheless. "Saw" is nothing new but it is feverishly
intense and in-your-face. Gory, yes, but its setting and performances raise it
a notch above the usual claptrap.
"Saw" begins with two protagonists in an isolated setting. The two protagonists
are Dr. Laurence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a young photographer, Adam (Leigh
Whannell). Both men awaken to find themselves chained to the walls with leg
irons in a grimy looking bathroom. Two saws are available but they are too
rusty and feeble to cut through anything, except their own ankles. They also
have mini cassetes in their pockets with instructions, giving them potential
clues to their escape. A corpse is in the middle of the room, drenched in blood
in an apparent suicide and holding a mini cassette player. There is a dilemna:
Dr. Gordon must kill Adam to save himself and his family. The serial killer
remains unseen, perhaps hiding behind a two-way mirror observing their actions.
Sometimes we catch a glimpse of a puppet with a hideous clown face marked with
red spirals riding a tricycle! What in the name of "Seven" and "Silence of the
Lambs" is going on here?
Most of "Saw" rests on flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Dr. Gordon
recognizes that the killer may be the Jigsaw Killer, who doesn't exactly kill
his victims - he places them in deliberate mazes and contraptions of death
where they are forced to kill or kill themselves. One truly grisly flashback
shows a heroin addict (Shawnee Smith) with a contraption attached to her head
with a timing device that will spring open and destroy her jaws. She has to
save herself by obtaining a key in the stomach of a corpse, a scene that will
make gore-laden aficionados squirm. We also see a man trying to break through
razor-sharp barbed wire. "Saw" is like a modern Grand Guignol remake of the
"The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Raven" with shocks to the system delivered
with ugly punches to the gut. This is definitely the kind of movie where you
cringe and avert your eyes more than once.
"Saw" also uses the muscular work of a film director utilizing every camera
trick in the book. There are plenty of hand-held camera shots, roving cameras
that pan around the intended victims in practically time-lapse motion, and
subliminal cuts galore. These distancing effects are often detrimental in
horror thrillers. Here, they heighten the suspense and the gore. First-time
director James Wan often uses such devices when necessary instead of exploiting
them - the grainy footage of that clown mask will make you shudder. The
washed-out look of the grimy bathroom, lit by fluorescent lights, will make you
want to use clorox and make the room spankingly clean.
"Saw" does have its share of forgivable gaping holes in the plot, including one
involving Danny Glover as a cop whose partner is killed by the Jigsaw Killer.
Glover is certain that the good doctor is the killer but since Glover's
character is not developed, it is difficult to see what the connections are or
how he finds the killer's lair (though his apartment is even more unkempt than
Denzel Washington's in "The Manchurian Candidate" remake). There is also
another head-scratcher involving the placement of a gun in the bathroom, though
it is somewhat resolved in the climax. If nothing else, I wished I knew more
about Dr. Gordon and his infidelities, or the brash photographer Adam and his
proclivity for taking snapshots. I can only guess that the filmmakers initially
thought of only using the bathroom setting minus the cop character and some of
flashbacks, which would have made this film as claustrophobic as last summer's
"Saw" is an efficient, effective thriller, utilizing every trick in the
suspense book for maximum fright. With its dark conclusion, unyielding scares
and ominous score, not to mention a decaying atmosphere, "Saw" will thrillingly
remind one of how these movies used to be made. Think "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"
without the irony and the humor of the post-"Scream" thrillers. "Saw" is a true
shocker in a jaded age.
Copyright © 2004 Jerry Saravia