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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Saw

Starring: Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes
Director: James Wan
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: October 2004
Genres: Horror, Suspense

*Also starring: Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith, Leigh Whannell

Review by Jerry Saravia
3 stars out of 4

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 "Open Water."

"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

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