James Wan’s Saw is easily one of the seminal horror films of this century. Stemming from what is a very simple concept, and made with just $1 million, it managed to gross over $100 million worldwide, and spawned a franchise that spanned seven films (with a prequel, Jigsaw, on its way this October). But, what Saw has that its successors lack is finesse and polish – take the blood and gore out, and Saw would still be a tightly-woven, thrilling experience that shouldn’t be missed.
The element that makes Saw such an uproarious success is its structure: we are given just enough information, at just the right time, to form connections with the characters and feel genuinely absorbed in the plot. This is testament to the brilliant screenplay by Leigh Whannell (who also plays Adam), which tells a surprisingly character-driven story. Some of the dialogue has aged very poorly – take for example the line ‘This is the most fun I’ve had without lubricant.’ It’s corny, granted, but it’s the overall story that Saw tells, where twists and turns are abound, that impresses most.
We are fed information in tidbits, learning about the backgrounds of Adam and Larry (Cary Elwes) little by little, which makes for an incredibly rewarding viewing experience, wherein viewers can piece together these clues themselves. The plot ties itself up nicely by the film’s conclusion: there’s elements that won’t make sense right up until the closing scenes – such as why Danny Glover’s Tapp is so transfixed on Larry – but the way in which Whannell brings these characters together is logical and satisfying. The film rewards those that pay close attention to everything – it’s possible to piece together the clues if even the smallest lines of dialogue are considered – but more casual viewers will also find this a richly rewarding, but also shocking, experience.
The Saw franchise has now become synonymous with its excessive blood and gore, but this isn’t necessarily the case with the original. Yes, there are scenes of extreme violence – the throat-slitting of Tapp and reverse bear-trap concept particularly linger in the mind – but it’s never done to a gratuitous degree. The violence serves to complement the film’s plot, rather than to propel it.
Saw arguably fits more into the thriller genre, akin to David Fincher’s Se7en, than horror, as its the underlying tension of the plot – the lack of time Larry and Adam have to escape the cellar or face consequences – that takes the centre stage. Many of Jigsaw’s (Tobin Bell) death traps are presented implicitly rather than explicitly showing their function. This makes for far more endearing viewing, as the sadism that permeates Jigsaw is more suggested than explicitly shown.
In fact, ‘subtle’ is a great way to describe Saw. Sure, some of the violence, and the eponymous sawing of Larry’s foot, is far from subtle. However, it’s the way these events are set up that provides subtlety – take for example the use of colour in the chamber, where only Larry and Adam have standout colours, compared to the drab nature of their surroundings. Additional to this is the film’s cyclical structure, wherein elements such as the key seen in the film’s intro return to illuminate the plot. Everything in Saw is crafted very deliberately, and Wan and Whannell know exactly what they’re doing – even if some may label the violence as crass.
Discussion of its sequels aside, it’s very hard to criticise Saw. It takes a simple concept and crafts a suspenseful, character-driven narrative around it, providing some hugely tense moments, but also creating a rich detective story. Although the series devolved into little more than excessive gore, the first Saw is nuanced, genuinely thrilling and hugely rewarding – you’d be remiss to dismiss it as just another excessively gory horror.