Late to the Party: Saw

Warning: There be spoilers below for Saw, in case you’re like me and will try to watch it before or after watching the recently released Spiral. No spoilers for Spiral though.

I got burned out on horror movies in the early 2000s.

It was a combination of regurgitated franchise film sequels and remakes, and the rise of action horror and torture porn. Specifically torture porn.

There was a point in my 20s when I couldn’t watch miserable feature-length horror films of people being brutalized by weird white people. These were films steeped in the exploitation films of the 70s and 80s but without any of the artistry of an Argento or even a Fulci, who both did some brutal gory stuff but still put a little pizazz on it. This is why I never got around to watching Saw, for fear that another 90+ minutes of my life would disappear to some Eli Roth-adjacent junk.

For 17 years the Saw movies have been a DVD box in the video store for me, all package art with my own filled-in plotlines. Friends would show me clips on the then-new YouTube of some of the kill highlights from these films, and I saw the trailers on TV. Initially in my mind the plot was essentially a bunch of people held captive in a room while being dismembered by steam punk Rube Goldberg devices, all the while set to Industrial music. A clown puppet on a tricycle was behind all of this, which was the only selling point of these movies for me. What can I say, I like movies with killer puppets and general little monster movies (including Little Monsters). At some point I learned that the killer was not a supernatural or a monster, just a bitter man with cancer.

Now, if it was a killer clown puppet or a pig man behind all these murders I would have been onboard with this franchise much sooner. Just another middle-aged white male serial killer? Not so much.

I was surprised with some of what I saw when I finally sat down with this 2004 film recently. For instance, it’s not really a torture porn horror movie. Yes, there are grisly scenes of torture devices mangling people but it’s not done in a way that lingers on each victim as they are punctured, cut and eviscerated. They’re more like music video segments. At least, not until later in the movie. From what I remember from those YouTube screenings that happens more in the sequels with different directors, but this movie wants to tell its pulpy story. It’s a horror movie and more, an exercise in genre-hopping and franchise-building that would become a hallmark of director James Wan.

Somehow I forgot that this is where it all began for Wan. Even in the somewhat brisk runtime he wants to cover as much ground as possible. The blueprints of what’s to come are in this movie, which would have been very strange if it tanked at the box office and no sequels were ever made.

Also Cary Elwes is in this?! Just another reminder that Elwes kind of disappeared from acting around 15 years ago after being in a bunch of stuff. We open up on this random guy named “Very Fucking Confused”, or Adam (played by Saw writer and co-creator Leigh Whannel). He is trapped in a room with an initially grizzled-voice man named Lawrence Gordon (Elwes), who says he is a doctor. The movie gives the viewer and Adam some false hope that maybe this seemingly with-it doctor who looks like a pulp hero can help them get out what looks like the bathroom in a New York City subway. There’s the body of what looks to be a suicide victim in the room holding a revolver and a microcassette recorder. Both men are chained in opposite corners, and both men each have a cassette tape.

Eventually they retrieve the tape, and Adam learns from a creepy voice recording on his tape that he has to escape, and the good doctor learns from his creepy voice recording that he needs to kill Adam by 6pm, or his family dies. Also a bag with 2 hacksaws is found in the toilet, and feet will possibly need to be sawed off. So far, this is what I expected. What I didn’t expect is that Cary Elwes would take us on a flashback detour starring Danny Glover and Ken Leung! All that’s missing is the squiggly-lined transition a la Scooby-Doo.

This is where the movie threw me off a little. I didn’t realize that the Saw movies possess a heavy element of police procedural in their storylines, most likely to fill the runtime. It makes sense: like so much film and TV of the late 90s and early 00s this movie takes a lot of cues from Seven, which itself took a lot of cues from Silence of the Lambs. A lot of walking around grimy and moist sets where the convoluted death scenes occur, while a law enforcement person delivers a mountain of disturbing exposition. There’s also a serial killer with unique killing methods thrown in for good measure.

Which brings us to The Jigsaw Killer, a man or pig or puppet that is so clever and cunning that he’s always many steps ahead of his victims and the police. The movie throws a lot of twists and turns our way, making us believe any number of people or things could be behind these deaths. Clown puppet, pig man, Michael Emerson, Danny Glover, even Cary Elwes’s character maybe. If I was watching this movie back in 2004 my money would have been on the clown puppet on the tricycle, or Michael Emerson. While he was a few years away from his landmark role on Lost as Ben Linus, Emerson still oozes creepiness in his role as an evil hospital worker named Zep Hindle, whose name isn’t nearly the most pulpy thing about this script.

Whanel and Wan’s Script features a number of dialogue duds, including “This is the most fun I’ve had without lubricant!”, “What do you care what I think anyway?? I don’t give a crap if you covered yourself in peanut butter and had a 15-hooker gangbang!!!” and “My last girlfriend was a feminist, vegan punk who broke up with me because she thought I was too angry”. These are provided almost entirely by Adam, so I guess that’s Whanel taking some for the team. Virtually all of Jigsaw’s dialogue is purple, which is par for the course given the mission statement of this film: to create a new horror movie icon. There are also a number of goofy scenarios, mostly involving the Danny Glover storyline and how to weave it into the main storyline.

Ah, Danny Glover. What is he doing in this movie? I always love some Danny Glover, and I’m always Team Danny Glover in all scenarios, whether it be facing off in gladiator combat against a Predator, being horribly ridiculed by racist Royal Tennenbaum Gene Hackman, or involved in gladiator-like verbal combat against racist predator Mel Gibson. In this, I’m not really sure what’s going on though. He spends most of the movie as Det. David Tapp obsessing over The Jigsaw Killer, and eventually becomes a crazy man himself after his partner Det. Sing (Ken Leung) runs into a shotgun trap while chasing the criminal mastermind in a ludicrously botched arrest scene. One thing the movie wants to make apparent is that Jigsaw doesn’t kill anybody, the traps do. Even when Jigsaw slices open Glover’s character’s throat he does it in a way that doesn’t kill, because even when evading the police and in a rush he’s cunning and surgically accurate with a blade? Okie dokie. Either way you still don’t like Det. Tapp very much even after this misfortune, and his role in the third act is wonky and unnecessary. He’s basically there to provide a loud violent distraction so Zep doesn’t kill Gordon’s wife and daughter.

Women don’t get much to do in this movie. There’s Alison (Monica Potter) and Diana (Makenzie Vega), Dr. Gordon’s family who exist to be prisoners of Jigsaw and Zep. How Jigsaw anticipates that Alison Gordon won’t kill Zep and possibly screw up the plans is truly an example of clairvoyance and fourth dimensional chess. There’s Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the only survivor of Jigsaw’s traps up until the end of the movie. There’s Carla (Alexandra Chun), Gordon’s mistress who helps move along the plot. And there’s Det. Kerry (Dina Meyer), who moves the plot along with most of her dialogue early on, then disappears for the rest of the movie. Glover and Leung’s characters could have used her help taking down this guy, but honestly she’s better off avoiding the moist oblivion of Jigsaw’s lair full of traps.

By the end of the movie all the noise and a foot being sawed off leads to the “birth” of a new horror movie badboy. The man behind all of this (Tobin Bell) rises out of his gooey slumber in the middle of the NYC subway bathroom and reveals himself to be John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, aka The Jigsaw Killer. This is done well, and the one thing I really liked about this movie is how well The Jigsaw Killer is set up via legend building, the stories told by his victim, the police and the left behind carnage of his games. Jigsaw the horror movie villain is delivered. The movie has trouble deciding if it’s horror or police procedural, but it has no trouble birthing a new franchise. Director James Wan continues birthing franchises out of seemingly nothing, like The Conjuring Universe and Aquaman. Those movies also play around with their genres and storytelling devices, and while being pretty silly and dumb most of the time I can’t say I was bored watching any of them, Saw included.

Much like those endless disappointing franchise horror films and remakes from the 90s and 00s Saw rapidly started cranking out movies of its own, with diminishing returns. Now it’s at the point of spinoff movies, with Spiral being a strange film that borrows from this movie and sometimes the great Samuel L. Jackson movies of the 90s. The whole reason why I watched this was in preparation for Spiral, and I have to say that I liked them about the same. Are they good movies? Nah, but then again it’s hard judging something after it has achieved complete cultural saturation, and you completely missed the train initially. I feel like even the phenomenon of Escape Rooms owes something to this franchise, something else that I’ve managed to miss these many years, and do hope to remedy one of these days. I’m in no rush though.

Here’s the funny part: when I re-watched the trailer for this feature Danny Glover is in there, and there are many indications that this is a police procedural and a horror film. There’s also a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe kicking it off with the sound cues as Adam takes pictures, which probably also threw me off as to what this movie was about. I guess I must have seen shorter trailers back in the day, or maybe I just couldn’t get past the focal point of the trailer being two guys in the gross room together. I do vaguely remember saying to myself years ago “Oh cool, Cary Elwes. Where has he been lately?”

Will I continue watching the Saw films? Maybe Saw II, just to see what a Saw film will do that uses what worked from the first film. I’m assuming that means more of a torture porn direction, and I hear Det. Donnie Wahlberg is snooping around Jigsaw’s business too. Either way once again I’m in no rush to check it out.