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In 2004, director James Wan and writer-actor Leigh Whannell revitalized what had become a relatively sterile horror scene with a film called Saw. The film, which originally debuted at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, kicked off a massive franchise and helped launch the much-derided “torture porn” movement. In a review at the time, The Hollywood Reporter recognized the film’s cleverness and quality, but no one could have foreseen its cultural impact. Read the original review below.
A horror film demented enough to suggest that its creators might have well benefited from extensive therapy as children, Saw boasts an undeniably original premise and clever plot machinations that lift it several notches above the usual slasher-film level. While the proceedings unfortunately get sillier as the film goes on, this feature debut from director James Wan should be reasonably well regarded by fans of the genre and should achieve respectable returns on video, if not theatrically. It was recently showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The truly creepy opening features two characters who wake up manacled in a disgusting underground bathroom, a dead man with a gun in his hand lying between them. Young Adam (Leigh Whannell, also the screenwriter) and the older Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) have no clue as to how they got there or why, and they’re not made to feel any better when the latter finds a tape recorder instructing him that the only way he can save both himself and his family is to murder his fellow prisoner. Their captor has also helpfully provided some hacksaws in case either one would like to escape by severing off a limb.
It turns out that they’re the targets of a serial killer known as “Jigsaw,” who devises scenarios forcing his victims to either kill themselves or others in order to extricate themselves from fiendishly designed traps. The imaginative crimes, of which we see several gruesome examples, are being investigated by a pair of detectives, including the inevitable world-weary old partner (Danny Glover).
While the screenplay has its obvious antecedents, it does manage to provide some original and disturbing situations, even if it ultimately becomes too bogged down in providing the seemingly requisite plot twists involving the true identity of the killer, etc. Wan has staged the action with an admirably sustained level of tension that manages to overcome the more ludicrous aspects of the plotting.
The castmembers, who one hopes enjoyed at least some comic relief between takes, deliver suitably intense performances, with fine work by Elwes as the beleaguered doctor and Michael Emerson as a fastidious hospital orderly who displays a particular concern for his charges. It’s hard, however, not to be slightly depressed by the presence of Glover, who one would think should have graduated from this level of material a long time ago. — Frank Scheck
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