When it comes to naming the ultimate scary movie director Alfred Hitchcock is a name that would appear atop many people’s list. Hitchcock’s résumé includes some of the greatest thrillers ever filmed. One wonders what he’d make of horror cinema since his death in 1980. Having laid much of the ground work for the genre, would Hitchcock be pleased or appalled with the direction scary cinema has taken?
With a penchant leading an audience awry and shocking them with a terrifying turn of events, the director would have certainly been delighted by Saw (2004). Imagine the great director sitting at the back of a theatre thoroughly amused by the audience sitting in the rows in front, jumping, cowering and screaming in shock as the debut picture from Australian director James Wan subjected its viewers to ninety nine minutes of sheer terror.
Saw did not have the usual grandiose Hollywood beginning. There was no script bidding war and no big name celebrities clamouring for parts. Director Wan and his budding actor friend Leigh Whannell conceived the basic idea for the film, a serial killer with a twisted moral edge. Jigsaw, as he was later named, would place his victims in horrific predicaments where their deaths would be caused by their own hand, or rather their lack of ability to act in a timely fashion. To escape Jigsaw’s trap victims would have to perform terrible acts, either on their own bodies or on the body of another. The purpose of these catch-twenty-two situations would be to reinvigorate the victim’s life, to turn around their morally questionable behaviour.
The moral ambiguities of the human psyche were a great hook for an audience, as already demonstrated by Seven (1995); would we sympathise with the killer or would we sympathise with the victims forced into horrific situations that no person should be forced to endure?
Whilst Whannell began to flesh out the script, the pair decided to shoot a five minute short film showing one of Jigsaw’s traps playing out. The scene, which became known as the reverse bear-trap, was incorporated in to the movie. The pair shopped their short film and finished script to potential financial backers, eventually securing the funding they required, producers Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules and Mark Burg taking the unusual step of financing the picture with their own money.
To Wan and Whannell’s surprise the trio of producers asked the pair to direct and star in the movie, Wan behind the camera, Whannell in front of it. Thrilled at being able to retain artistic control of their project the Australians jumped at the chance. Horror perennials Lionsgate agreed to take the movie on, but initially as a direct-to-video feature only. But after the film caused a major stir at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Lionsgate agreed to give the movie a full theatrical release. The initial promotional screenings were the tip of the iceberg; audiences screamed in their droves once the film got its full theatrical release. Critics heaped praise and word of mouth ensured that the Saw became the first scary movie since The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to ensnare viewers outside of the usual genre fans.
Horror being a difficult sell to non-horror film fans, it takes a special kind of scary movie to make this leap. Having created a premise brimming with opportunity Wan and Whannell then wrote what is, in terms of plot structure, one of the finest scripts of any movie genre in the era. Saw sucked it viewers in to its twisting narrative right up to its frantic final scenes and its explosive last reveal. In a genre that often lives by its last minute thrills, Saw’s concluding twist might be the greatest ever filmed.
It’s a climatic sucker punch that works so well, primarily because the lead in to it is equally astounding. Considering that it was Wan and Whannell’s debut picture makes their achievements all the more astonishing. The film begins as economically as any picture has before or since, becoming more anxiety ridden after three minutes running time than most other thriller films are after an hour or two have been dispensed with. Hurled in the deep end, we immediately meet two strangers in a room chained to pipes in opposite corners. They are asking are exactly the same questions we are asking, how did they get there, who put them there and for what reason?
Much of the information to answer these questions is presented through jolting flashbacks. Clues are limited though and we are as much chained to the floor as Adam and Lawrence are. With little information to go on we begin to point the finger at every new character that we meet. Red-herrings arrive in the form of Danny Glover’s borderline psychotic policeman, his shifty partner played by Ken Weung, the heavily traumatised Amanda, and in turn each of the two men in the room.
Underlying this puzzle of a premise is an assault of image and sound. At first these additional strands of back story make for a welcome break from the escalating tension in the bathroom. But it quickly becomes apparent that these scenes make for just as uncomfortable viewing. Filmed and edited with a staccato style we bear witness to Jigsaw’s previous victims; a man forced to crawl through a room of razor wire, a gasoline soaked man trapped in a room full of broken glass with a candle for company, and the reverse bear-trap scene Wan and Whannell filmed for their original short. The implication is clear; if this is the work of Jigsaw then it does not bode well for Adam and Lawrence, and by extension, for us trapped with them. The flashbacks with their quick jump cuts, droning music and screeching sound effects, mirror the growing pressure in the bathroom. There’s no escape, no matter what time frame we’re viewing, past or present.
As the tension in the bathroom reaches breaking point, the story begins to unfurl at an alarming rate. The conclusion has been lingering since the start when the pair first discovered their bare feet chained to a pipe and a rusty saw for company, ‘They don’t want us to cut through our chains, they want us to cut through our feet’. You hope the plot won’t move towards the obvious coming together of the two, but as happenings become more stretched a grim inevitability takes hold.
As the clues planted in the room reveal themselves the bathroom becomes more than just a holding pen; it’s as real a trap as those already witnessed. Our trust swings back and forth between the two men, but when Lawrence’s family is thrown into the equation thanks to an intensely creepy bedroom kidnapping scene, you simply will both men to hold it together long enough to see the final credits, and to leave the two hacksaws well alone.
But a film named after such an implement couldn’t really leave the saws on the work bench. Even so, as a choice for a movie title it was wonderfully vague. Lionsgate produced a brilliant marketing campaign for the film that served to heighten audience interest in this peculiarly named movie. Would it be ‘saw’ as in to witness a terrifying event? The haunting advertisement poster showing Shawnee Smith with her head in a bear-trap, wide eyed with fright would seem to suggest as much. But perhaps it refers to ‘saw’ as in the tool, and the action to cut something using said serrated blade. The alternate movie posters showing what looked like a severed foot seemed to point in that direction.
In reality it referred to both, our witnessing of the events that unfold in the bathroom and the eventual limb-lopping that we pray will not occur. This latter point is made abundantly clear when Adam discovers the eponymous rusty handsaws in what is the worst cinematic toilet since Trainspotting (1996). As soon as Adam pulls the tools out of their dirty cloth coverings your heart sinks and the presence of the saws drapes a blanket of dread over the entire film. When the moment finally arrives it’s the grisly climax to some of the harshest tension building ever put on a cinema screen, the speedy unravelling of the plot, the nail biting confrontation between Detective Tapp and Zep, the incessant ringing of the mobile phone. The fever pitch panic is released in a deluge of screaming, hacking, and cringing on both our part and poor Adam who has to witness Lawrence removing his right foot with a rusty hacksaw and no anaesthetic.
The foot removal was the scene that US certifying board the MPAA had the most problems with. However, in classic Hitchcock fashion very little is shown on screen and the majority of the operation is left to the viewer’s imagination. Just as well, as the sight of the colour draining from Lawrence’s face and the stomach churning sound effects of bone and flesh being hacked are more than enough.
From this point on we plunge into the aforementioned excellence of the final reveal. Numbed into submission by witnessing a desperate man sawing off a limb, the final shock is almost a blow too far. You realise that the most obvious question of all, why there is a dead man lying in the middle of the room, has been left totally unanswered by both the story narrative and yourself. Viewers were left opened mouthed in amazement as the sound of Adam’s screams die out over the final credits.
Wan did a phenomenal job tying together what is a very convoluted narrative, ensuring that a tale that could have got lost within its own manipulations remains fully coherent from beginning to end. Style and story wise, the movie borrowed heavily from the aforementioned Seven. But whilst Fincher wrapped his serial killer games in a surreal world of rain-soaked noir, Saw remains grounded in a visceral, grubby reality. Due to budget restrictions there is none of the Hollywood sheen or grandiose shots seen in Seven. For a tale of such intimate torment this is wholly appropriate. We are in the room with Adam and Lawrence and the more we are grounded in their reality the more disturbing Saw becomes. If anything, the movie pays more of a tribute to the work of Italian horror legend Dario Argento. The trademark Argento black leather gloves of the killer off screen make an appearance, to excellent effect. The intensely creepy Jigsaw doll is also an affectionate nod to Argento’s Profondo Rosso / Deep Red (1975) and of course the intricate use of coloured lighting effects at key moments throughout Saw is a mirror to Argento’s famed use of the primary colour palette. As directorial debuts go, Saw astonished the industry and earned Wan immediate and well deserved kudos.
Praise must go to Leigh Whannell also, not only for his ingenious script but for a fantastic acting debut. His utter despair as he witnesses Lawrence hack off his foot more than matches Cary Elwes impressive scene-chewing as he brandishes the hacksaw. Elsewhere, the performances all round are high class. The shoot for the film lasted only eighteen days, but the time and budget constraints did not limit the actors. Danny Glover is typically wonderful in what may be the darkest role he has ever taken on. Shawnee Smith makes a big impact with her limited screen time in the role of Amanda, something that would stand her in good said when talk of a sequel began on the first weekend of Saw’s general release. Wan and Whannell’s healthy disrespect for the lives of their characters also ensured that the audience had no idea who might be killed next. Unfortunately, with so many characters getting the chop, the excellent Ken Weung, Michael Emerson and Danny Glover would not have the same luck as Smith when it came to further Jigsaw outings.
As with most surprise horror successes, talk of a sequel began while Saw was still earning its millions. Just twelve months later Saw II (2005) was released. It seemed only fair to actor Tobin Bell to expand on the character of Jigsaw. The scenes between Elwes and Whannell took roughly six days to shoot and during the entire time Bell insisted on being in character, lying on the floor in the middle of the set. In a pool of fake blood that had to be carefully mapped out each day for continuity reasons, Bell refused to let a stunt double or dummy model take his place. If Jigsaw looks a little creaky when he finally stands up at the film’s conclusion it’s because Tobin Bell was stiff as a board. At the time director James Wan only had enough film left in his camera to shoot Jigsaw’s reveal once. Bell nailed the scene though, so much so that even though the character is on screen for the briefest of moments, he makes a massive impact
Though the sequel did not reach the heights scaled by the original movie it had a good go. Wan vacated the director’s chair second time around, with Darren Lynn Bousman stepping in. Leigh Whannell was on board to help write the story and the tale spun by part two was almost as ingenious as the first part. Picking up a short while after the first movie finishes, another of Jigsaw’s games has been initiated.
Second time around the bathroom was swapped for an entire house with the duo of captives expanded to a whole group of dubious characters. The plot was less inspired in dragging its cast from trap to trap but another trick ending made the film a worthwhile watch, as did Bell’s enigmatic performance as the measured Jigsaw. With an undeniable sense of moral correctness, one does not know whether to root for or against him.
When Saw II also earned a hefty profit, $147million off of a $4million budget, Lionsgate realised they had a potential franchise on their hands. However, from Saw III (2007) onwards the sequels moved away from smart scripts and shocking twists, to unbelievable traps the focused on gore over plot movement and a storyline so convoluted it was almost impossible to follow. The franchise stretched beyond its cinematic boundaries, creating a comic series (Saw: Rebirth), action figurines, computer games, a Saw inspired theme park ride at Thorpe Park, and even a 2008 reality television show (Scream Queens) in which budding actresses competed for a part in Saw VI (2009) (eventually won by Tanedra Howard).
The series tried to move away from its gore-for-the-sake-of-gore tag with Jigsaw (2017). Despite the refocus on thrills and fun, and the dampening down of the stomach churning injuries, the film was a by-the-numbers entry that still paled in comparison to the first movie. This year sees the release of Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (2020) which looks to build on the Jigsaw legacy further; its chances of success don’t look good.
The runaway success of the original film also reinvigorated Hollywood’s love affair with gory horror films, despite Saw’s limited use of on-screen splatter. The term ‘gorenography’ was coined and a small cottage industry surfaced not long after Jigsaw’s first outing, directors seeking once again to push the boundaries of acceptable cinematic violence. Whilst some interesting and thought provoking pictures were produced, Hostel (2005), Unknown (2006), WΔ Z (2008), their number was far outweighed by studios aiming to make a quick buck from the trend and filmmakers far too keen to replace story with bloodshed
Wan and Whannell had limited input in the sequels past the third film which may explain their dip in quality. Perhaps they took a page out of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s book and wisely chose to leave sequels well alone. As for originals, if the great man were still directing today Saw would undeniably be a movie he would have loved to have filmed himself.
See also Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006), Saw IV (2007) and Saw V (2008), Saw VI (2009), Saw 3D (2010), Jigsaw (2017), Spiral (2020)