Review Date: February 13, 2005
Released by: Lions Gate
Release date: 2/15/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
An interesting trend seems to be developing in the horror movie industry. The marketing rule for horror and exploitation films had always been to open big and make all the money opening weekend, since word of mouth wouldn’t kill the film until the second week. Now though, the big horror hits these days seem to be coming from limited engagements in festivals and selected cities before using buzz to expand big. Word of mouth has very much changed from squelcher to savior of the horror genre. The Ring
started small and went on to gross more in its subsequent weekends than it did its first. Others, like Cabin Fever
, Open Water
, The Blair Witch Project
found audiences at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals before full fledged theatrical releases. With the internet becoming the new grassroots marketing tool of choice, these little films are becoming big hits by mobilizing horror fandom well before play dates have even been secure. Marketing for horror films is in a big state of change, with films like Saw
leading the way to box office gold.
was made for a meager 1.2 million dollars, shopped around at festivals, and was ultimately picked up by Lions Gate. It proved a smart bargain on their behalf, like their other pickups of Cabin Fever
and Open Water
proved to be, as Saw
racked in a robust 55 million dollars last October. Audiences very much seemed to split on the picture, as it fell into the love it or hate it camp. Regardless, it pulled in the greenbacks, and now after a few short months it is buzzing its way to DVD. Does it cut like a knife, or is this Saw
full of rusted hype?
A man awakes after being immersed in a bathtub. It’s dark. He hears the voice of somebody else, but everything is muffled. Finally the lights are switched on, and Adam (Leigh Whannell
) and Lawrence (Cary Elwes
) find themselves changed to jagged pipes in an abandoned bathroom. In front of them lies a man with a bullet wound in his head and a stream of blood beneath him. They don’t know how they got there, why they are there, or what they are supposed to do. They talk a little – Lawrence is a doctor with a wife and kid, Adam is a photographer – and then slowly stumble upon some cleverly left clues. In their pockets they both discover tapes with their names labeled on them. The man on the floor conveniently has a recorder to play the tapes, so of course Adam and Lawrence listen. It is with the tapes that the reality of the situation is revealed. Both are being punished for taking life for granted, and as redemption, Lawrence must kill Adam if he wants to escape. If he doesn’t, his wife and daughter die.
The two are also given saws, with which they try to cut through the chain. Of course, the resistance is too strong, and that is when Lawrence discovers the essence of the game. The saw isn’t for cutting the chain, it is for cutting off their own feet. How far will one person go to stay alive? This basic question drives Lawrence and the film on a flurry of flashbacks. Lawrence remembers some similarly perverse games for which the “Jigsaw” killer was responsible. A woman was forced to cut the key out of her cellmate to save her own life, and another man was driven death by attempting to crawl through a tunnel of barbed wire in order to survive. Somebody is having fun with man’s nature for self-preservation, and Lawrence and Adam seem to be the next victims.
A subplot with Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover
) is also introduced, as he seems to be the key investigator in the case. His devotion to the case however, has turned a few screws loose, making him as much of a suspect as the killer. With Lawrence’s wife and kid still kidnapped, and the time ticking down, the doctor must make a choice whether he kills one life to save another. But who is this “Jigsaw” killer, and why has he gone to all these lengths to punish people?
That is one of the many answers you will never receive in Saw
. The film starts off with a perfect premise. Two guys stuck in a room, forced to interact and determine just what exactly they will do in order to save themselves. That alone is enough to sustain a film. And it works effectively for the first fifteen minutes. Then however, the movie starts to fall into flashback, introducing more people than the narrative can handle, suddenly becoming unfocussed. Thus, this concept film suddenly finds itself without concept – it has become a detective picture. We follow around Danny Glover’s character, hoping for some sort of payoff, but it all amounts to one gigantic red herring. It is as if his entire subplot was tacked on just so he could have his name above the title.
The entire middle act, consisting of a steam-of-consciousness of random thoughts, seems to only exist to deliver shocks and scares. In that regard, it does succeed, as some of the cinematography effectively stages some creepy imagery. In one flashback, a man wanders through his house with the intermittent flash of his camera as the only light source, and in another a creepy doll gives a morbid television message. On their own, the imagery is darkly sinister, able to generate chills. However, taken in context of the story they stick out as mere scare tactics to mask the fact that writers James Wan and Leigh Whannell could not sustain an entire story within a single room. They instead resort to motiveless scares that have about the emotional impact of a music video.
The editing is also music video-like in its endless quick cutting and fast-motion aggressiveness. Wan never lets the strong imagery speak for itself, he always has to augment it with a non-stop flurry of cuts and effects. Nearly every kill is crescendoed with a montage of creepy imagery. Most distracting is the ending, which seemingly condenses the entire film into a quick cut collage that runs a few seconds. Where older horror films used to rely on the fear generated within the frame – the boogeyman emerging from the shadows, or the graphic flow of blood – these new, slick horror films instead rely on the fear generated from outside the frame. The editing, along with continuous sound jolts, is made to tell the viewer when something is supposed to be scary. Fear is no longer something that slowly creeps up on you, in Saw
, it hits you over the head.
The worst thing about Saw
though, is its ending. The film strays so far off path in the last five minutes that it is impossible to know when to start in describing its faults. The film builds its entire story around the mastermind behind these “Jigsaw” crimes, yet in the end fails to ever address the killer. The killer emerges, says a snappy punch line, and leaves. The justification we are given by the script is that he kills because he has a disease. We never learn this from him, only from exposition by other characters. We never ever get a sense of the killer, and when a film spends 100 minutes fleshing out his little games, one can’t help but feel ripped off. Not only that, but the killer’s reveal is so improbable and implausible that believability is thrown out the window. With the killer’s reveal, it becomes clear that Wan and Whannell were interested only in a good visual scare rather than any sort of narrative payoff. Style over substance becomes the understatement of the entire film.
Not that there was much substance to begin with. The film is basically a cross between the morality play of Se7en
and the visual scare tactics of Argento’s Deep Red
. A maniacal doll becomes the main fright gag in the film, the killer is scene mostly through his black gloves, and the climactic score is almost a plagiarization of Goblin’s Argento work. Where Se7en
followed through on the motivation behind its morbid mind games, Saw
simply avoids. The “Jigsaw” killer kills because he can, because he is a horror character, and that is all. So what Saw
eventually amounts to a clever concept abandoned for stock scares, derivative story, and a maddening ending. Every puzzle has its pieces...but this one is missing a few too many.
Lions Gate presents the film in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer and it looks serviceable. One must remember, that despite the high gloss ad campaign, this was still ultimately a low budget pickup for Lions Gate. It’s indie roots shine through, with a light grain present throughout. The image is also a tad soft, especially for such a new film. There are also fairly regular blemishes throughout. The color levels seem skewed, too muted at times, too green at others, but this is more likely due to the filter masturbation James Wan employed throughout. Overall, its acceptable, but somewhat disappointing given the stature of the film.
The sound design is much better than the video, presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 6.1. Right from the opening Lions Gate Logo, the sound packs punch. The sound design, with laughing dolls, muffled tapes, loud yelling and assaulting music, is very ambitious, and Lions Gate has pulled off a great mix with it. There is a lot of directionality to the transfer, especially in the closed off bathroom. Sounds reverberate off the walls and seem to come from all directions, from the fronts to the backs. The menacing doll laugh is a creepy little effect, and the way it circles around from the back left to the front center channels makes for a true 3D sound. There is a lot of force to the track, and it will be sure to give the speakers a good workout.
Considering what a hit Saw
was at theaters last year, this release is surprisingly sparse when it comes to extras. Although there are plenty of extras bulleted on the back, truth be told there is not all that much there. The major supplement is a commentary with director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell. I was initially hoping they’d apologize for the film, but instead they divert into a never-ending flood of self-congratulatory boredom. When the two aren’t stroking the other’s ego, Whannell is busy doing standup while Wan laughs uncontrollably. Whannell makes fun of Cary Elwes’ British roots, and also jokes about saying he has revealing pictures of Elwes with a donkey. In other words, a grating and ineffective commentary. The two do warn that this is their first commentary, but you’d think this was also their first day in pre-school.
Whannell and Wan come back for what has to be one of the shortest featurettes ever. Running a scant 2 minutes, “Saw
ed Off” basically only has enough time to introduce that dynamic duo, and how they conceived of their idea for the film. A title card saying “They watched Se7en
.” would have probably sufficed.
Next up is probably the most over-hyped extra to come out in awhile. Well aware that they were unable to release the unrated print of the actual film, Lions Gate instead tried to appease horror fans by promoting a music video with both rated and unrated cuts. The first problem is, the song, “The Hand That Bleeds You” (clever) by Fear Factor, is bad to begin with. So having to watch it twice was a chore in itself. Worse though, is that both the rated and unrated cuts are basically montages of shots from the film, with a few really cheap green screens of the band members thrown in for good measure. More puzzling is that the rated version actually seems more shocking than the unrated. The unrated features a girl holding a very fake looking bloody heart, and that is about as risky as the two videos get.
If the videos weren’t bad enough, a five minute unrated making-of is also included. The director of the unrated music video basically goes to describe the plot of the music video, which despite his enthusiasm, is just a bland rehash of the already bland Saw
. The whole video is interspersed with loud musical clips from the video, essentially serving as a third version of an already awful song.
The disc is rounded off with a collection of five trailers and TV spots, which are all sharply produced. Seeing them, it is no wonder why the film was the success that it was at the box office. Lions Gate also mounted a great poster campaign for the film, but you’d never know it looking at the bizarre “Saw
Promotional Art Gallery”. Instead of just showing the posters, it scales every inch of them in extreme close-up. Complete shots of the posters follow, but the tedium will have you reaching for the remote long before that.
is a small mess of a movie. What starts off as a clever little concept becomes a clichéd and bloated detective yarn without any sort of satisfying payoff. It becomes a collection of forced scares pieced together on a contrived plot and hammered home by assaulting editing. The DTS track packs a punch, but the constant jump scares become tedious. The video is decent, although more grainy than most new films. The extras are a smorgasbord of boredom, with an annoying commentary and vapid music videos serving as the prime time wasters. Those looking for a few decent scares could do a lot worse than renting Saw
, but the film and disc offer little to warrant a purchase in anyone’s collection. This Saw
Movie - C
Image Quality - B-
Sound - A-
Supplements - D+
- Running Time - 1 hour 40 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS 6.1 ES
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English 2.0 Stereo
- English subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Audio Commentary with director James Wan and writer/actor James Whannell
- "Bite the Hand That Bleeds You" music videos (rated and unrated)
- The making-of "Bite the Hand that Bleeds You"
- "Sawed Off" minifeaturette
- Photo gallery
- Trailer and TV spot gallery