When I first saw 2004’s Saw it would’ve been when I was 15 years old, and I watched it on DVD at my grandparents house. Yes, my grandparents house. I was so blown away at that time by the twist ending that I made my grandparents re-watch it with me, so I could see their reaction to the twist, and be like, “Can you believe that?!” That’s my first memory of the Saw franchise. From there, I remember the distinctive anticipation of going to the movie theater every October like clockwork for the latest Saw film to see what they would do. But none of the other films would quite compare to the visceral experience of the first one.
Directed by James Wan in his first directorial debut (he would go on to do the impressive Conjuring film series and two big blockbusters in Aquaman and Furious 7, which is kind of wild considering where he started, with a low-budget horror movie), and written by his friend, Leigh Whannell (who would go on to write the brilliant 2020 film The Invisible Man), who also stars in it as Adam, is about two people who wake up in a bathroom chained to two pipes, not knowing how they got there. Those two people are Adam, a sleazy photographer, and Lawrence (played by Cary Elwes), a surgeon who is also having an affair on his wife. Through the course of the film, we learn that the two have been taken by the Jigsaw serial killer, who likes to teach people “psychotic life lessons.” That is, Jigsaw thinks people aren’t appreciating life enough, so he puts them in torture scenarios where they could either do X awful thing to survive or experience Y awful thing and die. For example, Amanda (played by Shawnee Smith), could either wait and have her mouth explode due to a gimmicked bear trap or she could stab a man to death, find the key in his stomach, and use that to unlock the bear trap around her head. She does the latter, and therefore, is Jigsaw’s only survivor.
Hot on the Jigsaw’s trail are two cops, David Tapp (played by Danny Glover) and Detective Steven Sing (played by Ken Leung). But because Tapp is the worst detective of all time — you’re dealing with a serial killer known for creating elaborate traps and thinking four steps ahead, and yet, Tapp leads his partner Sing into the warehouse where they think Jigsaw is without any police backup and any sort of plan guns blazing — Sing gets killed by Jigsaw and Tapp gets discharged from the police force. Tapp ends up essentially having a psychotic break in trying to find Jigsaw. His partner wouldn’t be dead had he done things by the book, though. Then, in the end, when he can get his redemption by saving Lawrence’s wife and child, who are being held hostage by another hostage of Jigsaw’s, he fails at that, too. Well, the wife and child are able to get away, but Tapp gets killed in the process. Womp womp.
Overall, there are three things that make Saw one of the most memorable horror films ever.
- First, is that it’s just a brilliant conceit to begin with: Opening with two people already taken hostage, with a man seemingly dead by suicide in the middle of the room, and we, along with the characters, have to work backward to figure out the puzzle. We might as well be locked in that bathroom, too. There’s a certain sense of claustrophobia the film evokes when we’re in the bathroom and those are the best scenes of the movie. Whenever we’re outside the bathroom, like at Lawrence’s home or following the police activities, the film is more schizophrenic than claustrophobic. That’s not necessary a bad thing, but the frenetic directing isn’t as effective as the tight, visceral claustrophobia of the bathroom. In addition, there’s a nice red herring with Zep (who would go on to play one of my favorite characters on the network show Person of Interest), who is the one that takes Lawrence’s family hostage and who we see watching the cameras on the bathroom. That makes us think he’s Jigsaw. But as I mentioned, we learn at the end he’s also being held “hostage” by the actual Jigsaw.
- Second, the film is memorable, obviously, for the twist ending. That swelling of the Saw soundtrack music as Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell, who has that wonderful voice for the character) emerges from the center of the floor, not, in fact, dead. It was absolutely jaw-dropping and mind-blowing in 2005 when I watched it and 15 years later, it still packs a punch. You get so immersed in the puzzle of trying to solve the crime that after the initial shock at the beginning of the film when Jigsaw’s “dead body” is revealed, you forget about it. It’s just another part of the disgusting bathroom. That’s why it’s such an effective twist.
- Third, every classic, iconic horror film needs a memorable soundtrack, and the Saw music that I mentioned kicking in at the end, “Hello Zep,” is certainly classic and iconic. It swells as if it’s the manifestation of understanding washing over not only Adam in the film but us as viewers. “Holy crap!” sort of thing.
I don’t think as a horror movie it’s particularly scary or anything, but it’s certainly visceral and as a “thinker,” it’s fun to try to figure out the whodunnit aspect of what is going on and who is doing this. I think the other films in the franchise would go on to try to duplicate both aspects, the unraveling of the riddle and creating another memorable twist, but none would ever live up to the first in either respect. I also think the latter films got more into the fashionable torture porn aspect of the horror genre in the 2000s instead of honing in on that mystery thriller aspect of the horror we see in the first film.
If I were to make changes to the film, I would probably tidy up the detective chase because, as I mentioned, that part isn’t as stylistically interesting and also stretches belief at certain points (like why is Lawrence asked to listen to Amanda’s story?), and with all due respect to Whannell and Elwes, they are pretty noticeably awful actors.
Still, the film rises due to the starting premise, the voice work from Bell as Jigsaw and the twist at the end. If you associate Saw with “torture porn,” which admittedly, I did until this re-watch, it’s worth revisiting the first film. The film does not actually have that much gore, at least no more than a typical mainstream horror flick, and there’s only one scene of actual torture as far as that goes. Instead, the film really is about the unraveling of the riddle.