Saw (2004)

2009 #59
James Wan | 99 mins | DVD | 18 / R

SawWith Saw VI about to subject cinema screens and captured audiences to another round of gruesome brutalisation, Channel 4 have seen fit to treat viewers to a similar experience in their own home, screening the first three films in the now-annual cinematic occurrence this week. Except I’ve had the original Saw sat in my DVD collection for years, so I watched that instead.

Despite being credited with birthing the entirely risible ‘gorno’ genre (for those blissfully unaware, ‘gorno’ is an amalgamation of “gore” and “porno”; its other common name, “torture porn”, is a thoroughly descriptive moniker), Saw isn’t really a good example of it. There are nasty, vicious murders — or, technically, deaths — but there’s no serious sexual element and it’s all underpinned by a half-decent plot.

In fact, I’ve heard it called “a thriller with sadism” rather than a horror movie. There’s a point to that, and the Guardian’s comparison with Se7en (as misquoted on the DVD cover) isn’t misplaced (in certain surface elements anyway). The killer has a motive that’s not supernatural, there’s an intricate array of flashbacks as well as the unfolding events, with a gradual unravelling of the truth via investigation, complete with a thriller-sized collection of twists.

But just because it’s not a slasher movie doesn’t mean it’s not horror. The sheer vileness of the killings — their tortuous methods, graphic results, and tense build-ups — put paid to any notion that this is just a nasty-minded thriller. The setup is more thriller-like, with Dr Gordon’s recollection of a police investigation, but once underway it’s all played as a horror movie — the sequence leading up to Adam’s capture, for instance, where he stalks his darkened apartment with only a camera’s flash for illumination, is pure horror — and the overriding impression is of a movie primarily attempting to scare you, not engage your mind with a mystery-fuelled plot.

Not that the story should be ignored, because it’s this that raises Saw above its gorno compatriots and makes it a worthwhile film. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell juggle flashbacks and multiple timelines with consummate ease, using them to uncover backstory that advances the tale they’re telling rather than provide padding to an otherwise slight conceit. It’s not as intricate as, say, The Prestige, but is complex enough that in lesser hands they could’ve been the film’s undoing. Wan and Whannell never lose sight of what purpose every scene serves, where they occur in the film’s chronology, and where the story’s going. Consequently it all flows seamlessly.

It all contributes to a final twist that is truly wonderful. Even if you know it’s coming (as I unfortunately did), it’s so beautifully executed in every respect that it’s awesome to behold. It wouldn’t be enough to overcome the horrors of the film that precede it for those of a squeamish nature, but it’s certainly the best bit. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away here (though have probably oversold it).

It isn’t perfect. The dialogue is frequently awkward, the acting occasionally variable, but those things are hardly the point in this genre and here are never so bad as to interrupt proceedings (unless you’re looking to pick holes, in which case they’re ripe for it). The low budget occasionally shows through too, but that’s not necessarily a barrier to success — do we need to see a car chase on roads when a black backdrop and smoke can convey the same information adequately for the story? I think not. (Unless you happen to have Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace pop into your head at the time…)

The annual sequels apparently conform to the law of diminishing returns, but it’s plain to see what sparked the craze in the first place. Sickly inventive, well constructed and rarely less than gripping — and with a killer sting in its tale — if you haven’t already, and think you can stomach it, you really ought to see Saw.

(Sorry.)

4 out of 5

There seem to be three versions of Saw doing the rounds, though the difference between the longest and shortest is little more than 30 seconds, apparently due to the odd extended shot and different opening logos. If anyone cares, the version I watched ran 1:38:31 (PAL).

Saw II is on Channel 4 and 4HD tonight, while Saw III premieres there on Thursday. Saw VI is in cinemas from Friday.

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