Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Saw

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SAW

6/10

USA 2004 : James WAN : 100 mins

Two men wake up to find themselves trapped in a cavernous, dilapidated, disused public toilet. Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and surgeon-oncologist Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and soon realise they’ve been kidnapped by a notorious psychopath known as the ‘Jigsaw Killer,’ whose places his victims in perilous scenarios which invariably lead to messy death. Shackled to the wall by strong chains, the only way out for Adam and Lawrence is to cut off their feet with the hacksaws which their captor has provided. When Lawrence’s wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Mackenzie Vega) are kidnapped, he realises that time is running out. Meanwhile ex-cop Tap (Danny Glover) is on the murderer’s trail, desperate to avenge the killing of his partner…

While the movie itself won’t win many prizes outside of horror festivals, whoever dreamed up the UK poster campaign for this enjoyably nasty American B-horror deserves some kind of special BAFTA. On a black background, the title’s three letters appear in vast red capitals. Along the top, in white, there’s a teasing, taunting, punning quote from Empire magazine : “Dare you see ‘Saw’?” In much smaller writing, there are credits and certification details along the bottom – and that’s it. No photo, no fancy graphics, no indication of what the picture might be about. The implication being that the subject-matter is too horrific, too harrowing, too disturbing to be even hinted at.

Eyecatching stuff, sufficiently so to spread considerable word of mouth: “Have you seen the SAW posters?” I was asked by a good half-dozen people during late September. They were also keen to find out whether or not I’d seen the film – the answer to which was no, as I hadn’t been at any of the horror-film festivals where it had been shown, and there had been no press shows organised due to a supposed administration cockup. Galvanised by a very enthusiastic review from Radio 5 critic – and renowned horrror aficionado – Mark Kermode, I bought my ticket for my local cinema’s second public showing on release-day, Friday 1st October.

I expected perhaps a couple of dozen patrons for the 6.20 screening – but the auditorium was packed, and there was a definite atmosphere of anticipation that increased when the ’18 certificate’ card came up (so unusual is it these days to find an adults-only title in our multiplexes.) Two hours later we filed out, to be greeted by cinema staff eagerly checking our reactions. These were, as far as I could tell, largely positive – but not wildly so. This was perhaps something of a Blair Witch effect, whereby a hyped-up horror movie feels disappointing if it doesn’t reach the top of the shock/suspense Richter scale.

My own reactions were mixed. Saw is clearly an impressive calling-card for its director – first-timer James Wan – and co-writer (/co-star) Whannell. And as a longtime horror fan it’s always good to see an injection of talented new blood into the genre: there hasn’t been such a promising writer-director combo arriving on the scene since Final Destination‘s James Wong and Glen Morgan (fingers crossed the similarity of the directors’ names doesn’t hamper their Hollywood careers.)

But Saw is often frustratingly far away from being a satisfactory finished article. At its best, the film is what Dario Argento* might have come up with if he’d been asked to combine David Fincher’s Se7en and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube – admirers of the giallo maestro will have a field day ticking off the references to his giallo classics, of which Deep Red (cackling white-faced doll wheels into room) and Suspiria (character must escape from barbed-wire-filled chamber) are only the most immediately “gettable.” At other times, however, Saw feels like incoherent out-takes from a bad Marilyn Manson video – hyperkinetic camerawork, lurid gothic-industrial imagery, cacophonic score (by an ex-Nine Inch Nails duo). Loose ends abound, virtually everything involving the Danny Glover character is messily handled and perplexingly unclear, while, crucially, Elwes isn’t quite up to the escalating extremis endured by his character (as has happened so often in this Brit’s bizarre career, his posh-Yank accent crumbles under pressure). Though never less than watchable, the picture distractingly fluctuates between the two extremes. It’s only the strength of the mightily audacious – and disturbing – final twist that manages to tip the see-sawing balance the right way.

4th October, 2004
[seen 1st October : UGC, Boldon : public show]

by Neil Young


*
from ‘Arrow in the Head‘ interviews with James Wan and Leigh Whannell:

Arrow: Whats your favorite horror movie?

James: Jaws, Lost Highway, Black Christmas, Roger Cormans The Fall of the House of Usher, Carnival of Souls, and of course, Argentos earlier films, are some of them. My two all-time favorite films are Jean Cocteaus Beauty and the Beast and Spielbergs Duel.

Leigh: I had to choose my one favorite horror film, I would probably say The Shining. I would have to add, though, that the first half of Lost Highway is one of the scariest things ever committed to celluloid, and I think if David Lynch ever made a straight-out horror film, it would be the number one. The Eye, Poltergeist, Pin, Twin Peaks, Suspiria, The Others and Ringu also help me lose sleep.