The Great SAW Dialogue: SAW I

Britt and Brian take apart the franchise film by film. 

The funny thing about the fact that Saw is of my favorite horror franchises (yes) is that I thought the second one would be a huge dud when it came out, and didn't even bother seeing it theatrically. I'd never make the same mistake again, and saw all future films on opening day or sooner thanks to press privilege.

But I rarely revisited them; to this day I've only seen each one twice I think, and my memory is increasingly crap, so I thought it'd be fun to celebrate the original's 10 year anniversary by rewatching all seven (!) installments and seeing how they hold up. And since the buzzword for this series is "torture," I requested the help of a fellow Badass to go on this journey with me. Miss Britt Hayes answered the call, so she'll be telling me how crazy I am to be such a big fan of these things.

SAW (2004)
Domestic Gross: 55.1m (series rank: #5)
Death traps: Reverse Bear Trap, Quadruple Shotgun Hallway Trap, Razor Wire Maze Trap, Flammable Jelly Trap, Drill Chair... does being chained up in the bathroom count?
R.I.P.: The random victims of the razor maze and flammable jelly traps, Detective Sing (shotgun trap), the guy in the room with Amanda, Zepp, and technically Detective Tapp, though he was shown to have survived in the video game.
One And Done: Monica Potter, Alexandra Chun, Michael Emerson, Danny Glover, and Ken Leung* never shot footage for another Saw movie (only Potter and Chun's characters survived, but given the series' heavy reliance on flashbacks, any one of them could have shown up in new footage).

Brian: It's interesting and a bit strange to go back and rewatch the original film as "a Saw movie" and not just a new independent/original horror film from a cool studio, which is what Lions Gate was back in 2004. Not that the film is a complete 180 from its followups, but it definitely feels disconnected in retrospect, the way the original, Jason-less Friday the 13th does now. Without much of a mythology yet, the movie actually has time to develop characters, have them talk like normal human beings, and spring plot twists on us that don't require you to recall events from three or four films ago. There's a scene about halfway through where Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) and David (Leigh Whannell) talk about, of all things, whether or not the former man has thought about having any more children. As the series went on, no one talked about ANYTHING besides their predicament, Jigsaw, the "rules" and game that they were playing, etc. Yes, the pretzel logic was part of the fun, and why I'm such a big fan, but it's easy to see why so many people scoffed at the sequels' increasingly impenetrable storyline when it was impossible to identify with anyone.

The other big difference is that the first film was remarkably low on violence compared to the others. The sequels each began with a new trap that always killed the person in it, giving audiences a big bloody blast to kick things off, but the opening of this simply has Gordon and David trying to perform simple tasks - turning on the lights, determining where they are, and ultimately figuring out how to grab a tape recorder in the center of the room. It's basic problem solving, albeit in a horror movie setting (a disgusting bathroom, in this case). It's not until 20 minutes in that we get our first glimpse of a true Jigsaw trap (a maze made of razor wire), and I think the total body count in the movie is 5 - and that includes the seeming death of a character who would be resurrected in the first of the (allegedly canon, per Lions Gate) two video games.

The third thing that struck me in hindsight is that even though this film had the lowest budget for any entry in the series, was independently produced, and (obviously) was completely under the radar, it managed to get the most prolific cast of the series. Someone involved with the movie recently confessed even HE forgot Danny Glover was in this movie, and Glover's costars - Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Elwes - are certainly bigger names than you'd normally find in a low budget horror flick from a first time director. Even the smaller roles were filled by recognizable faces (Dina Meyer and Shawnee Smith, whose characters would reappear in sequels), a stark contrast to the later films which usually had a bunch of fresh faces (even contest winners) while "name on the poster" types made fewer and fewer appearances. Maybe they should have hired bigger names instead of spending that money on traps? I don't know. Britt?

Britt: As soon as the film started, I was kind of immediately cranky about this project. Hey, remember when these movies weren't all green and yellow, as if they were filmed inside a bottle of Surge soda? Hey, remember a simpler time when it was just a couple of real guys in a room acting like human beings? Saw felt like such a simple movie with a fun series of little twists, and, as you mentioned, not nearly as violent as its successors (not that I'm some granny over here), all hell-bent on being grosser than the last, like a series of revolting, escalating dares. It reminds me of being a teenager and watching horror movies with your friends, like, "OK, you watched Cannibal Holocaust, but can you handle Nekromantik?" You just keep watching the most disgusting stuff until you're rooting around your uncle's cardboard boxes for those Faces of Death videos.

I digress. We're talking about Saw, as in the first one, which I actually quite like. And I was surprised at how much I had forgotten about this film! The death tableau scenes are actually shot in that Surge green and yellow that I hate, so there's the genesis for it. I can officially blame the first Saw. It started with James Wan. His direction otherwise is actually rather good, and you can get a sense of where he's headed with his spookier later films in a scene like Gordon's daughter getting up in the middle of the night to creep into her mom's room because there's a scary dude lurking in her closet.

Everything feels so much more simple here, from the traps to Jigsaw's plotting, and yes, even the acting from the name actors. The acting is probably the one flaw of the film because there are just some weird fucking performances here. Cary Elwes slowly transforms from probably the best actor in the film into a caricature of a sick and dying grandpa who's basically making promises to his grandson. Does Ken Leung ever age? He's always been 25, right? And even I have to admit that I forgot Danny Glover was in this, so make of that what you will. Still, I do think I have to agree that the later films probably should have sprung (ha) for at least a couple of mid-level names at the very least instead of spending all their cash on making elaborate traps. If Saw has taught me anything upon revisiting, it's that I long for a simpler time. For me, this movie was all about the story, the characters, the mystery, and the idea that this psycho was teaching people about the value of life in a really twisty and clever way.

The bait for my younger self was the promise of Cary Elwes hacking his own foot off, the switch was a far more clever movie than I could have anticipated at the time. I don't know, maybe I'm giving it too much credit for being simple. After all, there's all the stuff with Zepp and the flashbacks and introducing Shawnee Smith's character. In my mind, I always recalled it as mostly about two guys in a room. I think I just want to remember it that way. Or maybe it's just that in comparison to the sequels, it's damn near minimalist.

Brian: It's definitely much smaller than people probably remember, in that same way that folks "remember" how bloody Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Halloween are. There are no exterior locations of note, the bathroom or Gordon's house make up roughly 75-80% of the movie's settings, and it's so focused on these two guys (and their direct loved ones) that you might even forget that Jigsaw himself never actually appears until the end. And even if you count his "corpse" on the floor, it's not really much of a difference - Wan frames it so that the body isn't seen all that much.

It's also easy to forget that this one actually has some scary parts, which the sequels largely ignored (hard to be scary when you constantly need to remind people of who is who, what's going on, what timeline we're in, etc). The "Pigman" guy took a backseat as the series went on, which is a shame because when used effectively he's a very creepy villain. That part where Mrs. Gordon (Potter) runs into the girl's room and we actually see a figure standing next to the bed before really registering what it is? That's a great jump! And the garage sequence also is fairly unnerving. I honestly can't recall too many attempts at this sort of thing in the sequels, though I guess we'll find out soon.

On the other hand, I had also forgotten about some rather terrible moments in this entry. Gordon is a doctor and thus presumably a smart person, but he somehow thinks that his captor would hand him a cell phone that would allow him to call for help. There are also too many moments that rely on one man sneaking something from the other while they're not looking, making it a bit repetitive when they should be actively avoiding such things since so much of it is in a confined space and thus audience deja vu will be happening no matter what. I don't want to claim that the sequels have better scripts, but they had a handicap (of their own design, admittedly) in that they were answering questions and resolving plotlines, so such hokiness could be forgiven a lot easier than here.

I forget, how far did you get in the series? Did you see them all, or give up at a certain point?

Britt: This one definitely has some creepier moments, and a lot of that credit obviously goes to Wan and Whannell. There's just great atmosphere and they build a great sense of dread. By the end of the film, even though I'd seen this one at least two or three times, I felt that crushing sensation of anxiety in my chest. That's a real testament to their abilities. The later films? Not so much.

I do agree that there are some moments that feel a bit basic and unnecessary, and a little annoying -- like, ugh, why can't you guys just work together when you're stuck in this room? Why couldn't they find another angle instead of putting these two against each other and having them bicker so much? But I think part of what makes it work is the little moments where Gordon and Adam try to be sneaky and refuse to play the game. They might not totally trust each other, but they continually surprise us by trying to outsmart their captor, even if they're kind of dumb about it.

I actually finished the entire series, although after the fourth movie I had pretty much decided these films weren't going anywhere very good. I think the fifth might have been the last one I saw in the theater. It's difficult to say because at a certain point they all run together in my mind. I do distinctly recall watching the last one at home and being very unimpressed with the final outing. Like really? That's it? They kind of went out on a fart noise. For most people these movies are an endurance test to see how much they can stomach, but I think in revisiting them with you, this will be an endurance test to see how many films it takes me before my sanity begins to slip.

When the first film came out, I was 19, so I was a younger and more naive horror fan then. I don't pretend to be as steeper in horror appreciation as you, but I was definitely more of a horror fan then than I am now. I think it was midway through the series that something clicked in me and my tastes refined. Sort of like when you spend most of your juvenile years hating something like bell peppers and then one day you wake up and you're just craving them. Your tastes just change, I guess. I used to really like these movies. And I know a lot of people agree that they did get worse, but I think 19 year old me would still like all of them regardless of the decline in quality. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at Fantastic Fest and watching the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and the couple next to me was having the best time. They were applauding and having such a vocally positive reaction, and I was honestly jealous of them. I will never be that horror movie fan again. I grew up. I mean, they were like, in their 30s, but whatever.

So that's kind of where I'm at with this Saw project. I think that honestly, these first couple of movies are going to be a nice time. Maybe even the first three. But by the time we get to the fourth one, I might be wondering why the hell I ran out to buy all of these on DVD/Blu the day they hit the shelves.

Brian: Well we can definitely talk about Saw: The Final Chapter's issues when we get to that, but believe me I wasn't fully satisfied either. And I hadn't outgrown the series! Hopefully I still haven't, we shall see.

Going back to what you said about outsmarting their captors - one thing that I never appreciated until this time, and I'm not sure why, is when Adam fakes being dead and gets the jump on Zepp, finally succeeding at the plan they failed at earlier (when Zepp electro-shocked him out of his ruse). The sequels often neglect to have the protagonists be clever at all, and while some were compelling in their own way (particularly the grieving father in Saw III), rewatching this one made me miss the days when the victims were a bit more crafty. I think Jigsaw might have missed them too.

Any final words before we move on?

Britt: Oh man, this movie definitely makes me miss a lot of things. It's just smarter and leaner than the others, which pilfered all the gimmicky things about this one and none of the clever stuff. They should have called it quits at one movie. Can you imagine a world where we only had one Saw film? This neat little low-budget horror thriller that kick-started James Wan and Leigh Whannell's careers? Then again... I guess we'll see how I feel after revisiting the entire series. Maybe there's still something fun about them.


OK, we are off to watch Saw II, while you guys answer the following: should Saw have been a series, or just quit at the first one? And if your answer is "They shouldn't have even made the first one," then our question is "Why are you reading this article in the first place, and furthermore, taking the time to comment on it?"

*Only major characters/actors were considered. Obviously there are some random cops and borderline anonymous victims who would only make this one appearance, but no one ever asked if they'd show up again.