Welcome to Scarytober 2022, where I’ll be covering horror movies throughout the month of October in preparation for Halloween. The first movie that I’ll be covering for this event today is Saw. By now, everyone knows that the Saw franchise is best known for its reliance on its deadly traps and featuring some of the goriest death scenes in the history of horror cinema, but the first film in the franchise is surprisingly low on gore and is instead a psychological thriller that relies on tension and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat, in contrast of the sequel’s reliance of gore. Despite playing a key part in establishing the “torture porn” sub-genre, the first Saw film is a low-key suspenseful film that will keep you hooked on the mystery of the killer and it does a brilliant job of creating a legacy that redefined the horror genre.
Released in 2004 and directed by James Wan, the story of Saw focuses on two men, Lawrence Gordon and Adam Stanheight, who wake up chained to their feet in a dilapidated bathroom alongside a dead body. One of the two men is tasked to kill the other man to save his own family, who have been held captive by the Jigsaw killer. Flashbacks are used to showcase how the Jigsaw killer creates vicious traps to test his victims’ will to survive and is told from the perspective of the two detectives who are pursuing him.
Filmed on a $ 1.3 million budget, it is impressive how Saw manages to be a well-crafted film that elevates the suspense and keeps the audience guessing under the low budget. This was James Wan’s feature debut, and while it was clear he was getting his start as a filmmaker, he’s able to provoke a sense of unpredictability and keeps the audience guessing who the killer is. The screenplay by Leigh Whannell might not be perfect, but it does a great job of establishing the plot and making you care about the characters. You genuinely feel bad for Lawrence and Adam’s characters in this situation and it all builds to a brilliant twist that would go on to become one of the most memorable twists in horror cinema.
Some of the filmmaking aspects are decently done too; the cinematography by David A. Armstrong adds to the eerie vibe the film provides and the score by Charlie Clouser is phenomenal and the “Hello Zepp” theme has become one of the most iconic themes in the horror genre. The traps are pretty decent, though it’s not as much of the focus in this film as in later films, but the most memorable traps in the film have to be the iconic Reverse Bear trap and the Bathroom trap and the filmmakers did a great job in setting up these setpieces.
The Saw franchise isn’t particularly known for having Oscar-worthy performances, but the acting the in the film is pretty decent. Cary Elwes is very good as Lawrence Gordon, despite not pulling off a compelling American accent. Leigh Whannell does his best as Adam Stanheight, although he tends to overact in some scenes. Danny Glover, Micheal Emerson and Monica Potter are decent additions to the cast and Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is one of the most brilliant casting choices in the genre and gives a memorable presence throughout the film. While it’s very entertaining, Saw is still flawed; the editing by Kevin Greutert is clumsy at times, the pacing can be slow during scenes, especially in the flashbacks and the overreacting can ruin some of the dramatic scenes in the film.
Overall, despite being called the film that commenced the “torture porn” label, you’ll be surprised to find the first Saw film is more of a psychological thriller, as it’s a well-crafted, highly suspenseful and violently narrated film that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish and it works as a stand-alone film in the same way as part of the Saw franchise.