Review: “Saw”

Serial killer films are a tired genre. This year has seen a glut of stinkers with the likes of “Twisted”, “Taking Lives” and “Suspect Zero” all opening, and subsequently tanking with critics and at the box-office. It’s a result that’s fare as, after all, they are all shit movies. For now it seems this type of film is biding its time waiting for the next “Silence of the Lambs” or “Seven” to come along.

Is “Saw” that movie? Hardly, it’s far too derivative for that. Nevertheless, it is a gripping piece of cinema that whilst not the most polished of films, does stand heads and shoulders above those other three released this year in terms of its effectiveness. The strength of “Saw” lies in its simple but great premise of people put in a dire situation and given the choice of doing something terrible (whether it be disfiguring themselves or hurting someone else) or dying.

The ads might have you believe that this is a standard ‘hunt the killer’ style movie, and yes that is one aspect to it, however it is a secondary ‘B Story’ to the main plot. The central story is simply two strangers chained up in a dingy old bathroom with a dead body, and they’re stuck with the dilemma that one man has to kill the other by a certain time if his family is to survive.

The result is more something like Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube”, a study of the psychological breakdown of these two characters and their assorted attempts to find an alternative and escape. On this aspect the film works quite well – much of their attempts and reactions seem plausible and the simple one-room set is filmed and used in a way that things never slow down or get dull. That said the film then relies on the performances of the two leads, something which is not near the level of the premise.

For those not familiar with this, the movie was shot for a very low budget (probably $1-2 million) by two Australians – James Wan & Leigh Whannell – who co-wrote the script. Wan directed the movie and Whannell stars as one of the two guys opposite Elwes. Kudos has to be given to both for coming up with such a strong and good-looking effort for their debut film. Even though it was shot for so little, the film’s look and quality feel far more like a movie made for about ten times that amount thanks to an almost manic sense of energy poured into it.

Wan and Whannell also do solid jobs in their respective single roles. Wan employs interesting ‘fly on the wall’ camera angles and seems to be able to handle suspense and pacing rather well, even if at times there’s a not-so-quiet feeling of desperation holding everything together. Whannell, whom I remember as the spunky young film reviewer for morning music show “Recovery” years ago, holds his own and delivers a decent job in his big screen acting debut.

Still, more often than you’d expect the film does betray its amateur status a few times throughout. The compelling script is marred by plot holes and silly horror movie character mistakes that seem out of place in what is otherwise a decent story. Some scenes are tensely shot, but others such as both character flashbacks to how they were caught are the very definitions of ‘a cheap scare’. This aims to be an intensely serious movie but quite often it can be borderline silly enough to warrant laughs.

To be fair a lot of that is surprisingly due to Elwes. As the lead Elwes has some strong scenes, but at other times his acting is so bad it really is painful. Thankfully to break it up, a decent B story involving Danny Glover & Monica Potter comes along which – although cliche-ridden – divides up the one-room monotony of the movie. It also provides a good means of explaining backstory, even if it also turns out a bit dumb – most notably Glover’s ‘revenge stakeout’ style deal and the raid of the killer’s hideout.

There’s a few twists, mostly towards the end, which are not too difficult too guess – but sadly by the time the big revelation comes around it feels more of an afterthought than a clever trick. The hardcore rock soundtrack is forgettable and annoying. The gore level which has been a rather well-publicised issue isn’t too bad at all – much of the more gross out elements of the movie are shot in hyperkinetic fast speed which lessens the impact, but can be a bit taxing on the eyes.

This is a movie that’s not afraid to go for a cheap scare or into dark territory but never pushes too far beyond what horror/thriller audiences would expect – not for lacking of daring but rather originality. Still, however much of a mish-mash of previous killer movies it is, it is still a quite strong movie that is tailor made to go down like a house on fire with its audience which should lap it up. Its lack of polish and ingenuity are made up in many ways by its sheer exuberance and balls.