The horror movie hasn’t been really scary for quite some time now. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Kevin Williamson-penned modern slasher send-ups like “Scream”, so lately, movies like the awful “Cabin Fever” and that lame “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” re-imagining have had to suffice. The newest trend of re-making Japanese horror flicks that weren’t that good to begin with is still a draw (see “The Ring” and last weekend’s box office champ, snoozefest “The Grudge”) for some strange reason, but do these films really frighten anybody? Zombie movies have seen a recent comeback of late, thanks to the “Dawn of the Dead” re-make and the kitchy British parody “Shaun of the Dead.” And then, finally, there are campy horror flicks like Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses” and the seemingly never-ending stream of “Chucky” movies that are intentionally and sometimes unintentionally laughable.
James Wan and Leigh Wannell, the director and writer, respectively, of the new horror grab-bag “Saw” know this. Their answer is to tell a merge the horror genre with the mystery/detective story and the serial killer movie. As gruesome as it is, “Saw” succeeds in creating a horrifying atmosphere and many genuinely tense moments not often found in the schlock that passes as modern horror films.
Rather than fall into the old trap of procedural cop dramas, “Saw” hooks the viewer from its first scene. Two men awaken in complete darkness to find that they are each chained and padlocked by their ankles to a bit of rusty pipe in a wet, stinking chamber. A dead man lies between them, a victim of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Dr. Lawrence Gordon (played with maximum hamminess by Cary Elwes) is informed that his wife and child will be murdered in eight hours if he fails to find a way to kill the other confused man, Adam (screenwriter Wannell), within eight hours.
Where “Saw” goes right and so many serial-killer movies go wrong, is that it places the audience in the victims’ shoes. We learn that, like in any serial-killer thriller, there is a cop letting his unhealthy obsession with catching the killer completely ruin his life, but Detective Tapp (a maniacal Danny Glover) is revealed more thoroughly to us in flashbacks. The screenplay spends precious little time with his hunt for the killer, and instead immerses our attentions in the mindspace of those whom he has tortured and killed before now.
This adds up to a pretty grim and sadistic movie, even by today’s standards. Jigsaw, as the killer is known, works like Kevin Spacey in “Seven”, reveling in the ironic “art” of his murders. The main difference, however (and this is key to keeping the suspense going) is that he doesn’t necessarily want them to die. He gives his victims a choice, albeit an extremely sick and twisted one. In one instance, a girl’s jaw is wired up to an instrument that works as sort of a reverse bear trap. If she cannot fish its key out of the intestines of her not-quite-dead cellmate, then the trap springs into action, forcing her mouth to break open backwards.
This kind of “choice” is presented as Jigsaw’s way of forcing people to appreciate the value of human life. We shouldn’t take precious life for granted, and he’s out to teach us all a lesson. Okay, that’s fine and all, but let us not pretend for a moment that this is a serious way to prove the value of human life. What is really happening is we experience a visceral thrill at the absurdity of it all. Have you ever played that game with where you ask your friend, “Would you rather?”
“Would you rather….spend four years in jail for something you didn’t do, or spend ten years in jail for something you did do?”
“Would you rather….cut through your leg with a hacksaw and murder an innocent man you don’t know, or let your wife and child die at the hands of a maniac?”
I’m not saying that this is rocket science here, or anything that couldn’t be taught in Screenwriting 101, but the fact of the matter is that this concept is appealing, and to see it acted out in front of your eyes is a guilty thrill. It rivets your eyes to the screen, and makes you turn away from looking at its awfulness just the same.
Visually, “Saw” is presented like a Marilyn Manson video, with lots of quick jump cuts and Gothically decorated and arranged figures. But mostly, the film’s settings are grimy and disgusting, rather than darkly beautiful. The tile bathroom where Adam and Lawrence are held is dripping. It is streaked with mud and blood. Adam is forced at one point to reach into a vile toilet filled with thick brown liquid. To say that “Saw” is disturbing to watch is like saying puke is disgusting to smell. It’s all part of the package. Wan creates a fearful mood not because you are worried about what is lurking around the corner, but because you are not sure what horror you will have to endure next.
Make no mistake about it. There is no redeeming social commentary or inherent cultural value in “Saw.” It even passes “offensive” and moves into “abominable” behavior at one point when depicting the Doctor’s daughter being terrorized by the killer. And its intriguing storyline doesn’t hold up with the shocker ending. But it you have a strong stomach, and a taste for a different, sleazy kind of horror, see “Saw.”