Horror films are definitely a mixed bag when it comes to quality. There are some horror films that are really good, meaning they have a solid story, genuine thrills, and leave you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Examples of good horror films are “Final Destination”, the ‘Scream’ trilogy, and the classic “Halloween”. But for every really solid effort in the horror genre there are about 10 terrible entries that give the genre a bad name, most of these inferior entries consist of sequels to average or above average horror movies that are made for nothing more than cashing in on the original film’s success and hopefully making a little money before fading quickly from the public’s memory. In 2004, amidst a crop of forgettable horror releases, one horror movie caught audiences completely by surprise with its in-your-face brand of terror that hadn’t been seen in most horror films, with a surprisingly strong story that was full of twists and turns that would make any mystery fan happy, and a fairly solid cast of actors that didn’t consist of fresh-faced teenagers that barely have any acting experience. The movie I’m referring to was the smash hit “Saw” from director James Wan (“Death Sentence”), and starring Danny Glover (‘Lethal Weapon’ series), Cary Elwes (“Robin Hood: Men in Tights”), and Monica Potter (“Along Came a Spider”).
“Saw” focuses on a deranged serial killer who feels that it is his mission in life to teach those who take life for granted a lesson by capturing them and forcing them to choose between fighting for their lives by surviving horrifying circumstances or giving up and dying. His latest victims are a successful doctor (Cary Elwes) and a young photographer (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay). These two unwitting participants in the killer’s twisted game must try to work together to solve the mystery of why they are being held captive, while determining the means of their escape from certain death. Meanwhile, a former detective (Danny Glover) is trying to put the pieces together regarding the last case he was working when he left the force, which unbeknownst to him is directly linked to the two captives who may soon become the latest victims of this methodical killer, with a simple message of, “Live or die, make your choice.”
This is one of those movies that I was a little mixed in my opinion of. The first time I watched “Saw” I didn’t really care for it all that much, I thought that it was a better than average entry into the horror genre, but was trying too hard to cross genres with being a horror film and also a thriller in the vein of “Se7en”. But after watching “Saw” for a second time, I feel it was a much better horror movie than I initially believed it to be, and was also an adequate mystery thriller that set itself apart from most horror films by actually having a decent story and not relying on some supernatural killer, that for some unknown reason audiences are intrigued by, to propel the movie forward. In fact, you barely even see the killer in this movie, which is even more surprising for a horror film these days, having a modern horror film that actually leaves its killer shrouded in mystery is unheard of, and was very much appreciated here.
Now, some of you may be wondering where I came up with the comparison of “Saw” and “Se7en”, well here it is. Both movies feature villains who feel it is their sole purpose in life to teach others a lesson about what they’ve done wrong in their lives. Both villains are patient, smart, and incredibly deranged in their view of the world, and feel completely justified in the pain they inflict upon their victims. I also feel that director James Wan was aware of this comparison, and purposely paid homage to “Se7en” with the use of the exact same type of notebooks that were used by the killer in the movie “Se7en” spread all over Danny Glover’s apartment in this movie. With all the various types of notebooks out there why choose that same exact one, unless you were meaning for people to recognize it, and therefore draw comparisons. Now, James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell may not have intended for there to be as much comparison between the two films as I have seen, but the similarities are there all the same. With all that being said, I don’t feel that “Saw” as a film, suffers from its similarity to “Se7en” (granted its not as strong of a mystery thriller as the latter, but it’s adequate), the two films are different enough in their execution (no pun intended) that the similarity is nothing more than an obvious influence for their story.
The actors were of a much higher caliber than one normally expects from horror films these days. Generally the cast of horror films consists of some of the newest actors Hollywood has to offer, and generally will focus heavily on talk of sex and feature plenty of nudity from its attractive leading ladies, thus ensuring plenty of teenagers (especially guys) will give the movie a generous box office return and maybe even repeat business. But, “Saw” went a different route by casting veteran actors such as Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, along with the not as well known Monica Potter to bring their characters to life. Most of the cast were very effective in their roles, even screenwriter Leigh Whannell as the other man trapped with Cary Elwes, was surprisingly good as an actor. But the weakest link in the acting chain was Cary Elwes. For an actor who has been around as long as he has, it’s kind of a surprise that he’s never managed to elevate his craft from anything more than that of an average actor who has a tendency to overact in his dramatic parts, but excels when it comes to comedy which is probably why “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and “The Princess Bride” are the two biggest movies of his career. The decision to give Cary top-billing for this movie seemed odd, since he’s not that big of a name, and from a talent perspective, I figured they would have given that honor to Danny Glover, but I’m not the one making those decisions.
One more thing regarding this movie that also further set it apart from most movies of this genre is the lack of blood and gore that was actually seen in the film. Most horror films opt for putting as much blood and gore on the screen as they possibly can, leaving nothing to the imagination, and frankly most audiences are numb to it at this point. But “Saw” went with the approach of implied gore; yes, there were moments of bloodshed on the screen but not much more than what is shown in an all-out action movie. Although the blood and gore were implied, the film still delivers on the horror, by forcing the audience to envision in their heads what could have taken place onscreen. However, in place of actual blood and gore, the director and writer included plenty of disturbing traps and images, along with creepy music and quick, frantic editing, that gave the audience the impression that the film was much more violent and gory than it actually was which may cause some viewers to dislike the film due to an implied sense of an overabundance of gratuitous graphic violence.
“Saw” is without a doubt a very creepy horror film that delivers plenty of chills, but also gives audiences a solid story that will keep them guessing what will happen next. A word to parents, this is one horror film that’s rating should definitely be heeded, as I don’t feel that viewers under the age of 17 should see this movie without parental approval.
“Saw” is available in rated R and unrated editions, both contain violence and language.