If I told you this one was Seven meets Cube by way of a Nine Inch Nails video (with a sprinkling of The Silence of the Lambs thrown in for flavor), you'd probably dismiss the movie as something less than unique or original, let alone brain-crackingly cool. In which case you might overlook Saw, which is easily one of the most deliciously gruesome and addictively entertaining horror movies I've seen in years. Yes, I said years.
Two complete strangers awaken in a disgusting bathroom in the middle of god-knows-where. They're both chained by the ankles and escape seems quite impossible; but a handful of disturbing clues are left behind (not the least of which is a dead man with his brains blown out), and the pair quickly find themselves unraveling a collection of mysteries that are probably better left unmolested. This is the opening scene of Saw, the brilliant new horror flick from first-time filmmakers James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (screenwriter), and one that will fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre. To divulge much more of the deliciously twisted storylines would be a grave disservice to those who wish to be so wholly blown away by the nasty twists that Saw provides...
...but suffice to say that the flick's about one serial killer, two desperate cops, three or four skin-wrenchingly slick sequences of terrorizing torture, and five or six well-earned scares that will have even the most jaded gorehound squirming happily in their seats.
If you're even half of a true blue movie nut, then you certainly harbor some admiration for actor Cary Elwes. This is the guy who stole scenes whole in Glory, The Chase, Shadow of the Vampire, Liar Liar, Hot Shots!, Twister and Kiss the Girls. Heck, he's the Dread Pirate Roberts! (If you don't know The Princess Bride by now, you're officially banished from reading my reviews. Sorry.) When Cary's name pops up in the opening credits (usually 4th or 5th), we think "Hey, cool. At the very least I get another visit with a character actor I dig."
Anyway, Cary plays Dr. Gordon, one of the chained and detained, Whannell himself snags the role of the also confused & captured Adam, Monica Potter is the doctor's wife, Danny Glover and Ken Leung are the detectives on the case, and heck -- even the adorable Dina Meyer pops up as a criminologist with a few horrific tales to tell.
Saw boasts one of those fractured narratives, one that doubles back on itself a few times to divulge the creepiness in the most shocking doses, and it's great to see a movie that uses this technique because it actually works. Most filmmakers that attempt this gimmick do so for one reason: if they told their story in A-B-C fashion...you'd fall asleep. Not so here, as Wan and Whannell tip their cards craftily and quite confidently. As the surprises unfold, you feel satisfied and not cheated. That's good stuff.
Visually, Saw is gritty, grungy, pallid and stark. It's gross, grimy bathrooms and dark, dreary dungeons. Some may opt to dismiss many of Wan's directorial flourishes as those overtly inspired by David Fincher or David Lynch or Clive Barker, to which another could respond "And? The kid's got good taste!"
It would be a stunning disservice to Charlie Clouser and his brutally effective musical score were I not to mention how blisteringly cool it is, so I just did. Clouser's strains (not at all unlike the work he's done for Nine Inch Nails as a producer, songwriter and drummer) deliver rough-edged icing onto Saw's cold, rusty cake.
Shot, cut, finished and ready for its film festival debut in just under five full months, and clearly conceived by two young filmmakers who have just as much love for the horror genre as they do talent to pull it off, Saw is the absolute highlight of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, a potential goldmine for the fine folks at Lion's Gate Films, and a cult classic waiting to happen for those who like their horror movies dark, smart, twisted and hard.
A shockingly good time. Grandmothers need not apply.
(Originally published at eFilmCritic.com -- January, 2004 -- about ten months before Saw hit theaters. Heh.)