Stripped to its bare essentials, the first Saw, from 2004, could have been a pretty great little film. Two men are trapped in a grimy bathroom, chained to pipes, a dead body lies between them. There are a handful of clues tossed around the room about what they need to do to get out, and it's not very pleasant.

So many of my constant complaints about the horror genre are answered in this first moments of this scenario! It's completely trashy-looking, a side-effect of the film's minuscule budget, and that puts it into the hallowed company of the low-fi masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre right off the bat. And because of its look, it's unsafe and it's nasty - a genuinely sadistic concept that makes you question the filmmakers' sanity. It's an elemental film, claustrophobic and paranoiac. This makes it all the more frustrating that the movie fails so completely in so many ways.

As the men in the room talk, one of them realizes that they must be in the clutches of the Jigsaw, a serial killer whose MO is to create elaborate situations in which the healthy victim is forced to kill him- or herself in order to escape. At this moment, Saw goes skipping down a path of pure banality that squanders its beautiful set-up more thoroughly than I can ever think of a set-up being wasted in the whole history of the cinema.

Flashbacks. Fucking flashbacks. Whannell and Wan take this incredible locked-door exercise and they chuck it into the dustbin, leaving the nightmare of the bathroom to take up perhaps 40% of the film. This could have been the genre's Waiting for Godot, but that would have been "boring," apparently.

So instead, flashback upon flashback of the most rote shocker scenes imaginable, forming a sort of Jigsaw's Greatest Hits reel. See! - the woman in a jaw-exploding helmet. See! - the man crawling through a nest of razor wire. See! - the wooden doll from ALL of the advertising that isn't actually remotely scary or creepy at all. And that's when we're not watching an indescribably tedious subplot about the police investigation into the killings. This is the point where the film's low budget, so richly exploited in the bathroom setting, becomes an outright liability: the sets look cheap, the props look cheap, and the gore is totally non-existent.

The gore....the gore. One must get to the gore eventually when discussing Saw and its children, and I do hope you'll indulge me for a bit. The primary subgenre of horror films in the late '70s and '80s was the much-storied Slasher Film. And while I will not get into the gritty details of what makes a Slasher a Slasher, the basic core is that a group of teenagers are chased by an individual psychopath who kills them one or two at a time until only a final girl (usually) remains to confront and overpower the killer. There will almost always be female nudity and the deaths are shown in significant detail using elaborate gore effects. It is important to bear this in mind: the deaths in a slasher film, while esoteric, are usually fast, and surprising. Most victims are not aware that the killer is near until moments before the short sharp shock.

The primary subgenre of horror films today does not have a consistent name, although you will often see the phrase "splatter film." A splatter film does not have a large group, like a slasher film, and it does not have much of a chase; it is a film in which the typically non-teen protagonists are captured early on, or oblivious of anything like danger until they are captured midway through. Upon their capture they are physically and psychologically tortured. While splatter films are often much bloodier than slasher films, they are typically less creative about their gore effects.

Saw did not invent this genre, which probably came to prominence with the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and is almost certainly a delayed response to the Italian cannibal films from 25 years ago, as exemplified by Cannibal Holocaust, literally the only film in existence that I have no desire to see whatsoever. And in a very important respect, Saw isn't really a "splatter" movie at all; as a result of its budget, there is practically no blood in the movie. Ignore the many reviewers who decry the film's unspeakable exploitative depravity! They are wilting violets. Visually, Saw is indeed a rather chaste film, if anything (especially coming a mere eight months after the truly horrifying The Passion of the Christ)

There is however another name for splatter films that's less popular amongst the fanboys and more among the scholars: "torture porn." It means that when you sit down to watch Hostel or Turistas, you are expected to take some measure of delight in watching ordinary humans suffer and feel pain. Saw is the ur-text of torture porn.

Mountains of text have been belched upon the link between the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks and the rise of torture porn, not to mention the laissez-faire response to the Abu Ghraib scandal a few years ago. I am no sociologist. But I know that there's a great gulf between a lo-fi nasty shocker like 1977's The Hills Have Eyes and a lo-fi nasty shocker like Saw. It's not precisely a difference of tone: if anything, The Hills Have Eyes is more vicious. I think it's a difference of empathy: watching Wes Craven's film, it's obvious that he wants to crush us and make us hurt. It's an assaultive film, and that's what I always mean when I talk about the need for dangerous and nasty horror films: films that beat upon the viewer, making us feel the raw animal evil of what is happening onscreen. That is the film that I briefly expected Saw to become.

Instead, Saw is a mere gross-out film, which is to say it does not want to engender any feeling in the audience; it wants to make us giggle and go "ew!" and stand in amazement at the cleverness of the filmmakers. It's not scary at all; it's a classic teen horror film without the typical teen protagonist, a film for faux-scared girls to use an excuse to cling to their faux-tough boyfriends. Which is never excusable, but rendered all the worse for the cheerful amorality of the whole affair. Wan and Whannell are basically the same as the Jigsaw killer; they construct arcane death machines just to be attention-grabby, and they psychologically torture people, even if those people are just characters.

As if that weren't enough, they can't even make good torture porn.

Saw is crap. I already mentioned how screwy the structure is, and how it prevents the film from ever building up a good head of intensity, but what I did not speak of was the misguided twist ending. Twist endings are everywhere these days of course, not that they've ever been hugely rare, and most of the time they don't work. That said, I can think of almost no twist endings that are so completely nonsensical as the one in Saw. A twist should force us to re-evaluate what we've seen, so that it makes a totally different kind of success, right? In this film, the twist just makes things hopelessly confusing, and a killer whose MO has been fairly consistent goes screwball on us. It is a pure example of a twist for twisting's sake, just because twists are "cool," and the fan reaction seems to confirm, tragically, that it worked commercially, despite being, and I can't overstate this enough, completely and absolutely incoherent in every way.

Whannell is a deeply awful screenwriter. Not only does he epically screw the pooch at the end, but he cannot write good dialogue. There is such a storm of terrible dialogue in Saw as to legitimately draw comparisons to none less than Ed Wood. In this screenplay, every action is ventriloquised: characters do something, we see them do it, and they talk about doing it. It's like a medieval play without stage directions, sets or props. And that's the good dialogue; the bad dialogue is clunky and inhuman and literally unspeakable, and in one particularly startling case, it rips-off Annie Hall.

Perhaps because the dialogue is atrocious, or perhaps because Wan is an atrocious director, the cast is uniquely unable to "act" in this project, instead just kind of shuffling around and looking alarmed. Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell himself play the two victims, and while it's easy to ignore Whannell's shortcomings (by which I mean: he can do nothing besides recite dialogue in a high-pitched whine. Emotions? What are such things?), I am truly disgusted by Elwes. He's not a great actor but he's also not this bad, and his uneven American accent is perhaps the most entertaining part of the movie, if only because listening to it slip in and out would make for a fine drinking game.

The weakest link, though, is Danny Glover. He is kind of a great actor with a history of choosing loathsome scripts, but his character in this film tops them all: the lead detective on the Jigsaw case who goes a little insane and starts stalking Elwes or something along those lines. It makes the least sense of anything in the movie - his entire subplot is obviously just there to boost it to feature-length - and Glover doesn't even try. It's the worst performance of his career, and truly embarrassing to watch.

Meanwhile, in an effort to strip away the last remaining shreds of effectively creepy mise en scène, Wan relies extensively on garish fast-motion camera movements and ADHD editing that turn Saw into an extremely long and extremely grim heavy metal video.

But that's in keeping with the tone of the whole movie, which I fear was the intent: it's a high-energy, editorial-free exercise in depravity. We're not supposed to think it's creepy, we're supposed to think it's cool and clever. That's why all of the ludicrous death machines, that's why the idiotic twist. "Clever." Never mind that there are humans dying in agony - that's not fun. Even Hostel had the good taste to make us empathize with the victims.

Reviews in this series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw 3D (Greutert, 2010)
Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers, 2017)
Spiral: From the Book of Saw (Bousman, 2021)