Few filmmakers can claim a successful cinematic franchise. Fewer still have one based on their own original idea. So what does it say about horror maestro James Wan that he has not one, not two, but three wholly unique and undeniably profitable scary movie series to be proud of. Most recently, the Australian auteur delivered The Conjuring, a $20 million dollar revisit to old school ’70s fright that netted nearly $320 million at the box office. With such numbers have come a prequel, Annabelle, and the inevitable sequel.
Before that, Wan was also responsible for the ingenious and devious dark ride, Insidious. Part One arrived in 2010 with little fanfare and fewer expectations and wound up bringing in almost $100 million in turnstile receipts. Part Two made even more money ($161 million) before the filmmaker turned things over to his partner in creepshow crime, Leigh Whannell (Part Three arrives in 2014). But before there was the subtle scares and throwback mentality of these two properties, Wan and Whannell rode a wave of rave reviews for a little something called Saw.
You remember Saw, right?
Initially, the duo were desperate to break into movies. Since they couldn’t get noticed, they made a short film based on their original script and went hunting in Hollywood. After catching the eye of some eager producers, they stuck to their creative control guns and got to make the movie they wanted. After wowing the audiences at Sundance, Lionsgate jumped on board. The company agreed to distribute the fledgling fright flick. That was over seven films and $873 million worldwide ago. Today, the Saw series is on hiatus, with the studio unsure whether to resurrect, reinvent, or simply repeat the results it achieved the first time around.
That being said, an entire decade is a couple of lifetimes in Hollywood years. For perspective, back in 2004, Marvel was still reeling from the failure of Hulk while watching Sony score major league comic book bank with its Sam Raimi backed Spider-man. Mel Gibson had just unleashed The Passion of the Christ on unsuspecting believers while The Matrix epics had just finished up.
Even in the case of Wan and Whannell, their initial post-Jigsaw gigs were less than popular. Their excellent Dead Silence was a flop while their Death Wish-inspired Death Sentence also bombed. In fact, if it wasn’t for the consistent reminder of Saw (where they stayed on as producers), we might not have even gotten to The Further or the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren.
With that in mind, it’s easy to lose sight of how influential and effective the original movie is. While it’s unfair to place all the blame on Wan and Whannell for that film fad gadget known as “torture porn” (Eli Roth’s Hostel, which was released a year later, is much more responsible for the rise in this concept’s blood drenched popularity), the duo did redefine the typical mystery/thriller. Indeed, the first Saw is really a whodunit. The next six are all about the “why”. The character of Jigsaw, played with gravelly voiced panache by then unknown actor Tobin Bell, was a mere prop in the first film’s plotting. After his reveal, more was required, thus one of the most elaborate backstories in the history of horror.
Saw starts out with two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a photographer named Adam Stanheight (co-creator Whannell) waking up in a filthy, dilapidated bathroom. Among the mildew and slime is a dead body, a gun poised precariously near its motionless head. There is also a microcassette recorder near the corpse. Both men find tapes in their pocket. Adam’s makes it very clear that, unless he escapes, he will die in the dingy hole. For Dr. Lawrence, the instructions are even more maddening: kill his cohort before six o’clock or he, his wife, and daughter will be killed. We then suddenly flashback to five months before, with our medico treating a man named John Kramer (Bell) while police are investigating a series of grisly crimes orchestrated by someone known as The Jigsaw Killer.
The main detective on the case, David Tapp (Danny Glover) is obsessed with finding out who Jigsaw is, and before long, it’s revealed that he has a personal vendetta against the perp. All the while, Dr. Gordon’s family watch what’s happening via hidden cameras. Clues and connections are revealed, each leading to one of the best “twists” in all of post-modern macabre. Even today, fans still find the answer to “whodunit” as satisfying as all the cat and mouse that came before.
Clearly inspired by the dwindling days of MTV, Wan’s novice direction here is a tad pretentious and over the top. There are moments when the action fast-forwards at such an alarming rate that you fear for the editor who had to link all this mayhem together. Over time, he abandoned the style, even if the sickly green gray backdrops became a splatter standard.
Also, Wan’s love of dolls is apparent here (and would be expanded upon greatly with the underrated Dead Silence) and Billy the Puppet does leave an honest impression. In fact, the entire film is a tightly wound thriller where suspense often trumps logic and logistics. Jigsaw also becomes a bit of a god figure, his infallibility (and inability to get caught) keeping with his larger than life movie myth.
Is Saw cruel and uncomfortable? Yes. Is it on pair with what Darren Lynn Bouseman brought to the mix, especially the gore soaked entry known as Saw III? No. In fact, the initial Saw would be comparable to giving The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface a relatively ineffectual bloodletting item like a Dremel as his preferred gore-producing power tool. It was the other entries that pushed the MPAA’s arterial spray preferences
In fact, Saw suggests that Wan was destined to bigger and better things. While it’s aura of inventiveness and newness has worn off a bit, the legacy it left behind is still as valid today as it was ten years ago.