Saw (James Wan, 2004)
The original film in this now ridiculous franchise is unquestionably the best. Created by the Australian pairing of James Wan (director) and Leigh Wannell (screenplay), it became an immediate horror classic that introduced audiences to the Jigsaw killer and spawned a series of ever-worsening sequels. Jigsaw, while technically not a murderer, selected socially-ungrateful individuals to participate in his deadly survival games where they would be required to follow his established rules and find a way to escape their imprisonment. He tested his subjects to see if they were grateful to be alive, and if they were willing to push themselves to an extreme, often causing themselves serious harm to remain alive. Throughout the first film we are revealed to cases where his subjects have been killed in their attempts to escape. But the central subjects for the film are surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and a photographer named Adam (Leigh Wannell), who awake to find themselves in a disgusting bathroom chained at the ankle to pipes at either end. In the middle of the room is a dead man lying in a pool of blood, holding a gun and a tape player. Both men discover in their pockets a tape with both revealing a recording from Jigsaw explaining that Lawrence must kill Adam by 6 o'clock or his wife and daughter will be killed.
Hidden within the room are clues linking the men to one another and the means for Lawrence to kill Adam. Lawrence knows about Jigsaw as he had once been a suspect in the case, when his personal pen light had been found at the scene of one of Jigsaw's other successful traps. Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung) are investigating the case and begin piecing together clues from the other Jigsaw puzzles. They hold and question Gordon, with Tapp convinced that he was the one responsible. After his partner is killed by a trap set in Jigsaw's lair when they discover and search it, Tapp becomes obsessed with finding the killer, even hiring Adam to follow and photograph Gordon as a means of surveillance. With both men choosing to withhold their personal lives and then lie about it, they never begin to trust one another. But to survive their ordeal they would need to work together.
The film frequently provides new discoveries and effective twists to keep the viewer guessing, and gradually reveals all of the answers to the growing number of questions. But as timer begins to run out, they become even more desperate to escape, with the threat of the murder of Gordon's family still applicable. There is a really great red herring near the end of the film as we believe we have been revealed to Jigsaw; the man holding Gordon's wife and daughter, but it is discovered that he is merely another man used in the deadly game, discovered by Adam when he finds a personal recording on his person. The final twist is one of the greatest ever, and leaves you glued to your seat for minutes after the final credits have rolled. A strikingly original idea, built on a very small budget (less than 1 million dollars) this is a horror gem. The performances, which i believe were limited to only a few takes, are not great, but forgivable in the whole scheme of things. The story is adequately given background through the reflective accounts of Gordon, and it efficiently provides us enough about Jigsaw to appropriately establish him. Worthy to be a stand-alone film, which may have been the original intention, this is one of the more underrated horror films of the last decade. Its a pity the bigger-budgeted sequels have all but ruined many viewers' memory of this one.
My Rating: 4 Stars
Saw II (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005)
Saw II centres on a pair of games involving detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). Thinly plotted, stylistically it never encapsulates into anything worthwhile. After finding the whereabouts of Jigsaw's lair (the one previously discovered by Detectives Tapp and Sing), they enter to find Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) surrendering to them. We discover that his real name is John Kramer and he is a former successful civil engineer who was diagnosed with cancer by Dr. Lawrence Gordon. The origins of his transition into a sadistic 'deliverer of punishment' is explained in the later films of the franchise. He challenges Matthews to a game, one in which he has to sit and talk with John, while it is revealed that a group of captives must find a means of escape from a house rigged with traps. To survive they must also inject themselves with antidotes hidden throughout the labyrinth and accessible via the successful completion of the assigned tests that can cure them of the effects of the poisonous gas they are inhaling. One of these captives is Matthews' son, while the rest are past-perpetrators that he had sent to prison via his corrupt manufacturing of crime scenes with planted evidence. As Matthews and his SWAT team, who are watching CCTV footage of the events in the house from the warehouse, scramble to find the source of the transmission before it is too late, Kramer is content to just sit and chat with Matthews, who becomes increasingly frustrated and anxious. Another of the captives is Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), one of Jigsaw's past victims who managed to escape. There is immediate tension within the captured group. Obviously confused, and all possessing self-centred agendas and short fuses, a collaborative operation is never likely. Amanda, who recognizes who they have been succumbed to, remains the most rational, while there are the stock characters around her. There is the hotheaded tough guy who will do anything to escape, even choosing to expire all those around him, the stubborn bitch who refuses to be told what to do, and the meek girl who blubbers and is mostly useless. The characters are so shallow and so poorly developed that we don't even remember any of their names.
The second installment really lacks the confines of the first film, which really allowed us to engage with the two central characters. The larger location, now an abandoned house with a labyrinth of levels and hallways, and more contestants, really fails to create any emotional impact and we feel nothing for their plight. Matthews' incessant griping is also tiring. Saw II relies on cheap thrills to maintain the impact, throwing in ridiculous jump-out-of-your-skin moments wherever there is a prolonged lapse in the suspense or if the film divulges into plot for too long. But this is what the Saw films are all about. There are some really elaborate traps one again, most notably the pit of needles, but it really fails when trying to replicate the shocking foot sawing sequence of the first film. The score is pretty lame and the performances mostly awful, with the exception of Tobin Bell, who creates one of the more memorable recent villains. This bleak and distastefully gratuitous sequel fails on so many levels, but it is still a guilty pleasure with a final sequence that will no doubt bring you crawling back for the next installment, and the next, and the next...
My Rating: 2 Stars