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By Pete Turner • October 24th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: October 29th, 2004
Running time: 103 minutes

Director: James Wan
Writers Leigh Whannell
Compser: Charlie Clouser

Cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell


Horror films don’t come much more bleak, harrowing, grisly or effective than the sharp shocker Saw. When Empire magazine wrote ‘Dare you see Saw?’ they issued a challenge to every horror hound and the question was subsequently repeated on many of the marketing materials to promote the film in the UK. From posters to the uncut edition DVD covers, that one question, never mind the clever pun, taunted and tormented horror fans of the UK until they could get to the cinema and see it. I remember driving past the billboard poster of a severed foot with that irritating question plastered above it. Yes I bloody do dare see Saw and the sooner I can see it, the better!

It’s not just this sharp tagline that got me interested though. The comparisons to Se7en (1995) were present from early reviews with one critic from The Guardian even claiming Saw ‘goes up to ei8ght’. A huge fan of Fincher’s disturbing and dark serial killer masterpiece, I was even more intrigued about seeing Saw. The revelation that Saw’s gore was similarly distressing to Se7en’s and that both films featured a killer teaching his victims a lesson in warped morality was tantalising to say the least.

Saw hit screens in time for Halloween of 2004. The franchise it spawned consists of six more inferior films that were released around Halloween in consecutive years until the ‘final’ entry in 2010. The films all place a huge emphasis on horrific, graphic special effects created to show the audience the effects of injury, torture and trauma on the human body. The budgets of the films quickly rose with each entry from the modest $1 million mark for the first film to approximately $10 million for the third to sixth entries and culminating in a $20 million budget for the final film in 3D. They became progressively more about the gore, with the effects and torture techniques becoming increasingly elaborate and the shots of bloody violence becoming longer, more expensive and leaving far less to the imagination of the audience. The original Saw ushered in the modern horror trend that would become known as ‘torture porn’. Masters (2007) calls these ‘horror films where sadistic torture, mutilation and murder – often with women as the victims – are central to the plot’¹, citing Vacancy, Captivity and Hostel as more recent examples.


However director James Wan’s initial Saw lacked the continuous parade of traps, torture machines and unbelievably vicious tormenting techniques of the later films. With a lower budget and a simple premise, the film is brutally effective. Two male strangers awake in a filthy dingy bathroom, their legs chained to pipes and a dead body lying between them. Unlike many other examples of the torture porn trend, the victims here are not women and they’re not being tortured for the majority of the film… at least not physically. The torture is more psychological here with one of the men, Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) learning that his wife and daughter have been kidnapped and if he does not kill the other man in the dingy bathroom with him, then his family will be killed. The other man, Adam, is a photographer and neither of them are your typical hero types. Both are morally dubious with the Doctor having an affair and the photographer being the slime ball paid to take photos of him.

From this seemingly straightforward foundation springs a far more complex story riddled with flashbacks and further characters and killings that have to be pieced together by the end like a Jigsaw. This brings us nicely to the villain of the piece; handily titled the Jigsaw Killer by the befuddled detectives on his trail. Flashbacks reveal that Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp’s been hunting the killer who doesn’t Sawactually kill his victims himself. Jigsaw leaves his prey in situations that will make them undergo all sorts of hideous endurance tests that will mean they have to fight for their lives and if they survive, they will be grateful for their lives. Hence if Dr Gordon or Adam wish to escape their bathroom prison, they will have to saw through their feet to flee their chains.

Saw tackles this unbelievably bleak subject matter with the style of an MTV music video for Marilyn Manson. Whizzy cinematography and epilepsy inducing editing combine to disorient the viewer but also get the pulse pounding. Cut this together with composer Charlie Clouser’s (ex-member of Nine Inch Nails) dark and memorable score and this is a film that differs to the more classical filmmaking of David Fincher’s Se7en but matches it for uninviting locations and consistent visual darkness. You feel dirty after watching either film but the inventive and exciting camerawork and editing make up for the grim mise-en-scene of Saw.

Like Se7en, this is also the kind of harrowing horror that hacks off happy endings and leaves the audience gasping come the miserable climax. The head in a box finale of Se7en is similar in its shocking bleakness to Saw’s last minute reveal of where the killer has been watching his sick little game from. Jigsaw is a twisted genius; his traps, games and tests never more mercilessly clever then in this first instalment and his voyeurism never more immediate.


  • [1] Roscoe, J. (2000) ‘The Blair Witch Project: Mock-Documentary Goes Mainstream’, Jump Cut: A Review Of Contemporary Media, 43, pp. 3-8.
  • [2] Masters, T. (2007) Torture Porn Films – Horror Or Hype? BBC News [Accessed 26th September 2012]

The gore isn’t ladled on as thick as you might imagine either. Like Se7en’s revealing of the gruesome aftermath of the killings rather than showing the actual acts. Saw is surprisingly spare with the blood and guts. The choppy editing and wild spinning cinematography help in some scenes but in others, the visceral violence is more in your face. One victim has to cut into entrails for the key to her salvation while the climactic use of the titular Saw may not show as much as say 127 Hours’ decapitation, but the psychological implications of what’s shown is worse than any amount of claret spilled.

Tellingly as time went on and the franchise got more into the traps and torture, more people chose to see Paranormal Activity (2007) in the cinema than chose to see Saw 4 when they went head to head at the Halloween box office in 2008. Paranormal Activity signalled a return to audiences not wanting to see every gruesome decapitation and bloody wound and were left to imagine many of the more horrific images that are a part of horror narratives. Roscoe (2000) suggests ‘given that we are fed a diet of Hollywood horror movies that compete against each other to show the most gore, horrific images and special effects, The Blair Witch Project’s “realism” provides a refreshing alternative’¹. It’s no surprise then that audiences are still flocking to the ‘realism’ of the Paranormal Activity franchise’s thrills long after the 3D gore fest of the final Saw film failed to deliver the same harrowing effect of the first one.

Pete Turner

Pete Turner

Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.

If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.

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