The time has finally arrived! I haven’t found myself more excited to see a film in quite some time. All the rave reviews and buzz about it really got me hyped up. Could it be this year’s Haute Tension?! (Hopefully next year, North American audiences will be given the opportunity to see this nasty, old school horror flick…Uncut!) Saw has the freakiest setup imaginable; two guys wake up and find themselves in a dreary-looking bathroom with a rotting corpse lying in the middle. They are both chained to the pipes. It doesn’t get any better than that but unfortunately first timers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell fail to build upon that ultra-cool premise. Saw reeks of a feature debut.
For starters, the screenplay is a mess. The characters are poorly written caricatures. They are laughable clichés especially the detectives. The dialogue is also a problem. They vary from being clichéd, corny and at times, hilarious….unintentionally I mean. The antagonist is the only one worth sticking with but the audience finds out his agenda a little too late. Whannell devotes the majority of the screen time towards flashbacks that are predictable and boring to sit through. It really drags the pace. One example is a potentially horrifying sequence in which a girl has her jaws wired to a messed up looking bear trap (you’ve seen it in that awesome trailer) appliance on her head. We see her setting up the scene in an interrogation room before the filmmakers go into it. That kills all possibility of suspense and horror because we know for a fact that she will live through the ordeal. The film is filled with moments like that. Why couldn’t the filmmakers just construct the film for example, as a series of set pieces like in the Ju-on (The Grudge) films without resorting towards that tired thriller plot line? The film would have worked beautifully in a more ambiguous structure. That element of surprise and tension would be there at least. I find flashbacks to be a very tricky device to pull off but it could be done. The Usual Suspects is probably the best argument. Each scene gives you a fresh clue and a different perspective on the plot and characters. It doesn’t cheat the audience at any point. Now this gets me down to the much hyped twist ending. Many have mentioned that it was clever and that they never saw it coming…OF COURSE YOU NEVER SAW IT COMING! The filmmakers never give the audience any substantial clues throughout the picture. While the twist is cool and the motive satisfying, I consider it to be a cheat ending because in fact there is no possible way for the viewer to figure it out. The clues that are pointed out at the end are lazy plot devices that anyone could come up with. I guess the Robert McKee character from Adaptation is right; “You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” Many seem to be blinded by the ending.
Where was all the gore everyone keeps telling me about? I saw the uncut version and found the film to be extremely tame. One example; there is a character who dies of massive blood loss. He has practically next to none cuts not to mention blood for a guy who just went through a tunnel of barbed wire. That really bothered me. Don’t even get me started on the use of the saw at the end. If your horror film is called Saw, you better utilize that tool in an extremely memorable and graphic way! I don’t even want to begin to hear that “what your imagination creates” crap or what Cary Elwes’ reaction projects is far more gruesome than anything presented on screen. That moment over all should have been a visceral experience.
This leads me to the performances. It varies from being average to flat out horrible. What is Dina Meyer doing in this film? She has absolutely nothing to do here. What a waste! Monica Potter is sleepwalking through this film. Danny Glover is surprisingly pretty bad here. He is going through the motions of the clichéd detective role. The moments in which his character is obsessing through evidence in his crummy apartment (another tired cliché) is hysterical. You can call his character Roger Murtaugh’s dumb brother. In doesn’t help that his part is badly written. I don’t think I have ever seen a more laughable display of the obligatory “play, rewind, play, rewind of footage” sequence in a thriller before. Glover’s blank expression was hilarious. This might be nit picking but I couldn’t stop laughing at the film’s classic “detective searching through a crime scene with gun in hand” scene. The way in which the detectives in general performed was right out of a homemade action picture made by kids with their parents’ camera. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell stars in the film as well and he gives the only watchable performance here. He added a few moments of genuine humor. And then there’s CAREY ELWES. I have absolutely nothing against him. I really enjoy his work in The Princess Bride, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Shadow Of The Vampire, Hot Shots, hell even The Jungle Book to name a few. I’d call myself a Cary Elwes fan…until Saw. But here he is channeling the gods of ham in a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Elwes is fine in the first two acts but boy does that change the moment we enter the third. Calling his performance over-the-top just doesn’t quite do it justice. He is downright atrocious and embarrassing! The unthinkable insanity Elwes displays from moaning and crying like a little girl to screaming and ranting like a madman is as hysterically funny as it gets. It totally undermines any attempt at building tension mainly because James Wan is directing the climax big to begin with. If there is any intensity to be had, it’s mainly because of the killer score by Nine Inch Nails’ alumni’s Charlie Clouser and Danny Lohner.
While watching the film it is clearly obvious that this director is fan of Dario Argento. Saw is a giallo through and through. Sadly the film reminds me more of Argento’s weaker work like Trauma or The Card Player but without his panache for inventive visuals which even those films possessed. Visually I found the film to be quite mediocre. Despite the washroom set, I thought everything else looked very poor. The underground parking and police station set has got to be some of the fakest I have ever seen. There were some cool shots like the film’s opening and the torture set pieces. Wan fails to create any tension or scares except for one all too brief moment. Also Wan utilizes that cheesy device from the horror and thriller genre in which a director tries to mislead the audience by giving every character a shot in which they become a suspect with that signature devious expression. I hate that!
Chalk Saw up there with the rest of this year’s disappointments. Aside from a terrific start and a great bleak ending, the film is far too inconsistent to work as whole. It’s quite simply not frightening. I found myself laughing out loud for the better part of the running time at even the grim situations. The ingredients of a great film are all there but Wan’s and Whannell’s inexperience sadly show. With a major rewrite and someone like Dario Argento or Haute Tension’s Alexandre Aja behind the helm, we could have had a classic. But despite the dreadful plot structure, the film is still an oddly entertaining mess. Carey Elwes’ outlandishly bad performance is a classic and worth the price of admission. I admired the filmmakers’ ambitious attempt at invigorating the genre. Any film that reminds me of classic giallo’s like Deep Red or Tenebre is worth a view. Their hearts are in the right place. Hopefully they’ll get it right next time which I have know doubt they could. Take the time with the screenplay before you even decide to shoot it!