It's unfortunate that James Wan and Leigh Whannell's original psychological gem Saw has been somewhat stigmatized by the invariably inferior string of sequels that followed it — because it's actually a damned effective and innovative horror film. In a decade when remakes and sequels ran so roughshod, Saw is a work of stark originality that hits the viewer like a sledgehammer to the stomach.
Two anonymous men wake up to find themselves held prisoner in a squalid room, with what appears to be a corpse between them, and no answers as to what they're doing there, or how they got there. Little by little, they piece the puzzle together through a series of audio tapes left behind by their captor, a man who refers to himself only as "Jigsaw".
So begins the ingenious storyline of a movie that can stake that rare claim of actually being original-in a genre in which imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but generally the most commonly used shortcut, as well. As the mystery begins to unravel, or at least seems to unravel, we are also given clues as to the identity of this mysterious Jigsaw. Red herrings and plot twists galore keep the audience guessing-and this, you must remember, was long before the Saw franchise turned such an approach into a trite and hackneyed crutch.
What Wan and Whannell's script, as well as Wan's direction do so well is to both simultaneously terrify us and feed our curiosity just enough to keep us invested from beginning to end. Best of all, and perhaps most surprising of all to those who have come to the series via the sequels, is the fact that they do this with minimal depictions of graphic violence and gore.
The sharp script and intense direction are supported all the way through by perhaps the film's most famous trademark of all, the chilling, disturbing, strangely off-kilter cinematography of David A. Armstrong, one of the decade's most influential horror cinematographers. Charlie Clouser, long-time producer of Nine Inch Nails, provides the instantly recognizable, dread-filled industrial musical score, almost a character in and of itself.
That's right, for those who have never seen it, the original Saw is a very psychological, atmospheric horror film, not at all the torture porn extravaganza of later entries in the franchise. For example, when a character is forced by one of Jigsaw's notorious traps to cut off his own foot (hence the title), we aren't actually shown it happening in detail — although the deft direction might make us remember having seen it in detail. Rather, the scene is carried using the impact of the horror of that which we do not see. A bold approach for a horror film dealing with such intense subject matter.
Then there's Tobin Bell, who plays the aforementioned Jigsaw. Long before the series rendered him a bizarre afterthought, Bell is absolutely blood-curdling in a role that somewhat redefines the modern horror franchise baddie as it was established in the 1970s and ‘80s. With that infamous, freaky little puppet and macabre pig's head mask to aid him, he is easily one of the most nightmarish figures in horror of the past 20 years.
It's really a shame that a seemingly endless stream of sequels — of varying degrees of quality, but all inferior — have somewhat tarnished the reputation of the original Saw. But if you can bring yourself to let go of all the baggage and approach it for what it is, you'll find that it's quite a fresh and powerful horror film, which both gets under your skin and inside your head.