If I told you that Saw was Seven meets Cube by way of a Nine Inch Nails video (with a sprinkling of The Silence of the Lambs thrown in for flavor), you'd probably dismiss the movie as something less than unique or original, let alone brain-crackingly cool. In which case you might overlook Saw, which is easily one of the most deliciously gruesome and addictively entertaining horror movies I've seen in years. Yes, I said years.
Two complete strangers awaken in a disgusting bathroom in the middle of god-knows-where. They're both chained by the ankles and escape seems quite impossible; but a handful of disturbing clues are left behind (not the least of which is a dead man with his brains blown out), and the pair quickly find themselves unraveling a collection of mysteries that are probably better left unmolested.
This is the opening scene of Saw, the brilliant new horror flick from first-time filmmakers James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (screenwriter), and one that will fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in the horror genre. To divulge much more of the deliciously twisted storylines would be a grave disservice to those who wish to be so wholly blown away by the nasty twists that Saw provides...
...but suffice to say that the flick's about one serial killer, two desperate cops, three or four skin-wrenchingly slick sequences of terrorizing torture, and five or six well-earned scares that will have even the most jaded Gorehound squirming happily in their seats.
If you're even half of a true-blue movie nut, then you certainly harbor some admiration for actor Cary Elwes. This is the guy who stole scenes whole in Glory, The Chase, Shadow of the Vampire, Liar Liar, Hot Shots!, Twister, and Kiss the Girls. Heck, he's the Dread Pirate Roberts! (If you don't know about The Princess Bride by now, you're officially banished from reading my reviews. Sorry.) When Cary's name pops up in the opening credits (usually 4th or 5th), we think "Hey, cool. At the very least I'll get another visit with a character actor I dig."
Anyway, Cary plays Dr. Gordon, one of the chained and detained, Whannell snags himself the role of the also confused & captured Adam, Monica Potter is the doctor's wife, Danny Glover and Ken Leung are the detectives on the case, and heck -- even the adorable Dina Meyer pops up as a criminologist with a few horrific tales to tell.
Saw boasts one of those fractured narratives, one that doubles back on itself a few times to divulge the creepiness in the most shocking doses, and it's great to see a movie that uses this technique because it actually works. Most filmmakers that attempt this gimmick do so for one reason: If they told their story in A-B-C fashion ... you'd fall asleep. Not so here, as Wan and Whannell tip their cards craftily and quite confidently. As the surprises unfold, you feel satisfied and not cheated. That's good stuff.
Visually, Saw is gritty, grungy, pallid and stark. It's gross, grimy bathrooms and dark, dreary dungeons. Some may opt to dismiss many of Wan's directorial flourishes as those overtly inspired by David Fincher or David Lynch or Clive Barker, to which another could respond "And? The kid's got good taste!"
It would be a stunning disservice to Charlie Clouser and his brutally effective musical score were I not to mention how blisteringly cool it is, so I just did. Clouser's strains (not at all unlike the work he's done for Nine Inch Nails as a producer, songwriter and drummer) deliver rough-edged icing onto Saw's cold, rusty cake.
Shot, cut, finished and ready for its film festival debut in just under five full months, and clearly conceived by two young filmmakers who have just as much love for the horror genre as they do talent to pull it off, Saw is the absolute highlight of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, a potential goldmine for the fine folks at Lion's Gate Films, and a cult classic waiting to happen for those who like their horror movies dark, smart, twisted and hard.
--Unrated Cut Notes: I hope you horror hounds aren't expecting some sort of massive changes to the film, because aside from the addition of a few gory shots and some alterations in the film's musical score, it's pretty much the exact same movie. If you've seen Saw only once, you might be hard pressed to figure out what the "new" stuff actually is ... but it's in there, and only the serious gore gourmets will be able to notice it. Having said that, I do consider this the definitive edition of Saw, partially because I love the splatter FX, but mainly because this is the version I fell so gruesomely in love with at Sundance.
Video: It seems as if director James Wan went back and supervised an all-new cut, complete with audio upgrade and complete color correction, because this is, quite simply, the best I've ever seen Saw look. The original DVD looked just dandy, but this one's absolutely an improvement! The Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is suitably crisp, grungy, and, slick.
Audio: Audiophiles should have a good time picking through this platter, as they'll get to choose between a 6.1 DTS ES or a 5.1 Dolby Surround EX soundtrack. Pick your poison and crank those speakers up! Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
On disc 1 you'll find two brand-new commentaries. The first one is a very laid-back and jovial affair between director James Wan, writer/actor Leigh Whannell, and character actor extraordinaire Cary Elwes. The trio manages to cover all sorts of production tidbits, and Mr. Wan is kind enough to point out the (few) new snippets of gore, but mainly the guys just kick back and have some laughs. They freely admit that theirs is not a perfect baby, but they seem to really enjoy the final product nonetheless. Plus Elwes does some hilarious impressions of Marlon Brando & Michael Caine, so keep your eardrums peeled for that stuff.
The second yak-track is delivered by a trio of producers: Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules run a little company called Twisted Pictures, and these guys were brave enough to drop their own cash into a project that ended up a bona-fide smash hit. (From a production budget of about $1.3 million to a box-office tally of over $54 million; not too shabby indeed.) Anyway, the producers are a bit more "straight" than the filmmakers are, but they're also able to kick back and dish out some enjoyable commentating. (In addition to Saw 2, the Twisted boys also have James Wan's Silence in production.)
Disc 2 opens with three options, and the first one's called Dissection. First up is an alternate storyboard sequence (2:22), which shows how Mr. Wan had hoped to stage the final scenes of Detective Sing. It's a pretty nasty little scene, plus the storyboards have been animated to give it a little extra oomph. Cool stuff.
Saw: The Original Short Film (9:24) is available in DD 5.1 Surround or DD 2.0, and it's a pretty cool look at Saw in its infancy. Whannell basically has the role that later went to Shawnee Smith, and he has only a few minutes to get that key before his head's torn open like a ripe melon.
The director's art gallery runs about four minutes, and it's packed with creepy creations and abandoned poster designs. It's all set to Mr. Clouser's stressful music strains, which makes the tour all the more unsettling. In a good way.
Hacking Away at Saw is broken down into three chapters: "Bone: Pre-Production," "Tendon: Production," and "Skin: Post-Production" -- but don't worry; there's a Play All option which makes the combined running time a cool 36 minutes. Wan, Whannell, Elwes, and several producer-types share their Saw stories, most of which are quite fascinating indeed. From the ingenuity needed to put together such a rushed and low-budget affair to the numerous and elaborate FX sequences, it gets covered here. Plus the filmmakers don't seem to take themselves too seriously, and all involved seem to have a deep affection for their flick's fans, so it's a fun time all around.
Hidden within the Dissection area is an easily-found Easter Egg: It's a 2-minute featurette about the evil puppet found in the movie. The filmmakers make fun of the puppet, pretending he was an on-set prima donna, and all that jazz. A cute addition, and something that's tailor-made for Easter Egg-hood.
Head back to the second disc's main menu, and click on Further to get the following:
Full Disclosure Report: Putting Saw Together (14:26) is a strange little concoction. It's a Current Affair-style news program that gives us a recap of the Saw-doings via reporters and interview segments. Eagle-eyed fans may catch a few hints regarding the Saw 2 premise, but overall this is a fairly fluffy little extra.
Jigsaw's Workshop is a DVD-ROM toy that allows you to create a kooky puppet.
The On-Set Preview of Saw 2 is not much more than a 3.5-minute sequence from the film. It's a scene that deals with nails, scalpels, eyeballs, and a rather gruesome "death mask." (October xx can't come quickly enough!)
The final option from the main menu is Cut Media, and that's where you'll find trailers for High Tension, Undead, Desperate Souls, Ghostwatcher 2, Dark Harvest 2: The Maize (ha), and Saw 2 -- which means that, unless I missed it, neither of these discs contain any trailers for the original Saw, which is kind of a silly thing to omit, don't you think?
Also worthy of special note is the very cool & creepy packaging that contains the 2 discs: The front cover has some liquid blood and a little buzzsaw that float around over the cover art, and it's actually really cool. NO, I do not think that "cool cover art" is enough of a reason to buy a new DVD, but it's a nifty little gimmick for the deviant gorehounds ... like me.
Maybe it's because I was lucky enough to enjoy Saw long before the hype-storm hit, but the flick holds up extremely well ... and I've seen the thing about six times already. But I know several other serious horror enthusiasts who think the movie's a bleak and bold little piece of gut-wrenching entertainment. Even while acknowledging the movie's handful of plot holes and the few budgetary speed bumps, I still have a gruesome good time whenever Saw splatters across my screen.
And best of all, this new Special Edition delivers an improved audio/video presentation, a few extra pieces of gooey gore gristle, a pair of all-new commentaries, and a handful of extra featurettes that are exclusive to this release -- which means that the serious Sawthusiasts are getting some solid return on their double-dip investment. Also, none of the extras from release #1 are repeated here, which means you might not want to eBay your single-discer after you bring home this Uncut affair.
For fans of the freaky flick, this re-release earns our Highly Recommended designation, although I do have a trivia question for my fellow horror-geeks: Why is it that this cut of Saw is about 25 seconds shorter than the theatrical cut found on the original DVD? The inclusion of the quick gore-bits should obviously make this version a few seconds longer, but I double-checked it, scratched my head, and wondered why the theatrical cut ran 1:43:05, while the "uncut" edition ran 1:42:39 (on my player, anyway.)
(Portions reprinted from my original review of the movie at eFilmCritic.com.)