Big things have small beginnings.
No, that’s not a quote from Saw, but it fits.
It’s hard to imagine that with Jigsaw (the 8th film in the franchise) coming out this weekend, that this all began with a relatively small film over a decade ago. In comparison to what the films became over time, Saw is practically tiny in scope.
What began as a 10-minute short film (which was used as the Amanda scene in the feature), Saw was directed by James Wan and written by Wan and Leigh Whannell, who also co-stars alongside Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, and Tobin Bell.
Saw begins relatively inauspiciously. Adam (Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) wake up in a dilapidated bathroom, both chained at the ankle to pipes on opposite ends of the room. There is a man covered in blood in the middle of the room holding a pistol and a tape player. Each man has a tape with their name on it in their pocket. Adam’s tape urges him to escape the room, while Lawrence’s tape states he must kill Adam before 6pm in order to save the lives of his wife and child. Adam finds a bag that holds two small hacksaws. Both men begin sawing on their chains, but Adam’s saw breaks and he throws it out of rage. He breaks a mirror and sees a hidden camera within, implying that someone is watching them. Dr. Gordon deduces that this must be the Jigsaw Killer, a man he is familiar with after being a former suspect. He also adds that based on the person who has trapped them in this room, the saws were never for them to destroy the chains holding them.
The saws were supposed to be used to cut their own foot off in order to survive.
From here, we meet Amanda in a flashback. She is being interviewed by police officers at a hospital, where she tells the story of her own Jigsaw trap. She wakes up with a grisly machine around her head. A Jigsaw tape reveals that it will rip her jaws apart if she doesn’t remove it in time, but the key is in the stomach of her dead cell mate. She reluctantly stabs him in order to find the key, but finds he was actually just sedated instead of dead. She finds the key, removes the trap, and it activates as it hits the ground. The now iconic doll on a tricycle rolls out towards her, a voice asking if she has learned to appreciate the life.
This is the gimmick of the Jigsaw Killer. We learn that he claims he’s never killed a person in his life. He puts people who take their own life for granted and he puts them in dangerous situations. He demands that these people work for their lives, put themselves through something terrible in order to save themselves. This twisted “logic” is at the core of the series, and what drives the man behind the Jigsaw nickname.
For everything that the future of Saw movies gets wrong, this original Saw film mostly gets right. Most of the film revolves around the two trapped men, with only a few minor supporting characters who are used to supplement the backstory of the primary victims. While the following films have a tendency to go over the top with the gore factor, there’s surprisingly very little in this film, and Wan saves most of it for the finale.
Wan also shows a firm grip on tension throughout the film, knowing when to build it and when to bring it back down. What was clearly full of potential here in Saw would continue to develop throughout his career, arguably coming to a head with The Conjuring, which many people believe to be his best film.
The final scene is one of the great endings in modern horror, which only works because of the mounting mystery from the very start of the film. Later films in the franchise dole out tiny hints of things to come or things that already have much more often than is really necessary, but the original Saw is much smarter with the tidbits it reveals. Each one is necessary to create that lasting final moment, and the payoff was so successful that it accidentally launched six (soon to be seven) more films.
All in all, I assume you’ve already seen Saw if you were even remotely interested in it. Due to the franchise fatigue, there’s a bit of a blemish that hangs around the original film based on proximity, but this film holds up. Especially after 13 years of ridiculous and gross Rube Goldberg death traps, it’s important to remember that the first film still works very well on it’s own.
Whether you consider the upcoming Jigsaw as an option for spending some time in a theater or not, it would be worth it to revisit Saw if you’ve got the time.
This film is currently streaming on Netflix US.