Saw: How one of the century’s best horror films launched one of the worst franchises

Saw (R18, 103mins) Directed by James Wan ****½

OK, pop quiz, hotshot. You wake up trapped in a room with a dead body. Chained to a wall by a leg iron there’s seemingly no chance of escape. What do you do?

That’s the predicament facing surgeon Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell). They have no idea why they are there or who has done this to them.

Exploring their meagre surrounds, they discover Dictaphone tapes with their names on them which fit into the player clasped in the cadaver’s hands. Listening does them no favours, as a mysterious voice tells them the good doctor must kill Adam by 6pm or his daughter and wife will die.

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Shot in only 18 days for just under NZ$2m, Saw was originally intended to go straight to video. But after impressing executives, Melbourne film-school graduates James Wan and Whannell’s pet project was granted a cinema release, generating more than US$100m in movie theatres worldwide.

Initially drawing comparisons with David Fincher’s 1995 horror-thriller Se7en, due to its grisly “themed” deaths, Saw is actually closer in concept and style to Fincher’s much-maligned The Game, only this little chiller doesn’t disappear up its own orifice among the twists and turns of the plot.

Cary Elwes plays Dr Lawrence Gordon in Saw.


Cary Elwes plays Dr Lawrence Gordon in Saw.

Director Wan keeps his camera in motion constantly, altering film speeds, using flashbacks and black- and-white stills and playing with light skilfully to keep the audience, literally, in the dark.

Released at our time when our TV channels had been flooded with top-rate crime shows like Criminal Intent and CSI, it was getting increasingly hard for movies to surprise and shock audiences. But somehow this Aussie pair managed it with their slice of “cinema of unease”, pulling the rug just when you think you’ve figured it out.


It started so brilliantly and then the Saw series went all to hell.

Sure, it mixes elements that we’d seen before _–the bewildering opening of Cube, the unseen taskmaster of Phone Booth and the sadistic violence of Hellraiser – and it ultimately was not as sustained as the similarly themed Korean modern classic Old Boy from a year earlier, but Saw was still light years ahead of most Hollywood horrors or thrillers released in this century so far.

Most definitely not for the faint-hearted, Saw comes with an additional, vital warning: Whatever you do, do not watch any of the far inferior sequels that it sparked.

Saw is now available to stream on Prime Video.

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