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There isn’t any shortage on psycho, serial killer films coming out of Hollywood these days. Seemingly every other week sees the release of some retread on the genre that attempts to add its own little twist somewhere along the way in order to make it seem unique and unlike all of the others out there. More often than not, however, the gimmicks employed in these films don’t work, and in the end audiences are left with the same-old, same-old feeling that they’ve seen it all before and usually better than what they’ve just paid $10.00 per ticket to see on a Friday night.

Director James Wan and writer and actor Leigh Whannell’s Saw is the latest of this type of film. Adam (Whannell) wakes up to find himself chained to the pipes of a rundown, industrial bathroom, but soon finds that at the other end of the room, also tied down and in presumably the same predicament, is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and between them a corpse holding onto a tape recorder and a handgun. Neither man can remember how it is that they got in the room, but soon it is made clear that they are the latest victims of a serial killer known as Jigsaw, a demented and sadistic criminal who kidnaps those people that he feels are morally wayward and makes them solve a dangerous puzzle in order to survive and appreciate the life that they have been given. As the two men begin to discover more and more about their part in the killer’s game, it is made clear that if one of them doesn’t kill the other by the time the clock on the wall reaches 6:00 p.m., lives other than their own will be put in peril.

Wan and Whannell hit several marks just right with their film, and one is placing the audience right in the same boat as their main characters right off the bat. As the story moves along and the two prisoners begin to piece together the events that have led them to this place and attempt to find a way out of the situation, the audience is with them every step of the way. It was a smart move to write the picture in such a structure, to disorient the viewer in the same fashion as the characters, and as a plot device it works having the characters know nothing more or nothing less than the audience. Since both the characters and audience are on a level playing field, the suspense is heightened more than it would be if the audience was in on a few pieces of information that the characters lacked. The only thing that might have made this aspect of the story better would have been if the movie were told in real-time, such as on television’s 24, placing the audience in the same time crunch as Larry and Adam find themselves in and forcing not only them, but we as viewers as well, to keep a closer eye on the clock.

Another nicely played hand by the filmmakers is crafting some of the most gruesome, yet rather darkly amusing, ways that a killer dispatches his victims that I have seen in a movie since 1995’s Seven. Just like I thought when I first viewed that movie, I’m not sure what kind of sick mind it takes to come up with some of this stuff, but I liked it then and I still find that I like it now. The most startling sequence I have seen in along time, and one that will more than likely stay with you long after the film ends, features Shawnee Smith with her head in a reverse, bear trap sort of rig that will go off unless she quickly finds the key to unlock it from her head. Just wait until you see it for yourself and you won’t think that the ridiculous head gear your dentist made you wear at twelve years-old was half bad after all!

After the well held suspense and shock factor, however, the movie sort of falls apart. The flashback scenes, while necessary in order to visualize Elwes’ and Whannell’s thoughts and discussions while in the bathroom, fragment the film and give too much away. The same could be said for whenever the action shifts from the bathroom to other, parallel scenes involving Danny Glover’s character, Detective David Tapp, or Elwes’ wife Alison, played by Monica Potter. Glover’s character in particular is wasted and doesn’t really add much to the story, so much so that the character’s part in the film should have been reduced to a more minor and passing part. The film also makes the mistake of allowing the audience to hear Jigsaw’s real voice midway through the film, whereas most of the time the voice is masked in the recordings he leaves behind. I found the voice too distinctive, and when the film begins to pick up steam while rolling towards its climax it took a lot away from the experience for me. If you are going to mask someone’s voice in a film and use that as a plot device, at least be consistent with it—there really isn’t a good reason for Wan and Whannell to reveal this part of the killer’s identity to the audience and, especially since they use the genre’s tried and true red herring cliché, I kind of wish that they hadn’t of bothered and left the voice masked or silent altogether.

Another problem with the film is that, as in real life, Wan and Whannell attempt to apply reasoning and logic behind the killer’s motivations. Whenever some horrific atrocity is brought to light, television news pundits, psychologists and various groups try to find reasoning behind these acts of evil where there may not be any as such to be found. It makes people feel a bit safer and better able to sleep at night when a label or some sort of rational thinking is placed on something or someone so that the actions behind such blights are made more tangible and understandable to us as human beings.

The sad fact is that some things are done simply for evil’s sake, there are no easy explanations and there is no reasoning behind them, but as a society we cannot deal with these facts or with such unknowns. Saw would have been a much more frightening and bolder film if the motivations of the killer were never made clear, or if Jigsaw simply had no meaning behind his actions at all. After watching the film, I suspect that Wan and Whannell tried to go this route for much of the picture, but at the end of the day felt the need to provide a reason in order to better associate Jigsaw with a broader audience, and since their revelations as to his motivations are pretty lame, the movie suffers from its inclusion rather than gaining from its exclusion.

It would be easy to say this film follows much along the lines of David Fincher’s Seven, but I’m willing to give the movie more credit than that. Its story strives to achieve different goals than Fincher’s film, but when all is said and done it just doesn’t execute its story quite as well as the former. Saw is, however, a cut above most of the other movies in this niche genre, but even though it valiantly tries, it comes up far short of reaching the same pedestal as the previously mentioned Seven and even farther from Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. I doubt, however, that this film was ever made with such lofty goals in mind, and to be fair those films had much bigger budgets, more experienced filmmakers, and fairly better casts to boot. For first time filmmakers it should be considered an achievement to even be thought of in the same sentence as those two films, and I can’t wait to see what twisted ideas bounce off of these two men’s heads now that they have this first feature film under their belts.

Saw is presented on DVD with an anamorphic transfer at its theatrically exhibited aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the resulting transfer is quite impressive. While there is a fair amount of grain present, it’s more due to the artistic license taken with the film itself and the film stock used, and not so much caused by the video transfer. While at times the picture isn’t as sharp as one might like and a bit soft around the edges, the transfer is free of major defects such as artefacts or pixilation, light and darkness contrasts are well handled, a must for this film, and the colours are lush and rich, adding great texture to the film itself. Overall, this is a near reference quality video transfer.

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has provided a few different audio choices for Saw on DVD, including Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and DTS 6.1 ES tracks in English with optional English and Spanish subtitles. While both the Dolby 5.1 and DTS 6.1 tracks are excellent, the DTS track wins out over the Dolby track by a fairly wide margin with its higher frequency range and more immersive sound field. The audio for the movie seems like a living, breathing entity unto itself, with sound effects populating every channel available and used to good effect to provide a few scares of its own. Other than the great utilization of the surround and LFE channels, dialogue is clear and crisp from the centre channel and the film’s soundtrack doesn’t drown anything out while nailing its cues at just the right moments. Overall, Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has delivered an outstanding, reference quality audio presentation and one of the best I’ve heard yet this year.

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has provided a few extras for Saw’s debut on DVD to include audio commentary from director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell, a short making-of featurette and a music video.

The audio commentary from director James Wan and writer and actor Leigh Whannell is informative and very relaxed as the two discuss making the film and their own personal journey while trying to get it made. Other than the fact that at times it sounds as if they recorded their commentary in the same bathroom where much of the film takes place, it’s a pretty good listen. Wan and Whannell sound like genuinely good, down to earth guys, who often make light of themselves and aren’t afraid to point out their mistakes and give credit where credit is due.

The next feature is a extra short making-of featurette that clocks in a at a whole two and a half minutes where you mainly get to see Wan and Whannell discuss everything they already discuss, albeit much, much less here, in the commentary track included with the film. So if you have already treated yourself to the commentary track you can save yourself some time and skip over this sorry excuse for a featurette. If you haven’t listened to the commentary then you still won’t be missing much if you skip over this feature too.

Next you get a music video from the group Fear Factory entitled ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds You’. The song isn’t anything great and the video, in either its rated or unrated form, is laughably bad stuff…kind of like something you would see on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s from some third tier axe grinders. To top it off, there’s even a making-of piece for the abysmal music video, and get this, it’s more than twice the running time of the featurette for the film itself! I usually don’t get into music videos as special features on DVDs, but I needed to for this review so that you don’t have to—and you can thank me for it later.
The rest of the features are rounded out by trailers and television spots for the film and a promotional art gallery montage, fairly standard stuff in and of itself. The packaging for the DVD is worth singling out as it’s cool and unusual, working ala Fox’s I, Robot where the mostly translucent slipscase works in conjunction with the Amaray case to pull off the desired design concept. Overall, other than the audio commentary, there really isn’t a worthwhile special feature to be found on the disc, and with alternative, bloodier cuts of the film floating around and the measly selection of extras found here it isn’t too difficult to sniff out a double-dip of this title in the near future. Cha-ching!

Saw presents quite a conundrum for me; I enjoyed many parts of the film and found certain aspects to be genuinely creepy and ingenious, but taken as a whole the film isn’t terribly original or satisfying and falters in more than one respect. I guess in the end though the good outweighs the bad, so, as long as you feel you can stomach it, I can recommend the film if you are in the mood for a suspenseful and gleefully horrific film. Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment’s DVD presentation of the film is more of a mixed bag than the picture itself; the video is very good and the audio is as perfect as perfect gets, but the extras, aside from the audio commentary, are woefully inadequate and don’t even rate as mediocre. As far as recommending the DVD based solely on the presentation, you might be better off renting the movie and waiting for the inevitable special edition than plunking down some change on this edition now and kicking yourself for it later.