Saw is the film I revisit more than any other in the long and wildly successful series. Compared to the later entries, it is a masterclass in subtlety and minimalistic horror. Two strangers wake up in an abandoned bathroom, each chained by the ankle to opposite sides of the room. A dead body lies between them. They're each given a hacksaw to cut their way out, but one is given the advantage of a clear goal. If Dr. Gordon kills photographer Adam by 6PM, he'll be freed and his wife and daughter will live.
This is our first introduction to the Jigsaw Killer and it is his most elegant work. Throughout the debut of writer/director team Leigh Whannell (Adam) and James Wan (director), the horror comes from the realization that something has to connect all these seemingly random torture murders together. It's a sense of dread brought on by the complete inability of the police to make a meaningful connection beyond an obvious decoy in one of Dr. Gordon's pens winding up at a crime scene.
The smoking gun that unlocks the concept of the entire series (for better or worse) is Amanda. Amanda is a junkie and the only known survivor of the Jigsaw Killer's traps. She wakes up with a reverse bear trap locked onto her jaw. If she doesn't slice out the key to the lock from the stomach of another body in the room in 60 seconds, her face will be ripped in half.
Shawnee Smith masterfully tells the story of Amanda's salvation through fresh scars on her face. The ordeal of literally fighting for her life and being told she faced immediate death because of her addiction has a profound impact on the character; she's clean. She no longer does drugs. She actually declares "he saved me" when being interrogated again by the police.
The other victims are not as lucky as Amanda. Seemingly everyone involved in the story of the first Saw is being tested, police included. One of the more notorious sequences involves two detectives discovering one of the Jigsaw Killer's workshops and accidentally setting off a deadly series of traps. This evil genius does not want to be caught until his work is done. He'll pull in as many not-so-innocent bystanders as he needs to keep fighting.
The majority of Saw takes place in that filthy bathroom and shows off the potential of Whannell and Wan as writers. They hide so much detail in the first big trap that later films keep returning to where it all started to twist the knife a little further. Pay close attention to the first few seconds of the film. What did the Jigsaw Killer hide in Adam's bathtub that could have changed the entire story? Then keep paying attention. How many different ways did Dr. Gordon have to get out of the room in time to save his family? How many of those options were available to Adam, too?
Saw establishes the calling cards of the series. It's a good thing until it's a bad thing. The quick edits during the traps work well when the traps are cinematic, but fall flat when the traps are stupid. The increasing involvement of the police at all levels of the game is infuriating, except for when the officers involved are actually compelling characters. And the broad spectrum approach to connecting players doesn't reach it's logical and most fluid peak until VI, which itself creates the formula that tanks VII and the series with it.
But the original film still stands as an excellent indie horror film. It doesn't rely on gore or cheap tricks to create scares; it doesn't have to. The concept of a serial killer targeting morally lost victims and forcing them to fight for survival is chilling enough on its own.
The entire Saw series received a beautiful Blu-ray release. Otherwise, Saw can be rented from all the major digital platforms.