Saw' is a delightful movie to review, as it is such a mix of both good and poor qualities that it is a challenge to weigh them against one another to see what comes out ahead. For the impatient, I will say that I think the two cancel one another out in weighing the overall quality of the movie; however, the interesting aspects make the movie worth seeing and buying, in spite of the negatives.
The first and most important positive for a horror film is the visceral reaction of the viewer. Did the movie scare, frighten, or cause mad dashes to the bathroom to clean out soiled underpants? The answer to this question for me is a tentative yes, but only with regard to a single, minor character, where the movie played the `Aliens' / `The Exorcist' card which put a child at genuine risk, not the supernatural, kinda spooky, kinda neat type of menace of `Poltergeist'. So my score on this point is positive.
A second important positive for a horror film is the inventiveness of the threat. `Halloween' scores big on this point with its creative minimalism of a psychopathic stalker with a blank, white mask. This is in strong contrast to a lot of more elaborate scare scenarios done up until `Halloween' was made, whereupon everyone copied John Carpenter's idea. Another prime example among `B' movies is '28 Days Later' which changes the rules about how zombies are expected to act. It doubles its impact by adding a twist to the behavior of a group of survivors which seems to be making a psychological statement not unlike the classic `Lord of the Flies' survivors novel. My favorite example from A list movies is the nature of the threat in `Alien'. The object lesson here is to be sure to hire a great graphic artist when you design your monsters.
The seemingly most striking original element of `Saw' is the fact that the perp is not literally killing the victims himself, he is putting them in situations where they do things which leads to their killing themselves, or at least failing to find their way out of a trap before the trap is sprung and they are killed by the environment created by the perp. While this is the element of originality explicit in the movie, this story line may not be quite as original as the authors would have you believe. There is a strong similarity between the fate of the victims in `Saw' and the way in which the murders are done in `Seven'. In both cases, the scenario in which the vics die is connected to perceived past sins. And, the deaths in `Seven' are to some extent a result of the victims' own actions.
The truly more original aspect of `Saw' is that it is laid out very much like an adventure video game, where progress or even survival is based on solving puzzles. Clues are doled out by a very stingy puzzle master and they are generally couched in riddles, so we double the fun by making one answer one puzzle to get the clues needed to solve the next puzzle. The frustration in seeing the nested puzzles, yet you are stuck at the first step. Reminds me of the frustration of trying to find my way into the Underground Empire in `Zork I'. I must also say that most of the perils created by the perp win points for originality. These add to the dangers to those among us with weak bowels.
The biggest question for the audience is for how long does the filmmaker maintain the suspense for the viewer? The answers to some of the puzzles are evident to the audience long before they dawn on the characters, partly because the producers let the cat out of the bag for at least one major piece of business in their promotional material. The writer did manage to keep the identity of the ultimate perp hidden until the very end of the movie, largely by presenting us with a fairly transparent red herring that kept our attention diverted from the real puzzle master.
Weighed against these positives is a rather serious list of negatives beginning with the question of whether the two main characters would really behave as they did in the movie if they were presented with their situation. I think the initial panic is real enough, but I think the writer does not give enough credit to the problem solving abilities of a normally intelligent person, and at least one of the two principals is a highly educated surgeon. I really suspect that with the tools at hand, the two principle vics would have been a lot more clever in being able to free at least one, so he could go get help. As evidence of this, I offer the resolution to a similar problem in Stephen King's novel `Gerald's Game'.
If you resolve the improbabilities, you are left with some bad writing for the roles of the police detectives working this case, lead by Danny Glover. The glaring contrast between Glover in this movie and Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman in `Seven' makes my point better than anything else I can say. This is not Glover's fault, except in the fact that he decided to play this weak role to begin with. I am inclined to say that the movie would have been much better if the roles of Glover and his partner had been eliminated or minimized. The movie makers probably felt they needed the detectives' business to have someone to chase perps and take bullets from the potential perp and from booby traps, since the two main characters are trapped inside their own personal dungeon. The cops also introduce scenes from past perp scenes that fill out the way in that our perp works and thinks.
The movie does not live up to its hype, but it is worth a good chill.