Saw ★★★★

Revisiting Saw, it is fascinating to see it in the context of its legacy: in terms of the sequels it spawned, the breakout origin of two major names in horror ever since (James Wan and Leigh Whannell) and it's influence on the horror genre as a whole. It is impressive how it holds up despite its shoestring budget limitations. It does what the most creative low-budget works do, make up for budget limitations with pure style: from the whip-pan fast-forwarded scenes in the traps, endless camera rotations, rack zooms, and hyperkinetic editing it is the source of many stylistic motifs that many '00s films (including the later Saw sequels) would proceed to run into the ground. It also allows the stylishness to hide some of the nastier or rough around the edges elements, which the sequels would later focus on entirely. While the style of directing feels chaotic and certainly makes the film dated (god how it feels so early '00s), it also demonstrates Wan's knack for tense set-pieces and precise attention to detail that would define his later works and elevates this film to the level of a horror classic.

The beauty of this thriller is in its simplicity. It grabs your attention from moment one and sucks you into this premise and a cold open that immediately puts you in the perspective of our two trapped characters. The film only pulls back to provide a greater context in a way that adds layers of dramatic irony and tension to that central conflict between the two trapped characters. While the plot developments have been parodied to death, it still works as a taut and intelligent horror thriller. A borderline omniscient killer who traps his victims and forces them to play out his sick games; it is all so instantly iconic now. The contained locations allow them to not only make the most of their budget, putting every dollar into the grimy and disgusting interiors but also gives a sense of claustrophobia to every scene. Much like Jigsaw intended, the room our two trapped characters are in feels like purgatory. The production design goes all out, even the grainy video recordings of Billy play perfectly into the grindhouse style.

Of course, there are plenty of things that don't work about this. God knows a lot of the acting is pretty laughable (look no further than Cary Elwes' inability to hold his American accent or Whannell's attempt at a fake death). Still, even those elements add a certain campiness to the proceedings that play into the silliness of the premise. It has a charm to it that makes even its flaws kind of adorable and lovable (which the sequels manage to retain a bit of, despite losing any sense of originality or style that made this one iconic). The talented cast (Elwes, Glover, and of course, Tobin Bell) taking the premise seriously despite the hamminess helps sell the moments that the writing stumbles.

Saw is a very flawed film: the dialogue is cheesy and repetitive at times, the budget and excessive styling make certain scenes borderline unintelligible (such as the car chase), and the acting is hammy. Yet, in many ways, even the flaws come together to improve the experience of the film. It comes together to become more than the sum of its parts. The incredible production design elevates the film and creates a dingy atmosphere perfect for such a premise. There are so many unforgettable moments and iconic moments scattered throughout (the traps like the reverse bear trap, Billy the doll's video recordings, the twisted ending). And above all, the focus on the central conceit and the careful framing of the narrative to build the tension reality elevates the premise and make Saw a horror classic that cannot be ignored.