“I want to play a game.” Those five words quickly became a staple of the horror genre following the release of the original Saw movie, all the way back in 2004.
Looking at the film now, it’s impressive when you come to realise it was shot in just 18 days on a small budget of $1.2 million and, though the screenplay was written three years prior, any attempts to move into production in director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell’s home-country of Australia failed.
Fortunately, the pair took advice to move to Los Angeles, where they put together a short film of the same name, based on one of the scenes in the movie. Producers from Evolution Entertainment showed an interest in 2003, with the horror genre label Twisted Pictures later being born.
After work was completed on shooting and editing, film production and distribution studio Lionsgate Films stepped in to promote release across North America. It didn’t take long for the feature to start making waves, bringing in over $100 million worldwide and becoming, at the time, one of the most profitable horror movies since 1996’s Scream.
The horror genre was truly reborn, with all of the rules rewritten. Some say this is where what has been called ‘torture p*rn’ was born but, rewatching Saw, it’d be hard to argue that this was the movie that kicked it all off. Though we remember it as inherently gory and vicious, it wasn’t until the later sequels that we actually saw a lot of the blood and guts spewing out on screen.
So, where did it all begin?
We kick things off with photographer Adam Stanheight - who is played by screenwriter Whannell himself - as he awakens in a dilapidated bathtub, yanking the chain and draining it of water upon regaining consciousness. What he doesn’t realise at the time? The key to his chain was in the water, but has now circled the drain and been washed away for good.
As he struggles to see, another voice rings out from the darkness. That voice eventually finds a light switch, leading to both he and Adam to become bathed in light and discover that they are both chained to opposite corners of an abandoned bathroom, with what appears to be a corpse between them. In the corpse’s hands are a tape recorder, and a gun.
The stranger introduces himself as oncologist Dr. Lawrence Gordon and, as the two get to work in trying to figure out exactly why they’ve both been kidnapped and brought to this location, Adam finds an envelope containing a cassette tape in his back pocket. Telling Dr. Gordon about the find, he also finds his own envelope and tape in one of his pockets.
Spotting the cassette player in the hand of the body, he attempts to reach over and grab it, but the chain will only allow him a short distance. He tries to use his shirt to extend his reach, but eventually is forced to think outside of the box. Grabbing the plug from the bathtub, he manages to hook the chain around the looped band of the player, dragging it towards himself and playing his tape.
“Rise and shine, Adam. You're probably wondering where you are. I'll tell you where you might be. You might be in the room you die in. Up until now you simply sat in the shadows watching others live out their lives. But what do voyeurs see when they look into the mirror? Now, I see you as a strange mix of someone angry, yet apathetic. But mostly just pathetic. So are you going to watch yourself die today, Adam, or do something about it?”
As the realisation begins to dawn that this day could be his last, Dr. Gordon demands the player be thrown over. Adam refuses to do so, noting that if he doesn’t catch it, it could break. He instead asks Dr. Gordon to throw his tape over, to which he complies. He has his own message from their captor.
“Dr. Gordon, this is your wake-up call. Every day of your working life you have given people the news that they're going to die soon. Now, you will be the cause of death. Your aim in this game is to kill Adam. You have until six on the clock to do it. There's a man in the room with you. When there's that much poison in your blood, the only thing left to do -- is shoot yourself. There are ways to win this hidden all around you. Just remember, X marks the spot for the treasure. If you do not kill Adam by six, then Alison and Diana will die, Dr. Gordon... and I'll leave you in this room to rot. Let the game begin. Follow your heart.”
Immediately, the two notice that the parting message about following their heart is a clue, with Dr. Gordon pointing out the heart that has been drawn onto the toilet near Adam. He sinks his hand into the murky brown water, coming out with nothing, but takes off the lid and finds a bag which contains two hacksaws.
Adam’s saw breaks as he tries to no avail to cut through his chains, whilst the one he throws to Dr. Gordon is tossed aside when the surgeon comes to realise exactly who the two are dealing with.
"He doesn't want us to cut through our chains," he says. "He wants us to cut through our feet."
With a look of horror, Dr. Gordon tells the story of how he was actually taken in for questioning in relation to a currently-uncaptured serial killer, whom the media had given the moniker of The Jigsaw Killer.
We see a flashback, in which Dr. Gordon is discussing the terminal brain cancer of a patient called John Kramer (Tobin Bell), before being called in for questioning by Detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung). They have their suspicions of Dr. Gordon being Jigsaw, after his penlight was left at one of the crime scenes. Claiming to have no idea of the circumstances in which the pen could be taken from him and left at such a place, he was freed without charge.
It’s at this point that we also get glimpses at two of the other ‘games’ Jigsaw set up with those he deemed unworthy of their life. The first was a man who had sliced his own wrists. In his own tape, the man is told that he must pass through a barbed wire maze to make it out of the room that would become his tomb, in less that two hours, to survive. This victim died due to multiple deep lacerations which caused a heavy loss of blood.
The second saw an individual covered in a sticky, flammable solution from head to toe. Left naked in a room full of numbers painted on the walls and roof, he is told that there is an antidote for the slow-acting poison coursing through his veins in the safe right next to him, but he would have to figure out the correct combination to access it. The man is burnt to a crisp when he fails.
What Jigsaw likely didn’t envisage however, was somebody actually escaping from one of his traps. The detectives invite Dr. Gordon to listen to former heroin addict Amanda Young’s (Shawnee Smith) testimony, about the ‘reverse bear trap’ that was placed onto her head, from which she escaped and lived to tell the tale. It’s at this point we’re also properly introduced to the Jigsaw puppet Billy; a thing of nightmares.
Though she is clearly extremely shaken by the whole experience - which saw her having to gouge the key to the trap from a living man’s body in the same room using just a small knife - Amanda does note that “he [Jigsaw] saved me”. Now it seems, she will truly value her life and stay away from the drugs.
Dr. Gordon is moved, but protests his innocence. Upon his release however, the videotape footage from Amanda’s time in a murky warehouse is used to locate Jigsaw’s hideaway. Detectives Tapp and Sing make it to the location, before springing into action when Jigsaw arrives on the scene. Unfortunately for them, he has another victim strapped into a device, which Sing manages to save him from; but in doing so causes enough of a distraction for Jigsaw to unsheathe a hidden blade and slice Tapp’s throat.
Though Tapp survives, Sing isn’t so lucky. In pursuit of Jigsaw, he triggers a fine wire with his leg, causing shotguns placed precariously above him to shoot down straight through his skull and instantly kill him. Tapp is later let go from the police force due to his obsession with Dr. Gordon and eagerness to bring him down, despite the lack of evidence. In his enforced retirement, he turns to tracking the doctor’s every move.
In the present, we see a familiar face holding Dr. Gordon’s wife and daughter captive. Zep Hindle, played expertly by Michael Emerson, looks to be the one who has created this ‘game’ in which he’s forcing Dr. Gordon to play. We assume that, having seen his poor treatment by the surgeon in an earlier flashback sequence, that he is simply fed up of being walked all over and so, has turned to murder to get his revenge.
But Zep isn’t the mastermind we may all have thought he was. In fact, he’s later revealed to have his own tape and instructions…
“Hello, Mr. Hindle. Or as they called you around the hospital: Zep. I want you to make a choice. There's a slow-acting poison coursing through your system, which only I have the antidote for. Will you murder a mother and her child to save yourself? Listen carefully, if you will; there are rules…”
Still, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When Dr. Gordon shows Adam a picture of his daughter, he tells him that there is also a photograph in his wallet of his wife and throws it over for him to take a look. What Adam actually finds however, is a polaroid of Dr. Gordon’s family following their capture and a note, which gives the clue of plunging the room into darkness to find an ‘X’. Doing so, a segment of the bathroom on Dr. Gordon’s side can be reached, behind which is a lockbox containing a cigarette, a lighter and a one-way mobile phone.
Despite Dr. Gordon’s attempts to trick their captor into believing he has laced the cigarette with poison and thrown it to Adam, killing him, a quick electric shock to the leg proves it all to be an act. Annoyed, Zep forces Dr. Gordon’s wife to speak to him on the phone, telling him that he cannot trust Adam and that the photographer knows a lot more than he is letting on.
Eventually admitting that this is indeed true, Adam tells Dr. Gordon he’s been following him and taking pictures after being paid to do so by an older black gentleman with a scar across his neck - Detective Tapp. We see further flashbacks of both Dr. Gordon and Adam being attacked by a figure in the now-iconic Saw pig mask, giving them new memories of exactly how they were captured and taken to the bathroom they now preside in.
Back in real-time, Adam reveals there were the photographs he took of Dr. Gordon also in the bag which contained the saws. On one of them however, a man can be seen in the window of Dr. Gordon’s house, who the surgeon identifies as Zep.
The clock ticks on but, when it strikes six, Zep makes a move to murder both Dr. Gordon's wife and daughter. What he doesn’t account for is the weakness of his bindings; Alison Gordon (Monica Potter) breaks free, attacking Zep and getting ahold of the gun, before ringing her husband once more.
At this point, Tapp is watching from across the street and, when another scuffle ensues and results in two bullets being fired, he runs across to the Gordons’ home and hopes to bring down the Jigsaw Killer once and for all. Unfortunately, Zep takes a shot right through Tapp’s chest following a struggle, killing him in the process; the chaos of which Dr. Gordon can hear through the phone, leading to him having a complete breakdown. Though Zep leaves the Gordons alone and instead runs to the bathroom in which Dr. Gordon and Adam have been left, the surgeon believes his family to be dead.
In a fit of madness, he takes off his outer-shirt, ties it around his ankles and saws off his foot. He then picks up the gun on the floor, puts the one bullet he has been given into the chamber and, shoots Adam, presumably dead.
Zep then arrives, telling Dr. Gordon that despite their efforts, the rules state that he must now die. Having only shot Adam in the shoulder however, the photographer trips up Zep before grabbing the toilet tank lid and bludgeoning him to death.
Dr. Gordon promises he will go and get Adam help, but he has to go now or he will bleed to death. We watch as he leaves and as his family are comforted back at home by some well-meaning neighbours.
Then, in one of the most memorable and shocking twists in horror history, the corpse in the middle of the room is revealed to actually be the Jigsaw Killer himself. He rises from the ground, electrocuting Adam when he goes for the gun to shoot at him and making his way to the exit after ripping the prosthetic gunshot wound from his head, revealing himself to be Dr. Gordon's cancer patient, John Kramer.
“Game over,” he says, before slamming the door shut. Fade to black. And the goosebumps come in thick and fast. Every. Single. Time.
Let’s wrap this thing up
I don’t know about you, but for me, the Saw movie was one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments in horror history. It was a beautifully-written tale of deceit and drama from start to finish, holding audiences by the throat as they waited in anticipation to see exactly whether or not the characters at the centre would live to see another day.
What came after it was a bunch of sequels that were all successful to varying degrees. The inspiration that Saw has had on the industry as a whole however, is something that remains prominent to this day. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t have films like 2019’s brilliant Escape Room and its upcoming sequel, without Saw. For that, we’ll always be grateful.
The Saw franchise continues with Spiral: From the Book of Saw which is expected to hit cinemas across the UK on May 17th, 2021. The original Saw will be available on 4K Ultra HD from May 11th, 2021.