HAUTE TENSION - French poster
Three stars!   
Every piece has a puzzle

directed by: James Wan
starring: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Mike Butters, Paul Gutrecht, Michael Emerson, Benito Martinez, Shawnee Smith, Makenzie Vega, Monica Potter, Ned Bellamy, Alexandra Bokyun Chun, Avner Garbi

choice dialogue:

"Live or die. Make your choice."

- the Jigsaw killer gives one victim the ultimate ultimatum

slash with panache?

[review by Justin Kerswell]

See Saw? I'll let you be the judge of that.

My reaction to James Wan's much anticipated shocker is mixed, to say the least. However, it does get off to a very good start with truly great opening moments: a man, Adam (Leigh Whannell), comes to, the only problem is he’s roused from unconsciousness under water! Panicking, he sits up, gasping for breath; finding himself sitting in a filthy bath tub, in almost total darkness. He shouts, “I’m probably dead!”, to which comes back another voice, Gordon (Cary Elwes), from the inky blackness, “You’re not dead”. The lights flicker on to show a macabre scene: both men are chained to pipes by the ankle at opposite ends of a dilapidated, shit smeared public toilet; in the middle of the floor lays the body of a man in a pool of blood and a massive gunshot wound to his head. The dead man is holding a gun in one hand a tape recorder in the other.

Trying to make sense of it all, the two men attempt to guess why they are there, and what their captor wants. Both of them discover they have miniature tapes placed in their clothes which have stickers on them saying “Play Me”, and after managing to get the tape recorder off the dead man they listen to messages from their captor. The message on Gordon’s tape tells him that both his wife and daughter have been captured and unless he kills Adam by a certain time they will be left to rot there. Naturally a little perturbed they search the room for means of escape as far as the chains will allow, finding a sealed bag. Inside the bag are two hand saws - but it quickly dawns on them the saws are no good for cutting through their chains, their captor wants them to cut through their feet.

Neither man can remember how they got there, but it slowly dawns on Gordon that he might know their captor. He tells Adam that he had been a suspect in the “jigsaw murders” after the real killer had seemingly tried to frame him. The Jigsaw Killer had set up elaborate and murderous set pieces, where victims were given the opportunity to save themselves only by killing others or are given impossible odds to save themselves (only one, a woman who has to cut the key that will free her - from a contraption that would rip her jaw asunder - from the belly of her still living fellow prisoner, manages to escape death). The case was being investigated by two detectives (Danny Glover and Ken Leung), who were eventually forced to let Gordon go after his alibi checked out.

Neither man fully trusts the other (and each suspects the other could be the killer), but they are forced to work together have to piece together every clue to try and save themselves and Gordon’s family ...

Naturally, the most obvious reference point - as most reviews have pointed out - is David Fincher's SEVEN (1995), with the film's look (all grime and half-light) and the elaborate murders (or, in the case of SAW, as one character points out the 'jigsaw' is not actually a killer, as the victims are forced to either kill themselves or each other). However, you don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find nods to other films. SAW has been called an 'American Giallo', and it's easy to see why. The giallo - and we're talking specifically Argento here - often had elaborate set pieces, that were designed to shock and dazzle, as does SAW. One character wears the ubiquitous black leather gloves in SAW, and there is at least one direct lift from Argento's DEEP RED (1975) (SAW's mega creepy mannequin entering the room of one of the potential victims), and a obvious homage to SUSPIRIA (1976) (the room full of razor wire). Intentional or not, there's also comparisons to be made with BLACK CHRISTMAS (1975) (the eye through the crack in the door).

Whilst, in my opinion, SAW is not totally successful (I'll say why soon), it does provide enough scares and bloodshed to please your average genre fan. Make no mistake, SAW is more horror film than it is thriller (although it would be stretch to try and call it a slasher movie). The grotesqueries of the proceedings have something of the Grimm's Fairy Tales about them, from the highly stylised look of the freaky talking mannequin, to the elaborate, almost medieval, hooded demeanor of the 'jigsaw'. Plus, to his credit, the first time director, Wan, produces a handful of genuinely bone freezing moments - which it has to be said is a handful more than most horror films manage. Apart from aforementioned mannequin (and you would run a hundred miles if you ever came home and found that thing sitting on your sofa!), the jigsaw's 'pig in a wig' disguise is quite frankly terrifying! Despite being very obviously lifted from Hideo Nakata's RINGU (1998) (specifically Sadako's show stopping 'entrance' (which was done to lesser effect in the American remake)), there is a scene in an underground car park where the jigsaw appears from the backseat of a car and crawls towards its prey that had the hairs on the back of neck standing well and truly to attention! Another fantastically creepy scene involves one character illuminating their apartment with only the flash of their camera, and finding something very nasty indeed lurking in their cupboard.

Perhaps being a trifle overlong at two hours, SAW is never-the-less intriguing throughout. It has a dangerous, maverick feel where it seems genuinely anything could happen. On the surface of it, the film should benefit from having the central core action of the two men chained in the bathroom, as flashbacks, detective work and the real world events revolve around them. However, ironically, this is where the film becomes unstuck. SAW has one flaw that was in danger of sinking it completely - and that was Cary Elwes' turn as the arrogant surgeon, Gordon. His performance throughout the first half of the film was serviceable at best, but what was asked of him towards the end seemed completely beyond his acting skills. Now, I appreciate that this wasn't an easy role, but the goodwill of the audience I saw, er, SAW with had completely vanished by the closing 15 minutes. Elwes' hammy whimpering, eye rolling performance brought howls of laughter from all around me - and is often the case with these things what started as the odd stray snigger spread quickly. Normally, I hate it when morons start laughing at what I would call good horror films, say, like THE EXORCIST (1973), but here I have to say I think they had a point. It was fairly obvious that this wasn't supposed to be tongue-in-cheek funny; all the good work from the previous hour and a half (and this was the same audience that were visibly creeped and grossed out throughout much of the running time) was, in my opinion, nearly ruined. Leigh Whannell, as his fellow prisoner, Adam, was much more believable - and had a better actor (or had Elwes managed to give a better performance) in the central role SAW would have been the shocker to beat. Truly a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of glory, I'm afraid. Having said that, SAW very nearly redeems itself with one of the best twists I've ever seen - and one that finally shut the audience up! It completely floored me, and I didn't see it coming at all.

However, despite my reservations SAW is a must see for any horror fans, as there's so much to recommend. It's just a crying shame that it's not the bone fide classic it so nearly could have been.


BODYCOUNT 6  bodycount!   female:0 / male:6

       1) Male found slashed to death on razor wire
       2) Male burnt to death
       3) Male stabbed to death
       4) Male blasted with multiple shotguns
       5) Male shot through chest with handgun
       6) Male beaten to death with top of cistern