The dank and derivative horror thriller Saw opens on the photographing of a grotesque murder scene, each shutter click tricked out with discordant screeches lifted directly from the soundtrack of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which also began with extreme close-ups of rotted, mangled flesh illuminated by a sudden flash and those same agonized shutter screeches. Any modern horror film that jumps out of the gate with this kind of borderline plagiarism had better have something else up its sleeve, and that something turns out to be its titillating high concept: two men (Cary Elwes and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) wake up chained at the ankles to the walls of a shit-smeared bathroom located they know not where; one is told he must murder the other in six hours time, or else the deranged serial killer responsible for their imprisonment will execute his wife and daughter. As an ostensible means to escape, both are supplied with flimsy handsaws inadequate to cut through their shackles, but more than sufficient to cut through flesh and bone…
Whannell and director James Wan structure the movie as an over-elaborate A.D.D.-addled series of flashbacks, interwoven with that nasty men’s room scenario, which detail the killer’s previous Se7en-esque attempts to teach his victims lessons in appreciating life through wildly improbable Rube Goldberg murder methodology. I say over-elaborate because Wan and Whannell’s imaginations as storytellers and technique as filmmakers never seem quite nimble enough to imbue the film with a sufficient subcurrent of dread and perversely moralistic fury to carry it beyond the insider references and tonal plagiarism that prove to be its meat and gristle. Inevitably, Saw ends up collapsing under the weight of its own narrative contraptions.
There is, however, another link to the Tobe Hooper film, a more indirect and most likely unintentional one, and it ends up being the unexpected source of the only real power the movie possesses.
In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or as I used to refer to it, oddly enough, Saw), poor Marilyn Burns spent the last 30 minutes or so of the movie in a state of unrelieved terror at the hands of Leatherface and his family that seemed uncomfortably real, horrifically pure. Few, then, were surprised when stories about the making of the film, detailed in the commentary tracks and bonus material on the movie’s DVD release, revealed that much of Burns’ hysteria was indeed the real thing. Hooper’s methods in staging much of the action surrounding Burns’ torment at the hands of Leatherface and family were said to be less than sensitive. Those methods, along with the Texas heat, no budget to allow for actor comfort, the grisly subject matter, and several actual injuries to the actress, are said to be reasons why Burns holds few fond memories of the making of the movie, and also perhaps partially why hers is one of the most vivid portrayals of pure fear in all of horror cinema.
As a junkie who ends up at the center of one of the killer’s puzzle traps, Shawnee Smith’s face spends nearly a third of her time on screen masked by a heavy metal framework that has been designed to rip her jaw off. She must retrieve the key to unlock the mechanism without setting its nasty purpose in motion, a key that has been embedded in the abdominal cavity of a man lying motionless next to her, who turns out to be not quite dead. Now, as frightful and potentially fatal situations go, this one is a lot more convoluted and cumbersome than the relatively elemental threat of dismemberment by chain saw, and Wan’s hyperactive camerawork during the sequence in which Smith tries to free herself does a lot to undermine the possibility of protracted audience agony inherent in the setup. But if you’ve seen the one-sheet for Saw, you’ve seen a distillation of the core of what’s effective about the scene, a core that Wan’s jittery camera often won’t let us settle on but can’t ultimately dilute. That deadly headgear allows us to see Smith’s eyes, and she uses them to project the most palpable straight-to-the-spinal-column sense of naked fear since those infamous close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ bloodshot, tear-soaked peepers darting about, looking to find escape where there is none, from 30 years ago. Smith’s eyes visible amongst the gears and rods surrounding her skull and face, alive with electric jolts of terror, is the image used in the movie’s advertising, an image promising a level of intensity that her performance delivers but, alas, the movie in toto does not.
What really raises Smith’s brief appearance (she’s in the film for not much more than five minutes, which prompted David Edelstein, film critic for the online magazine Slate, to describe her as “criminally underused”) to another level, though, is what she does as she recalls her night of terror later in a police station. She is the only one who has managed to survive a torturous scenario laid out by the Jigsaw Killer, and the film cuts back and forth between her telling of the horrific event and the event itself. Many an actor, eager to grab attention at any opportunity, especially given such short screen time, might extend the character’s hysteria from the depths of the dungeon straight into the interrogation room. But Shawnee Smith risks accusations of underplaying (a rare-enough phenomenon in any film, but especially so in a hyperactive horror thriller) to suggest post-traumatic shock through trembling quiet, denying us the chance, with a down-turned face, to look into those eyes again and see what ripples of the horror that we saw earlier might remain. This simple, inconspicuous choice, the contrast between the wide eyes that witness madness and the closed ones that retreat away from it, and consequently from all comfort, provides an added pulse of identification that Marilyn Burns was never allowed to explore, and it single-handedly makes Saw worth seeing. When Smith delivers the kicker to the scene, a line which somewhat subversively suggests that the killer, by forcing her to commit murder in order to save herself from a gruesome death, has functioned for her as a sort of homicidal psychotherapist, she doesn’t punch it home for showy effect. She infuses the words “He helped me” with equal parts regret, disgust, amazement and confusion, and with enough subtlety that the resonating, dissonant tones from the utterance could easily be lost among the cacophony and moral chaos of the movie that surrounds it. It’s a terrific performance.