Saw (2004) review

With a dead body lying between them, two men wake up in the secure lair of a serial killer who’s been nicknamed “Jigsaw”. The men must follow various rules and objectives if they wish to survive and win the deadly game set for them.

If there’s one film that despite my best efforts people refuse to see it’s Saw. Saw is wildly thought of as being at least a bloody movie, if not a 90 minute gore-fest. And with fair reason, after its release Saw was accused of being sadistic and is many times cited as the start of the “torture porn” trend of 2000s. Well this is partially true. While Saw was responsible for opening the door to films like Hostel, it is very much not sadistic or “torture porn”. People and studios liked what they saw (no pun intended) when Saw came out, and much of the positive fan reaction was towards the genius of the death puzzles, not to mention the controversy over the rather brutal titular amputation. Other studios ran with this and turned it more into torture-centric style, focusing on brutality and disgust rather then actual horror. See there’s one major difference between Saw and its “contemporaries” that a good chunk of the critics fail to see. Saw has a fucking plot. In fact, Saw is very plot-centric, pushing it dangerously close to the thriller category. After all the screenwriter studied Seven for inspiration when it came to the actual investigation parts of this movie, but luckily it’s not and has sufficient scares to carry the sometimes hefty storytelling.

Cary Elwes stars as the captured Doctor Gordon and while he definitely has presence on screen, he can be a little wooden and his accent slips a lot. His companion in the room is a far weaker actor, but he’s not bad. The acting of the side characters is adequate, but could have used the hand of a stronger director. The finest acting moments come when the characters are just screaming for their lives, a chilling reminder of the stakes of Jigsaws games.

The costumes and sets in Saw are all gritty and dirty. The traps all have an industrial, twisted steampunk vibe to them which was so popular that Lionsgate changed its logo to reflect it. The room that the two are in feels gross, just in how it looks and how the actors interact with it. Saw is made rather uniquely, with a lot of digital filters and such added to make it feel dark and dirty. It feels very different then any other horror movie pre-2000s and the films that came out at the time. Of course after Saw this kind of tone became more popular, even if Saw wasn’t directly responsible for this trend.
There are plenty of fast edits and time lapses that all add to the chaos on screen and it’s frankly something I haven’t seen very often. This is the very early work of James Wan, who just released The Conjuring and these two movies couldn’t be more night and day, but there are still some similarities. The unique camera angles and the slow silence surrounding the horror in particular are things that you can pick up on, but there’s a noticeably higher level of skill in The Conjuring that shows he’s grown as a director.

The effects in this movie are quite good, when they’re seen. The traps are really where they shine, but other then that it’s mostly just blood. Saw has a reputation of being super gory, and to be fair it has gory concepts, but they’re barely shown on screen. Wan adapts the technique that Toby Hooper used for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and leaves most things to your imagination. Funny how both of those are considered the goriest mainstream films ever made. The gory reputation that Saw has is unfairly given to it by its sequels, which admittedly do amp up the effects. However, Saw is better and more timid then its follow-ups and it can be seen on its own, as long as you don’t let the “gore” deter you.

The writing for Saw… well it’s hard to call it a mess. It’s fast and loose with time and I typically like that, but in this film it seems to be utilized more as a way to confuse the audience until the last minute. It’s not terrible, because at the end everything makes sense, but during that interim it can get annoying. It’s mostly made up for with the fantastic twist ending that does leave your jaw on the floor and also highlights how this film was tailored to make that twist work. Not that you’ll need much thinking to see that, since the movie quickly edits together plenty of footage from over the course of the movie and throws it in your face, so much so that it actually gets annoying.

A good deal of taste comes in to judging how effective that journey is since it’s very much not perfect. If you like dark and horrific movies then you’ll forgive the films clumsiness, but if you’re not a fan, then these misgivings are only going to grind against you more. That may seem like stating the obvious, but when 50% of critics praise the film and 50% hate it, then it becomes pretty clear that personal taste dramatically impacts your perspective of Saw more then your average movie.

Saw is a thrill ride through the elaborate plan of a killer, whose unique nature really makes this film stand out as one of the greats of the horror genre. One does not need to see the body tearing traps of the sequels to see this convoluted, but well planned thriller/horror flick with an ending that I consider one of the best I’ve seen in horror or in film in general. If you can get past the dark concepts and the brutal traps, you might find yourself just as engrossed in the mystery as the detectives and as terrified as the victims.

The Breakfast Club (1985) review

John Hughes follow-up to Sixteen Candles is my favorite film of his, The Breakfast Club. Breakfast Club stands out above the rest of the Brat-Pack movies and amongst 80s comedies in general as being, above all else, a character study. Over the course of the movie we grow attached to these five kids, because we can all identify at some level with them and their issues.

Breakfast Club on a technical level is nothing spectacular. It’s not terrible, but don’t expect anything flashy. Then again, there really doesn’t need to be anything flashy. The atmosphere is well created and suits the movies more toned down story, even if there a few Hughes style goofy moments. The soundtrack and score are notable for the songs selected and their placement. Dramatic music is used when it should to, ironicly, add realism and fun ‘80s songs are used when they should. The theme “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” is especially appropriate to the themes and concepts in the movie and besides that, it’s just a flat out good song. These kids don’t want to be forgotten, not by the people around them, but by themselves as they enter life and that’s a very powerful and pertinent message.

Our five stars are all stereotypes, seemingly, and they are as such. Molly Ringwald is Claire, the popular Prom Queen. Anthony Michael Hall is Brian, a (big shocker) total nerd. Emilio Estevez is the wrestling jock Andrew. Judd Nelson is the roustabout Bender and Ally Sheedy plays the quiet outcast Allison. These stereotypes are gathered together in detention and as it very slowly passes for them and for the audience (props to Hughes for that pacing) we discover things about them that reveal that they are more then just clichés and have more in common then they think. The playful antics and revealing dialogue are mostly set in motion by Bender, whose chaotic rebellion against all around asshole Mr. Vernon is actually almost tragic to watch. Bender’s desperation to fight against a world that has treated him like shit forces him into uncomfortable situations with Mr. Vernon, who has the power of being an adult and isn’t afraid to use it. Mr. Vernon is like the worst case scenario for how to grow up, in complete disillusionment about his past and has a one-track mind on his goals and his future alone. Thanks to this, the other kids end up having little resistance to Bender’s games, especially when they start to trust each other more. And trust each other they do, having heart to heart talks about parents, social standing, and even economic class.

This is the crux of what make John Hughes movies special. They deal with issues we have all dealt with as teenagers. Whether you were one in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or now you can identify with at least one of the characters and all of the issues. We’ve all felt that rebellion against our parents, we’ve all seen or been part of that segregation in schools into clichés. Even economic class is something we’ve felt when somebody else gets that new tech and we don’t get to have it, or vice versa. As the characters in Breakfast Club discover these things about each other, so do we about ourselves. And it really makes you think. Think about what you’re parents were like as teens. Think about that jock that bullies you, that punk that you avoid, that weirdo you ignore. It’s universal to every generation and to a teenager of this and any time, these problems are equivalent to any issues an adult has. These things are our world and for an hour and a half, we have the equivalent of group therapy with these characters. While the other Hughes films touch on these issues, it’s this film that stops and dwells on them and that’s why I believe that The Breakfast Club will carry on for years as not just a snapshot of one generation, but a reflection of them all. It’s thanks to the excellent writing and the honest portrayal of the actors, bringing in what I’m sure are their own insecurities to their characters, that Hughes pulls it off.

However, not all of the film is somber reflection. The comedy works well when it’s on screen, particularly the witty dialogue that I commented on in Sixteen Candles. There are also almost set pieces of comedy that all serve to help the characters do what teens do best, let loose and forget their issues. It’s a funny movie, but it’s not as humorous as some of the other films, so don’t expect big laughs.

The Breakfast Club, while the pinnacle of Hughes work quality-wise, is not necessarily his most popular one, but it definitely deserves a watch if you haven’t. As stated perhaps too much before, it’s really a film that can be and should be seen by people over the age of 15. Its appealing characters and bits of comedy will draw in most, and even provide nostalgia for some. All in all, this is a film that makes me wish there was teen comedy character study for my generation, but alas when was the last time there was a teen comedy that was even close to good? (Mean Girls doesn’t count!)