They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about a certain movie at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of the 2004 twisty serial killer thriller Saw.
In 2004, an unknown filmmaker from Australia made waves with a gruesome little film about a sadistic serial killer that concocts devious contraptions that force his victims to choose life or death. The filmmaker is James Wan, the film is Saw, and horror cinema hasn’t been the same since.
Wan and his creative partner Leigh Whannell landed on the scene at just the right time. Horror hadn’t fully established itself in the 21st century yet and was desperately looking for that spark to get it going. Wan and Whannell were able to attract the attention of Hollywood producers with a short film they made based on their original Saw script. The duo was given just over a million dollars, a couple of Hollywood stars in Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, and 18 days to deliver that spark. They produced an explosion.
Saw hit theaters in North America on October 29, 2004, and became an instant sensation and source of controversy. The film earned over $100 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable horror films at the time of its release, but much of the conversation centered on the film’s graphic nature.
Saw isn’t the film that helped coin the term “torture porn,” but it is the film that is often credited with ushering in a new era of extreme horror that eventually led to that lazy label. Saw caught critics of the day off guard. While many appreciated what the film accomplished on a small budget, particularly the special effects, Saw was criticized as a cheap attempt at shock value and a poor imitation of Se7en. The screenplay, frenetic editing choices, and exaggerated performances were also the source of much scorn.
The film managed to overcome the mixed critical reception to spawn a franchise that is currently 9-films deep. And the legacy has continued to grow. While the film still has its detractors, it is widely considered a modern masterpiece in horror circles, praised for its use of a single location, inventive death scenes, and stylistic violence.
With the film’s most recent entry, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, hitting theaters, we take a look back at the original film’s critical response over the years.
What Critics Said About Saw in 2004
“Saw is vicious to no end,” David Germain wrote in his review for the Associated Press. Germain hated Saw and wasn’t shy about letting anyone know it, calling the film “inanely plotted, badly written, poorly acted, coarsely directed, hideously photographed and clumsily edited.” For Germain, Wan and Whannell came off as a pair of pretentious filmmakers that weren’t nearly as clever as they led on. Their attempt at crafting a morality tale with creative death traps was nothing more than cheap and silly editing effects lost in a story with no depth or purpose.
The AV Club‘s Scott Tobias was equally disgusted, calling the film an “uproariously idiotic thriller” with far too many twists. While Tobias thought the basic premise was stupid with a killer that was merely a “random freak pulled out of the screenwriter’s ass,” his biggest complaint came with the performance of the film’s star, Cary Elwes. “Elwes whimpers like a little girl” as he puts forth “the worst screen performance since the multiplicity of Ashton Kutcher’s in The Butterfly Effect.” Issues aside, Tobias felt the film had a chance to work had it stayed in one location rather than drifting away and getting bogged down by flashback after flashback.
V.A. Musetto echoed similar sentiments in his review for the New York Post. “Saw might have worked if it had concentrated on the two captives and their fight for survival,” Musetto wrote. “But Whannell and director James Wan weigh things down with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, not to mention superfluous subplots.”
In his one-and-a-half-star review for USA Today, Mike Clark credited Saw for at least attempting to do something different in the way of a serial killer drama. Still, Clark wasn’t a fan of the movie, feeling it went too far over the top and became “exceedingly disgusting” by taking joy in the psychological torture of a child. “A no-no under any circumstances,” according to Clark.
“It’s gross as hell,” Peter Travers wrote in his three-sentence, two-star review for Rolling Stone. “Director James Wan hits the grisly button without shame.”
“Saw enthralls with realistic terrors,” the Houston Chronicle‘s Bruce Westbrook wrote in his review. Westbrook appreciated Jigsaw and his inventive torture devices, comparing his “fiendishly poetic justice” favorably to Creepshow and old EC Comics. He also applauded Wan for his “juicy flashbacks” and their ability to help flesh out the story. Unfortunately, it’s the film’s other pieces, like the stupid cops and their increasingly dumb decisions, that sidetrack things. Elwes and his “pitiable wailing and lunatic rants” help to further derail a grisly tale into “inadvertent camp.”
Not everyone disliked Saw out the gate. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian awarded the film four out of five stars, calling it “extravagantly twisted” and positively comparing the visuals to that of a video game. “Perhaps you enjoyed Se7en,” Bradshaw wrote. “This often goes up to Ei8ht.”
Owen Gleiberman awarded Saw a B- in his review for Entertainment Weekly. Gleiberman noted the film was “derivative and messy” but had enough moments of “nightmare creepiness” to succeed. While the film’s plot cuts corners in laughable ways and Elwes gives an over-the-top performance that feels out of place, the film’s gory trashiness is enough to make you squirm and keep you entertained.
“Saw is a truly innovative horror film,” Rex Reed wrote in his review for Observer. Comparing the film to the work of Italian splatter maestros Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Reed praised Wan and Whannell for taking old clichés and delivering a fresh spin and sending chills down the spines of viewers. “The gore is relentless and in your face,” Reed wrote, “and if you grew up glued to the old Universal fright flicks like I did, you won’t want to miss a minute of the mayhem.”
What Critics Say About Saw Today
In a 2017 ranking of the first eight films in the Saw franchise for Vulture, Jordan Crucchiola placed the first film as the best of the series. According to Crucchiola, Saw is “still a perfect premise for a horror movie” with a genuinely shocking ending and multiple chilling scenes. “Saw holds a deserving place in horror-film history,” Crucchiola writes.
Matt Singer ranked the entire franchise for Screencrush, with the original film placing second. Singer notes that while the film is known for its violent depictions, it’s actually “more of a work of low-budget showmanship.” A film that boils down to two people stuck in a room telling stories should be boring, but “Wan’s precise, energetic direction, and the sadistic brilliance of Jigsaw’s traps” elevates it to something more.
Haleigh Foutch placed Saw amongst the forty best horror movies of the 2000s in a list for Collider. “It’s a chamber-piece meets noir detective thriller,” Foutch writes, and while the franchise as a whole is recognized for constantly upping the nature of its ultra-violent death traps, the first film is much more intelligent than that. “Saw is no parade of graphic perversion, but a twisty murder mystery that values narrative surprise over shock value set-pieces.”
Likewise, critic Scott Weinberg had Saw as one of his top horror movies from the decade of its release. Weinberg ranked the film sixteenth out of fifty, calling it “a cult classic waiting to happen for those who like their horror movies dark, smart, twisted and hard.”
In a retrospective tackling horror from the early 2000s, Bloody Disgusting called Saw “the most influential horror film of the decade” and ranked it as the tenth best horror film of the period. Bloody Disgusting praised the film for straying from the campy horror that was popular and delivering a more serious and dark horror story. Most importantly, Bloody Disgusting notes that “this twisted morality tale is a film made by horror fans, for horror fans.”
One common theme that many modern critics have pointed out is that Saw really isn’t all that violent. The subject matter is extreme and grisly, but the on-screen gore is pretty tame by most standards. There’s little difference between Saw and your average episode of Criminal Minds. But Saw makes you feel dirty, and that’s a credit to Wan and Whannell. You won’t see much in the way of brutality, but you’ll feel like you’ve lived through one of Jigsaw’s deadly games.
Love it or hate; there’s no denying that Saw is as important and influential as any horror film this century. It launched a successful franchise and produced countless imitators. Most importantly, it opened the door for James Wan, easily the most important post-2000s horror director. And more recently, Leigh Whannell has proved himself to be nearly as skilled in the director’s chair, an opportunity indeed afforded because of Saw’s long-lasting success. Here’s to hoping Saw never dies.