Saw (2004)

1h 43m / R / Horror

Two strangers, freelance photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell, also Saw’s screenwriter) and oncologist Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), awaken at opposite ends of a filthy bathroom, chained to pipes by their ankles with no recollection of how they got there. Between them there is a corpse holding an audio tape player and a gun. They each find a tape in their back pockets. And on the tape are the rules of a simple game: Gordon must kill Adam by 6:00pm, or both his wife and daughter will be killed. And Adam must survive.

Saw was a spectacular hit – on a budget of about $1 million, it made more than a hundred times that. But somehow even that fact fails to capture its significance. Every now and then, a single movie changes the entire course of horror filmmaking. From Psycho to The Blair Witch Project, the whole genre can pivot on just one big hit. Saw gets accused of launching torture-porn, but it’s a far better movie than most of its offspring, and director James Wan and Whannell turned its success into a new category of film production, filming sequels before their predecessors even premiered. Saw works largely because of its constraints, and the follow-ups spin out a bit on their own success. But the original is still as shocking and unnerving as the day it was released.

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