Saw is a gristle-cut B psycho thriller that would like to tap the sickest corners of your imagination. It has a few moments of nightmare creepiness, but it’s also derivative and messy and too nonsensical for its own good. Still, the back-shelf-of-the-video-store horror geek in me was intermittently entertained, even as my adult self mused, ”This trash is too trashy.” A young man, played by the film’s screenwriter, Leigh Whannell, wakes up in the dark, only to realize that he’s been chained to a rusty pipe in an abandoned restroom where every surface, from the chipped-tile floors to the rancid toilet, is caked with skeevy rot. There’s another chained prisoner (Cary Elwes), and the two are directed to a pair of flimsy hacksaws. Since the tools aren’t strong enough to cut through chain, the implication is clear: The two men can save themselves only by slicing through their ankles. (It’s a haunting but not original idea: Mel Gibson sprung it on a biker in Mad Max.)
In a blatant imitation of Seven, Saw features a lunatic sadist whose ghoulish crimes are meant, in each case, to mirror the sins of his victims. The twist here is that the psycho doesn’t do the killing. He devises hideous trick scenarios in which some poor soul must make a blood-soaked choice to save him- or herself (a woman whose jaw is set to be torn open by a spring-wired metal mask must cut through a man’s viscera to find the key to the mask). His intent is to show you the serial killer lurking inside yourself. That’s a tasty variation on evil, and it’s compounded by the killer’s image: He ”appears” on videotapes as a life-size harlequin puppet speaking in an electronically altered drone. Saw makes you squirm a few times, but too often it makes you giggle. The way that Danny Glover, as an obsessed detective, learns the whereabouts of the villain’s lair is one of several laughable instances of narrative corner cutting, and Elwes’ performance as a detached family-man physician who gets in touch with his inner fear ought to be featured in a seminar on the perils of overacting.