They collect bones, dine on fresh brains, stitch together plus-size human skins, demonstrate the Seven Deadly Sins with grisly literalism, and delight in prodding existentially tortured detectives by leaving oblique clues at the crime scene. Yet no serial killer has ever been as gimmicky as the bogeyman in James Wan's uproariously idiotic thriller Saw, which plays like a cross between Seven and C-List Celebrity Fear Factor. The first twist among too many twists is that the killer doesn't actually do the dirty work himself; instead, he puts his victims in situations where death is the likely outcome. Provided they're closet Houdinis who can shimmy through thickets of razor wire or keep from triggering the "reverse bear trap" attached to their jaw, his captives are free to go. Otherwise, the stunts are even grosser than eating bugs with Joe Rogan.
Delivering the worst screen performance since the multiplicity of Ashton Kutchers in The Butterfly Effect, Cary Elwes whimpers like a little girl as the latest contestant in the killer's personal game show. The opening scene finds Elwes, a two-timing surgeon with a wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter, stuck in a dank room with photographer Leigh Whannell (who also penned the script). Chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room, they find themselves surrounded with the tools of a sadistic game: a tape recorder, a gun, and a bag containing two saws, which they can use to escape their shackles by severing their own legs. Ordered to kill Whannell within an allotted time, Elwes pauses to consider how he and the stranger are connected and who might be the giggling maniac behind the curtain. Could it be Danny Glover, the detective driven mad by his pursuit of the killer? Or how about the disorderly orderly who kept shooting sideways glances at Elwes? Or maybe it's just some random freak pulled out of the screenwriter's ass?
If it had the ingenuity to stay in a one-room setting, Saw might have been a gory B-movie version of Waiting For Godot, but Wan breaks up the claustrophobic intensity by piling flashbacks on top of flashbacks. The film spends so much time on backstory that it's more about how the two captives got into their predicament than how they're going to get out of it. But while the tension evaporates, the hysteria keeps rising to outrageous new levels, epitomized by Elwes' craven, wide-eyed desperation and enough wacky fast-motion to stock an episode of Trading Spaces. Though dumber than a box of rocks, Saw forges ahead with the kind of conviction and energy that will keep bad-cinema junkies sitting bolt upright.