A crude concoction sewn together from the severed parts of prior horror/serial killer pics, “SAW” marks a noisy, nasty feature debut for Aussie helmer James Wan and scenarist-thesp Leigh Whannell. Pic manages to hide the villain’s identity until the end, although by then the revelation seems as arbitrary and gratuitous as most other elements here. U.S.-funded-and-shot tale’s tastelessness, mild star power and torpor between heavy-handed shocks would normally indicate direct-to-vid status. However, given Lions Gate’s recent track record on such gorefests as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Cabin Fever,” perhaps they can draw B.O. blood with even this dull-toothed instrument.
Middle-aged Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) and young malcontent Adam (Whannell) wake up at opposite ends of a decrepit basement bathroom, ankle-chained to girders, with no idea how they got there — and a corpse on the floor between them. Discovery of an audio cassette explains the doc must snuff Adam within the next few hours, or their unseen captor will murder Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter) and child.
Meanwhile, two police dicks (Danny Glover, Ken Leung) are on the trail of the mysterious “Jigsaw Killer,” whose prior victims were similarly abducted, then left alone to complete gruesome tasks by deadline. A single, traumatized exception aside, they all failed — and met with grotesquely customized “Seven”-style deaths. Ill-matched two current prisoners wrack their brains and bruise their bodies trying to avoid the same fate.
Convoluted screenplay deploys flashbacks within flashbacks, myriad red herrings, false scares and gross-out real ones. But sum effect is less ingenious than desperate, and wholly derivative. Too hyperbolic to be genuinely disturbing, pic nonetheless crosses a line of anything-goes shamelessness by dwelling on the screaming terror of Gordon’s preschool daughter (Makenzie Vega) as she and mom are bound, gagged and handgun-caressed by a masked villain.
Elsewhere, there are cheaply effective if unoriginal scares. Filmmakers bring a certain verve to such moments; but building atmosphere and suspense is well beyond them. Ditto handling actors: Left to their own devices amid escalating levels of narrative hysteria, Elwes, Whannell and Potter eventually grow ridiculous. It’s depressing to ponder just what Glover — one of our finest actors — is doing with a routine support part in this slick schlock. One can only hope he was very well paid for the indignity.
Tech aspects are pro; loud soundtrack is equivalent of an incessant “Boo!” goosing.