Deliriously inventive and sadistically cruel, Saw breathes new life into the serial killer genre with an ingenious set-up. Two men (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) wake up in a windowless bathroom, shackled at opposite ends of the room. A tape-recorded voice tells that them one of them will have to kill the other in the next eight hours, or they'll both die. There's just one snag: the only way to get out of their manacles is to use a hacksaw on their ankles...
Unlike its most obvious influence, David Fincher's bleakly moralistic Se7en, Saw's a movie without mainstream crossover appeal. No pretty boy actors like Brad Pitt here, just an uncomfortably intense two-hander in which the unwilling captives - Dr Gordon (Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) - try to figure out what's going on, and a series of carefully managed flashbacks in which Danny Glover's plodding copper tracks a psycho known as The Jigsaw Killer. It's a horror movie for genre aficionados who like their scares sparse, stripped down and illuminated by nothing but flickering neon strip lights.
Debut filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who co-scripted and stars) never really graduate from Psychology 101 when it comes to their dark, anonymous killer's motivations, but that's less of a hindrance than one might expect. The film's catalogue of grisly inventive atrocities and tricksy mind games succeeds in papering over its more obvious faults - in particular some ropey acting from Elwes (Shadow Of The Vampire) and a hole-ridden plot that constantly threatens to unravel like a ball of string at a cat show.
Those willing to ignore the missteps and concentrate instead on the deliciously macabre setup may find plenty here to give them clammy nightmares, as Saw's sadistic charms unfold with puzzle box precision. The result's a dark romance of violence and viscera that far outstrips most of this year's lacklustre US horror movies.