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Scrooge Month Day 14: Kelsey Grammer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL (2004)

Christmas Carol-The Musical 2004Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman

Writers: Mike Ockrent, Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Geraldine Chaplin, Jason Alexander, Brian Bedford, Jacob Moriarity, Julian Ovenden, Edward Gower, Steven Miller

Notes: Based on a stage musical from 1994 with music by Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, this was a pretty good adaptation starring Fraser star Kelsey Grammer and several other TV actors. It managed to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Music Direction, as well as picking up nominations in various other awards, including a “Grace Award” nomination for Grammer as “most inspiring television actor.” The film entered the cable rotation and is now pretty easy to find, usually on the Hallmark Channel, at this time of year.

Incidentally, the title of this one doesn’t bother me the way yesterday’s Christmas Carol: The Movie did. Sure, it’s not the first musical version of the story, but relatively few of them have been, whereas calling something “The Movie” after it’s been filmed a dozen times… geez, come on. I guess I’m still angry at that stupid movie.

Thoughts: As a card-carrying Christmas nerd (note to self: have cards printed) and a fan of Kelsey Grammar since his Cheers days, I remember being particularly excited when this made-for-TV film premiered. I don’t know if I’ve watched it in full since its first airing in 2004, but I’ve definitely seen parts of it, and I even have the soundtrack mixed in with my Christmas playlist. (You mean you don’t have a Christmas playlist? Weirdo.) Watching the film is like a return to an old friend.

The film opens in an odd place – a musical number as the people of the town cheer for the oncoming Christmas, until a typically Dickensian family arrives searching for Scrooge and hoping he’ll show leniency. Everyone considers it a laughable notion. Although the man’s wife has just died and his money went to funeral expenses rather than rent, Scrooge is more than ready to boot them out on the street the next day – Christmas. The music begins and I’m quickly impressed by the cleverness of the lyrics. Lynn Ahrens weaves a good amount of genuine Dickens dialogue into the songs, altering or adding to it just enough to satisfy the demands of rhyme and meter. As a result, we get music that sounds very fresh, but at the same time, still cozy and familiar when we realize we can anticipate many of the lines.

The movie is billed as “The Musical,” but it actually goes a good bit further than many stage musicals do. In almost operatic fashion, the bulk of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. In weak musicals, the songs are incidental, crammed in-between plot points simply for the sake of having music. Great musicals use the songs to advance the plot and reveal the characters, which is what this one does. With its 97-minute running time, you could probably cut together every spoken line into less than ten minutes of video. The early moments all set up the rest of the film as well – music that will be echoed later, themes that are going to be woven into the narrative as the movie progresses. Taking a nod from The Wizard of Oz, the film also introduces us to the three actors who will play the ghosts early, each playing a person in need that Scrooge ignores and belittles on his way home from his counting-house.

Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge is a unique sight. I don’t know if he’s actually the youngest actor to have played Scrooge on this list, but he’s most certainly the youngest-looking, and as such he’s put under a gray wig and thick gray mutton chops that, combined with a squint, are intended to age him. It doesn’t exactly work, though. Grammar doesn’t look old, he looks like a young man playing an old man in a community theater production. (I should know, I’ve been a young man playing an old man in enough community theater productions myself.) His voice is wonderful – strong and booming, and he sings his songs with true power and ferocity. But after having listened to the music without watching the film for several years now, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image with the voice. Grammar’s makeup is just so goofy that I can’t separate the actor from the character, and that’s a shame.

Jason Alexander, best known from Seinfeld, suffers from a similar problem when he appears as Jacob Marley’s ghost. His makeup job is little better, topped off with wild hair and a good special effect when he touches Scrooge, but the pale pancake on his skin doesn’t quite extend to his eyes. Like Grammar, Alexander is actually a really talented actor and a remarkably good singer, but like Grammar, it’s difficult to get past the image of the character he played on TV for such a long time. His song, fortunately, is fantastic. “Link By Link” is a nice bit of self-damnation for Marley – chilling in a way that feels nicely theatrical. One could easily imagine this performance on stage, where the distance from Alexander would ironically make it easier to see the character instead of the actor. The inclusion of other, similarly-damned ghosts to serve as a chorus really ratchets up the intensity of the scene, and makes it more effective.

Jane Krakowski, another sitcom actor with either a very good singing voice or an excellent audio production team, turns up next as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Krakowski is dressed up like a teenage girl’s depiction of a pixie, which actually is a bit too young for her here, but she mostly pulls it off.  With a nice flying effect, she whisks Scrooge off to the past, beginning with the imprisonment of Scrooge’s own father for nonpayment of debts. It’s interesting – several of the adaptations I’ve seen have decided to extrapolate backwards towards what kind of father Scrooge had, and although none of them have done exactly the same thing with the non-character, almost every version that has touched upon Scrooge Sr. has successfully imagined a father that could conceivably have pushed Ebenezer in the direction we all know he wound up going.

Jennifer Love Hewitt pops in as Scrooge’s sweetheart, Emily. (Again, what was wrong with Belle? I don’t know why it irritates me so much when they change the character’s name for no reason, but it does.) She sings a lovely duet with young Scrooge (Steven Miller), “A Place Called Home,” that really resonates for anyone who’s ever been young and in love. The warmth is chilled, though, when Grammar’s Old Scrooge interrupts the duet, singing along with the agony of a man who has squandered the promise of his young self. Before Christmas Past ends, though, we get a shocking dog-kicking moment we’ve never seen in another version of the story: in later years old Fezziwig (Brian Bedford) asks a slightly older, much more successful Scrooge for help, and Scrooge stabs him in the back. At this point, I’ve watched various Scrooges drop their versions of Belle and mistreat Bob Cratchit over a dozen times, it’ll take more than that to shock me. Scrooge callously tossing aside good Fezziwig really does it.

Jesse L. Martin steps up next as Christmas Present. Martin’s Ghost really kicks things up from the usual versions of the character. Rather than singing Scrooge his anthem (“Abundance and Charity”) while atop the traditional mountain of food, he whisks him into a theater where he performs with a troop of living nutcrackers in front of a live audience, then forces Scrooge into the show. Grammar really hams it up here, bumbling around stage as if he’s never been on one before and is, in fact, terrified at the very notion. From there, it’s off to the Cratchits, where Tiny Tim (Jacob Moriarity) begins the first of many, many choruses of “Christmas Together,” which will practically be this film’s unofficial theme song by the time it’s over.

Unlike most Christmas Futures, Geraldine Chaplin isn’t a faceless spectre. Instead, she’s a speechless one, who mimes at Scrooge as a chorus of undertakers sing a grim song as they go about burying his coffin. The scene quickly shifts to Tiny Tim’s grave, where Bob Cratchit is singing a goodbye to his son. Seeing them lay Tim’s crutch on the wooden grave marker really is a powerfully sad moment, one that propels us right into the finale, as Scrooge sees his own tombstone and realizes that he will be left “scorned and unmourned.”

As much as I poked fun at Grammar’s makeup as the film began, by the end of it I wasn’t paying attention to the mutton chops anymore. His performance really is quite good, and the music in this film is wonderful. Ahrens and Menken created a sound that was very much in keeping with the tone of the original novel, stirring the heart and reminding us – as it reminds Scrooge – of the true meaning of the Christmas season. By the end, as a chorus of children and his late loved ones surround Scrooge in the cemetery and begin singing “God Bless Us Everyone,” we’ve completely bought in and we’re part of the jubilation Scrooge feels moments later when he wakes up in his own bed. His transformation made even more convincing as Grammar straightens up his posture and loses the perpetual scowl he’s worn for the entire film: he’s gone from Clark Kent to Superman. Y’know, if Clark Kent had been a raging jackass in the first place.

Anyway, Scrooge encounters the “Spirits” again, once more in the mortal forms they wore as the film began, and they dance off with a palpable sense of self-satisfaction as Scrooge rushes off to the Cratchit house to hoist Tim on his shoulders for a final rendition of “Christmas Together,” a song I’ve heard – at this point – approximately seven thousand times and damn it I promised myself I wasn’t going to get teary-eyed at this this time. Stupid beautiful music.

The best Christmas Carol? Probably not. The best musical version? Eh, it’s hard to beat the Muppets. But for a made-for NBC special starring (mostly) NBC stars, it’s pretty darn effective. I said at the beginning that it’s been quite a while since I watched this one, but I now realize I’ve got to work it back into the regular rotation.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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The Christmas Special Day 23: A Scooby-Doo! Christmas (2004)

scooby-doo-christmasDirector: Scott Jeralds

Writer: Jonathan Collier & James Krieg

Cast: Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Casey Kasem, Kathy Kinney, Frank Welker

Plot: A group of kids find an enormous snowman in the woods. When they try to take its nose, it comes to life, removes its head, and hurls it at them, making them run away in a panic. Nearby, the gang in the Mystery Machine is on their way to Mill’s Corner to spend Christmas at a condo owned by Daphne’s (Grey DeLisle) uncle. The bridge to the condo is out, forcing them to detour through the town of Winterhollow, where they meet the kids fleeing from the Headless Snowman, who also startles Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker). When they walk into the local diner, a man called Old Jeb is raving about the Headless Snowman who has been terrorizing the town for years. Sheriff Perkins (Kathy Kinney) calms him down and tells the gang there’s no way to get to Mill’s Corner that night with the bridge out. The gang checks into an inn, which is full to bursting with people who have had their homes damaged by the Snowman. The innkeeper, Asa, tells them the town doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore due to the snowman… some of the children have never even seen a Christmas tree.

Everyone is summoned outside when a loud noise signals an attack by the snowman. There they find a boy named Tommy telling the Sheriff the snowman startled him and smashed his chimney, ripping open a wall in his house. Fred (Welker again) tries to comfort the boy, promising they’ll try to save Christmas. As the gang searches, the Snowman chases them all into a tiny shed, when they send plunging down the side of the mountain and hurtling through the air before smashing to safety. Asa calls a professor from Mill’s Corner to help, and Velma (Mindy Cohn) takes note that Asa’s business seems to benefit greatly from the snowman. Professor Higginson tells them the story an old prospector called Blackjack Brody who froze to death hiding gold bricks he stole from a local man, and that his ghost is sending the snowman to destroy the older homes in Winterhollow searching for his gold. Velma brings the gang to Jeb’s house, expecting the ghost to come there next. They hide when the Snowman appears and starts tearing apart the walls. A sneeze alerts him to our heroes and chase resumes via the classic horror movie technique of the musical montage. Eventually, Scooby and Shaggy lure it away and Sheriff Perkins arrives, claiming to have followed a set of mysterious footprints. Fred, Daphne and Velma go off to set a trap for the monster, but it attacks Scooby and Shaggy instead. They lead it into a series of heat lamps the others set up, melting the snow and revealing a robotic core being piloted by Professor Higginson. Velma reveals that Higginson is a descendant of the man Blackjack Brody stole his gold from in the first place, and he’s been searching for the gold he believes is rightfully his. Remembering how heavy the bricks in the smashed chimneys were, Velma finds the truth – Brody painted the gold and it was used to build the houses in the town. Tommy gives the shivering Higginson his scarf to warm him up, and he realizes the error of his ways. As the gold is rightfully his, he donates it to the town to help them rebuild. The gang sets up a Christmas tree – Winterhollow’s first in years – and everyone gathers around to watch it glow.

Thoughts: This is pretty atypical for a Christmas special, but a perfectly normal episode of Scooby-Doo. The formula is time-honored and well-worn for these characters. Like virtually every episode of the assorted cartoons, a “monster” shows up terrorizing people for reasons that are dubious, but usually somehow financially motivated. The gang investigates three or four suspects, all but one of which are red herrings. They catch the monster, Velma unmasks him and explains how she knew it was really him. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m told some of the more recent Scooby-Doo cartoons actually try to mix it up by having real monsters, but I haven’t seen any of those… in fact, with a 2004 air date, this is the most recent visit with the original Scooby Gang I’ve ever seen. I do, however, have to give the makers of this cartoon credit for managing to tell a story with a Christmas feel without restoring to many (if any) of the typical Christmas tropes. Don’t misunderstand – I love those trope, those tropes are great. But I’ve been watching these specials for weeks now, and one can’t help but appreciate the change of pace.

The atypical part comes in at the very end, when Higginson repents instead of being carted off shouting that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those rotten kids. It’s a Christmas special, so I can accept the villain who repents at the end – that’s what Christmas is all about, after all. But the way the people of the town are so willing to forgive is nothing short of supernatural. This is the man who has terrorized their town, destroyed their homes, and stolen Christmas itself from an entire generation of children, and they’re ready to forgive him even before he offers to use the gold to help them fix their houses. Ladies and gentlemen, either Winterhollow is the most forgiving town on this or any other planet, or the good Professor had some sort of mind-control apparatus that the gang somehow missed while they were hopped up on Scooby Snacks.

Come to think of it, it’s not like he even really needs the gold. The man has the money to either purchase or develop and build a robotic upside-down top that has the ability to animate and control snow, which it somehow endows with superhuman strength sufficient to rip apart a brick… freaking… wall. If you can do that, what do you need hundred-year-old gold for? Market it! The possibilities for a Vegas stage show alone are staggering!

It’s not the strongest mystery, but then again, Scooby-Doo ain’t exactly Sherlock Holmes. I pegged the professor as our culprit even before he arrived for one simple reason: he told Asa he was coming into town from Mill’s Crossing – the same town the gang was unable to reach because the bridge was out. When he walked through the door I nodded to myself and said, “Yep, he was there all the time.” Startlingly, though, when Velma is doing her Reveal Sequence, this nugget of information is never mentioned. Deleted scene? Serendipitous screw-up? Who knows? I’m just going to take it as further evidence that I’m smarter than most cartoon characters, with the obvious exceptions of Simon from the Chipmunks, Brainy Smurf, and Snarf.

This is a relatively recent cartoon, particularly when you look at the rich history Scooby and the gang enjoy, but they still manage to work in most of the classic bits. My favorite scene is, indeed, the musical montage, when the gang tries to outwit the monster. They even usually succeed, at least for a few seconds. Scooby and Shaggy douse him in syrup and almost have one monster sno-cone, the others start singing Christmas carols and he temporarily forgets he’s a demonic hellbeast and offers them hot chocolate… This may not be a laugh-a-minute show like some of the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but when it’s on, it truly has some of the funniest tropes in the cartoon kingdom.

Like I said back when we discussed A Flintstones Christmas, it’s a shame I couldn’t work in more Hanna-Barbera into this countdown. There are dozens of cartoons spread out amongst their various franchises that just fill you with the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, almost all of them fall into one of the three categories that I disqualified from this project: they were run as part of the regular series, they’re too long and therefore count as a TV movie rather than a TV special, or they’re a take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – such as one of my favorite Yuletide adventures with the Scooby gang, “A Nutcracker Scoob.” But fear not, friends. Reel to Reel is a long-term project. There’s always next year.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 15: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

shaun-of-the-deadDirector: Edgar Wright

Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz

Plot: Retail employee Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a rough time. His job is a joke, his relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is strained, and his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) has had it with Shaun’s best buddy Ed (Nick Frost) sleeping on their couch. If that wasn’t bad enough, a chance encounter with his friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) reminds him that it’s his anniversary and he’s forgotten to book a table at a restaurant. He tries to convince his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to join him for a fun-filled evening at their favorite pub, the Winchester, but Liz has wasted one too many night at the bar. She dumps him and he returns home where he has one more spat with an agitated Pete (who was bitten by a bunch of crackheads) before going to bed.

In the morning, a tired Shaun schleps down to the local convenience store and home without ever noticing the few people around him are acting strange – grunting, stumbling, and covered with blood. Returning home, he and Ed finally figure out something is wrong they are attacked. The reports on the news and the ghouls outside their house make the situation clear. Although neither Shaun nor Ed wants to say it, London is overrun with zombies. The friends fight their way clear with vinyl records and a cricket bat, getting past Pete before escaping. Shaun plans to collect his mother and Liz and hide out at the Winchester until the crisis has passed.

His mother, Barbara (Penelope Winton) is nursing Phillip, who has been bitten. Shaun reluctantly loads them into the car then heads to Liz’s flat, where she’s hiding out with her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and Dianne’s boyfriend David (Dylan Moran). Although they are reluctant to go with him, the encroaching undead soon change their minds. As they flee, Phillip succumbs to his bite and they are forced to abandon the car, trapping him inside. They encounter Yvonne, who has gathered her own oddly familiar group of survivors and who is planning to find help. Shaun insists on following through his his own plan. When they reach the Winchester, they find it surrounded by zombies, and struggling actress Dianne gives the rest of the group a crash course in acting undead. Remarkably, the ruse works and they march through the army of zombies unmolested, until Ed’s mobile phone rings and blows their cover. They barely get to cover inside the bar.

In the Winchester, Shaun discovers that his mother has been hiding a bite of her own. He and David begin sniping at each other as Barbara struggles against the disease inside her, but when she finally dies and rises, Shaun puts her down with the rifle hanging over the bar. As they continue to argue, raw emotions are exposed: David is in love with Liz, something Dianne knows fully well, but she has been settling for what little affection he gives her. As they fight, the zombies overwhelm their barricades and pull David outside. Dianne snaps and rushes after him, being consumed as well. The last three break for the basement, but Ed is bitten on the way. Trapped, the three of them contemplate suicide, but before they can do anything, they find a secret hatch. Ed promises to cover Shaun and Liz as they escape. Biddign his best friend farewell, Ed can’t resist sending a fragrant flume of gas his way one more time. Making their way to the surface, Shaun and Liz are met by Yvonne, along with an entire army battalion that has arrived to put the zombies down. Six months later, Liz has moved in with Shaun and the world has adapted, using the zombies for menial labor and cheap entertainment. Shaun goes out to the shed to relax a little while, sitting down next to his best friend. Ed is now a zombie, but that doesn’t mean they two of them can’t continue to enjoy their video games.

Thoughts: I’ve said that Ghostbusters is my favorite horror/comedy and I stand by that, but damned if Shaun of the Dead doesn’t come in a close second. This film is a flawless combination of things that I love: emotionally honest characters, dry British wit, zombies, Bill Nighy… Any one of those elements is worthy of being loved, cherished, and having praise heaped upon them. Putting them together makes for one of the best horror/comedies ever made.

This film came in near the beginning of the current zombie wave, which has actually gone on much longer than I would have expected. It wasn’t the first zombie/comedy hybrid, but it was without a doubt the most effective, and I doubt the later entries into this subgenre (Fido and Zombieland, for example) would have enjoyed their respective success if Wright and Pegg hadn’t come along first and done such a remarkable job with this movie. The zombies themselves are played perfectly straight, a Type-A horror threat. In fact, they could have marched right off the set of a George Romero movie. In truth, if not for the sort of happy ending at the end of the film, one could easily make the meta-argument that it showed the British side of one of the many zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that make him his own films. He himself was enough of a fan of Shaun that he invited Wright and Pegg to make a cameo appearance in Land of the Dead. (They played zombies.)

The zombie stuff works really well, and the comedy is near-flawless. Nick Frost’s Ed ranks up there with one of the great comedic bumblers. He slows down the group, makes poor decisions, and nearly gets them all killed several times. He’s like Gilligan – anybody in their right mind would have left him to die ten minutes after the zombies attacked. But for all his buffoonery, there’s some sort of inexplicable charm that makes you want to keep him around. It’s probably this, more than anything else, that helps him last right up until the very end. Let’s be honest, if Shaun had walked into the shed to reveal Pete or David chained to the wall, it would have just felt creepy. Watching him chide Ed for trying to bite him, though? It’s weirdly sweet.

Pegg himself is successful as the harried everyman, the ordinary guy who is in way over his head and needs to find a way to rise above it all if he’s to have any shot at survival, let alone getting the girl. It’s that status that makes him such a successful protagonist. Virtually everybody has felt like Shaun at one point in their life. It’s just that few of us are lucky enough to have a plague of the undead come along at just the right time to help us snap out of our funk.

Shaun’s character is just the beginning of these very real characters, though. David’s bitterness comes across as very genuine, and Dianne is a terribly sad character that you can wholeheartedly believe in. The moment of Phillip’s death is a remarkable one as well, turning a character that could have been a cartoon wicked stepfather into someone with genuine heart who just didn’t know how to express his feelings until it was too late. Liz is, if you’ll pardon the gender-specific term, the film’s straight man. She’s not particularly funny, but she allows Shaun and Ed to play off her rather well. The core of her relationship with Shaun, though, is one of true love and legitimate concern for their life. You never think poorly of her in the movie, never imagine her to be the sort of bitchy ex-girlfriend that a lot of movies would transform her into in order to make Shaun seem more heroic. I’ve come to realize that the truly great horror/comedies, whether they’re Type A or Type B, can fall into two categories: either they’re remarkably funny or surprisingly tender. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, Shaun of the Dead presents us with excellent characters that we really feel for. Their deaths aren’t just plot points or gags like in Eight Legged Freaks or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Each major member of this cast has a role, a purpose, a meaning.

Not to say that it’s 100 minutes of zombies wrenching feelings out of you, not at all. The film is full of sharp running gags (Shaun has red on him, Ed is addicted to his phone, etc.) and Yvonne pops up just at the right time to lend some really successful levity just after Phillip’s crushing end. Shaun’s dream sequences about fighting to the Winchester are both really funny and highly relatable – unless you honestly expect me to believe you’ve never imagined your Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan beginning with thrilling heroics and ending with tossing back a cold one at your favorite hangout. Yes it has. You liar.

To put it simply, Shaun of the Dead is the perfect package of horror movie monsters, dramatic story beats, and rip-snorting laughter. If anyone tries to call it a parody of zombie movies, I feel the need to correct them right away. This isn’t a parody at all, this is a zombie movie. It just happens to be one where the prospective buffet left out for the undead is made up of some very, very funny people.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 35: Saw (2004)

saw-posterDirector: James Wan

Writers: James Wan & Leigh Whannell

Cast: Cary Elwes, Leigh Wannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Makenzie Vega, Tobin Bell

Plot: A man named Adam (Leigh Wannell) wakes up in a tub of water in a darkened room. Draining the tub, he begins calling for help, only to find that he’s trapped in an ancient, grimy bathroom with Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Both men are chained to pipes in the filthy room, neither with any memory of how they came to be there. In the middle of the room, lying in a pool of blood, is a dead body clutching a gun and a tape recorder. In his pocket, Adam finds a microcassette with “Play Me” written on it. Gordon checks his own pocket and finds not only a tape, but a single bullet and a key. Adam snatches the tape recorder from the body and plays his tape, which contains a taunting message. Gordon’s tape, however, tells him that his goal in the “game” is Adam’s death, that the dead man killed himself because there was so much poison in his blood, that there are “ways to win” hidden all around him, and that if Adam is still alive by six o’clock, Gordon’s wife and daughter will die.

Inside a toilet tank, Adam finds a pair of rusty hacksaws and tosses the black bag that contained them into the tub, out of Gordon’s vision. Adam’s saw breaks and he hurls it in anger, cracking a mirror. Gordon realizes the saws won’t cut the heavy chains, but will cut through their feet. He realizes they’ve been captured by the mysterious “Jigsaw” killer, a man who has been kidnapping people and placing them in horrible deathtraps.

In flashback, we see detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) uncovering a previous Jigsaw trap. The police find a series of other victims and the traps in which they died, although Jigsaw himself hasn’t killed anybody; he instead places victims in situations where there will cause their own deaths in an effort to survive. At one crime scene, Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) finds a penlight with Gordon’s prints on it. At the hospital, Gordon speaks to students about the condition of a cancer patient (Tobin Bell), and is interrupted by orderly Zep Hindle (Michael Emerson), who feels Gordon doesn’t care for his patients as people. Tapp and Sing bring Gordon in for questioning over the penlight, and Gordon admits he was with someone else when he the crime was committed. When his alibi holds up, Sing has Gordon listen to the testimony of a woman named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), one of the few people to survive a Jigsaw trap, as she tells how she had to dig a key out of someone else to free herself from a reverse bear-trap. When she frees herself, a puppet riding a tricycle congratulates her for staying alive. In the police station, a broken Amanda  – a drug addict — admits that Jigsaw “helped” her by making her value her life.

Returning to the present, Adam realizes the mirror he broke is two-way and smashes the rest of it, revealing a hidden camera. Gordon begins to search the room for an “X,” as implied by the tape, and remembers the last thing he said to his daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega). Diana believed there was a man in her bedroom, and Gordon reassured her that he was safe and that he wasn’t going to leave her and his wife Alison (Monica Potter). Despite his reassurance, Diana goes to sleep listening to her parents argue in the other room.  Gordon tosses Adam his wallet to show him a picture of his wife and daughter, but Adam instead finds a picture of Alison and Diana tied up with a message written on it: “X marks the spot. Sometimes you see more with your eyes shut.” Adam hides the picture from Gordon. In flashback, again, we see that Diana and Alison were trapped in the house right after Gordon left. Their captor is the orderly, Zep. Through the window, Tapp is observing the house from across the street in a room full of surveillance equipment, photos, and news clippings about Jigsaw: he has become obsessed, and believes Gordon is the killer. We see how he and Sing tracked down Jigsaw to a warehouse, where they find one of his victims trapped and gagged. Rather than free him, Tapp decides to allow him to remain trapped as Jigsaw arrives so he can observe what happens. The hooded Jigsaw tells his victim that he’s going to be a “test subject,” and Tapp and Sing jump out with their guns. Jigsaw steps on a button and a drill begins that will kill the latest victim. While Sing rescues the victim, Jigsaw slashes Tapp’s throat and flees. Sing stumbles into a trap, triggering a rifle that blows his own head off, and Jigsaw staggers away. In the present, Tapp (his neck scarred and voice damaged) is determined to get Jigsaw.

Back in the present, Zep watches the video feed of Adam and Gordon in the bathroom. Adam, reading the message on the photo, suggests Gordon turn off the lights. In the dark, they find an X on the wall behind Gordon in glow-in-the-dark paint. He breaks through the wall and finds a locked box. Using the key from his pocket, Gordon opens the box to reveal a cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, and a note. The note tells Gordon the cigarettes are harmless, and that he doesn’t need a gun to kill Adam. The phone turns out to be useless – it’s rigged to only receive calls. Gordon remembers the night before, returning to his car and feeling he was being followed before being attacked by someone wearing a pig mask. Gordon questions how Adam knew to turn off the lights, and Adam shows him the picture, apologizing for hiding it. In view of the cameras, Gordon dips the cigarette into the poison blood, then shuts off the lights again and whispers something to Adam. Zep’s monitor goes dark and he can’t see what’s happening, and when the lights go back on, Gordon tosses Adam a clean cigarette and the lighter. Adam, unconvincingly, pretends to die after taking a few puffs, and Gordon demands Jigsaw release him, but a jolt of electricity in Adam’s chain quickly reveals him to be alive… and appears to have jogged his memory. Adam, a photographer, was abducted while in his darkroom developing pictures… of Dr. Lawrence Gordon.

The phone rings and Gordon hears the voices of his wife and daughter. Alison warns him to not believe Adam’s lies: he knew everything about Gordon before they were abducted. Gordon calls Adam a liar, but Adam reveals that he knows Gordon wasn’t with sick patients the night before, as he claimed. Adam was in the parking lot, taking pictures of him, and pulls out the bag his handsaws were in. It’s full of photos of Gordon, taken by Adam, who is hired to track rich men who cheat on their wives. Gordon denies the charge and asks Adam who paid him, and he describes Detective Tapp. Looking at Adam’s photos, he recognizes Zep in the window of his house just as the clock reaches six o’clock.

Back at Gordon’s, Alison frees herself just as Zep arrives. She pretends to still be bound and he makes her call Gordon to tell him he failed. As she says it, though, she attacks Zep. The gun goes off in the fight, and Tapp comes running from across the street. All Gordon can hear on the phone are gunshots and screams. His chain electrifies, shocking him unconscious, while Tapp chases Zep to a warehouse.

Gordon wakes and, screaming, uses his shirt to tie off his leg and begins to saw through his ankle. Tapp catches up to Zep, but Zep manages to shoot him. Gordon, now free from his chain, takes the bullet he was given and crawls to the gun in the dead body’s hand. He shoots Adam in the shoulder as Zep walks in. Adam, still alive, knocks down Zep and beats him with the toilet lid, killing him, and Gordon – weakened and delirious — promises to go for help. He crawls away and Adam searches Zep for a key. Instead, he finds another tape. Playing it reveals the truth: Zep was just another pawn in the game, forced by Jigsaw to terrorize Gordon’s family in exchange for the antidote to a poison he was given. As Adam listens, the body in the center of the room stands up. He is John Kramer, Gordon’s cancer patient… he is Jigsaw, and he’s been alive the whole time. He tells Adam the key to his chain is in the bathtub, but it drained away when Adam woke up in the very beginning. John explains why he plays his games… as he is dying, he wants to make others grateful to be alive. He turns off the lights, tells Adam the game is over, and closes the door.

Thoughts: This series is a magnificent example of what TVTropes.org calls “sequel decay.” After the original Saw was a hit for Lionsgate films, they decided to churn out a new installment every Halloween, and by 2010 they were on part seven. The law of diminishing returns set in, though, and seven was (so far at least) the last movie. Which is good, because the sequels spiraled out of control in efforts to add layers of complexity that really just made the entire franchise a garbled mess. And the real shame in that is that it makes people forget that the first film, the 2004 Saw, is actually really good.

The thing that made Saw great is that layer of complexity that future installments screwed up so badly. We begin with what is, in essence, a locked room mystery. We have two men who have to dig through the layers of their own past to discover their connection to each other and to their mad tormentor. Each clue they uncover makes the mystery that much more engaging, finally leading up to a truly memorable final scene. While later movies turned Jigsaw’s traps into a horrific haunted house/maze, forcing the victims to run a gauntlet, this first game basically takes place all in one room.

In fact, the movie really contains two separate mysteries. In the flashback sequences, we see Gordon and Tapp trying to solve the mystery of who Jigsaw is and why he’s placing his victims in these elaborate traps. As a pure mystery it works very well, with lots of different suspects, red herrings, and moments of misdirection to distract us from the real killer and his real motivation. The seeming revelation of Zep is an even better piece of misdirection — once you believe he’s Jigsaw, you stop trying to piece together the rest of the clues even as they’re being spooled out in front of you. The other mystery is more of a puzzle game, a room full of clues and tools that have to be used in exactly the right order to “win” Jigsaw’s challenge. This layer of the film almost feels like a video game, like Myst or one of its many imitators, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the filmmakers were familiar with that new kind of storytelling when they wrote the script. To me, this is the fun part of the movie. Every clue, every weapon, every hint about what’s happening are all right there in the room with Adam and Gordon from the very beginning – it’s just a matter of finding them and figuring them out. This is probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve written in this entire experiment, and that’s purely because it has to be – you need to get each little tidbit in place or the next thing doesn’t make any sense.

Those two layers combine to make Saw enormously different from other horror movies of the time. It’s smart, well-written, and well-structured as both a mystery and a puzzle, that meld together. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of terror inherent in the fact that Jigsaw (in an extremely twisted way) kinda has a point – most people do take their lives for granted. Of course, by placing his victims in ironic traps, often structured to have some sort of parallel to whatever their particular vice is, writers James Wan and Leigh Wannell have returned to the classic horror movie trope of the Killer-as-Morality Police. This takes it to the extreme, even more so than when Jason was chopping up teenagers for having sex and smoking pot, but the idea is similar.

On another level, there’s a fear that comes in when the viewer is forced to question what he or she would do in these circumstances. Jigsaw doesn’t even have the trace elements of the supernatural we got from the nigh-indestructible Michael Meyers – he’s very human, he’s in fact dying (and does die in the third film), and all of the assorted traps and games he plays feel like they have a very strong basis in reality. I’m no engineer, I’m not going to pretend I could rig up a trap like Jigsaw’s even if I wanted to, but do I believe that somebody could? Hell yes, I do. And if it’s possible, even if you’ve never pissed off anybody as much as Dr. Gordon pissed off John Kramer, you are forced to look at each trap and wonder what you would do in that situation, if you could mutilate yourself (or someone else) in order to stay alive, if you could rank who lives and dies in any way that would allow you to live with yourself afterwards. Horrible thoughts, terrible thoughts, which make for absolutely spine-curling horror.

Another thing that really makes Saw different from so many other horror films is the victim pool. Yes, most of them are people John feels have taken their lives for granted, but that’s really the only qualification. The likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael aren’t above killing anybody, but their favored prey is teenagers, still in those early days of sin when the potential is endless. Jigsaw will take a young adult or an old man or anybody in-between… if they don’t value their lives (in his opinion) they’re ripe for one of his games. So you’ve never been to Crystal Lake or Elm Street, so you’re not a 16-year-old pothead, big deal. Jigsaw doesn’t care. If you’ve been wasting your life, the time has come to fight for it, and in the most horrific ways possible.

Finally, there was the surprise factor. Like I said, nobody was making movies like this at the time, where you’re left questioning so many things about your protagonists. Gordon, for example, denies that he was cheating on his wife, and Cary Elwes is a good enough actor that you believe him, but that does beg the question of what actually was going on. What was causing his marital troubles, and why he was in the hotel room in the first place? If it’s just a case of him contemplating infidelity, that’s kind of anticlimactic, but if it’s anything more than that, we’ll never really know what was going on. And the finale is simply masterful. I’ve watched hundreds of horror movies, a lot of them just since deciding to do this project, and there are very few moments that stand out as being as all together shocking to me as when the dead body in the middle of the room sits up and casually reveals himself to be the mastermind of the whole scheme. I don’t mind admitting I never saw it coming, and that’s what made it great.

As is so sadly, so often the case, however, the inevitable Saw imitators took the wrong lesson from the film. Instead of constructing a morality play combined with a murder mystery, they looked at how the film ticked up the gore level and ran with that. All of a sudden we were inundated with movies like Hostel and Turistas, which were less concerned with story than with turning out scenes of agony and mutilation as graphic and medically realistic as possible. You can pretty much draw a direct line between Saw and the infamous Human Centipede, a film with little redeeming value to it. This film (and if you’re at all squeamish I suggest you skip down to the next paragraph right now) is about a mad doctor who abducts people and connects them mouth-to-anus in an effort to create some sort of horrible mass organism. Any layer of mystery or social commentary is gone, left only with making things as horrible and disturbing as possible. And that’s the tragedy of a lot of modern horror, you’ve got filmmakers who mistake making the audience uncomfortable for actual fear. As much as I liked this first Saw, I’m really glad to see that the franchise tapered off, just out of the hopes that movies like the horrible, horrible imitators are reaching the end of their cycle, and that the annals of horror cinema are again ready – as they always have been in the past – for something new.

But what could that next thing be? There are few candidates at the moment, but that’s usually how it goes. This first phase of Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen is over (and thanks for playing along), but that doesn’t mean we’re done yet. Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a look at where horror movies are going, what I’m going to be doing next in this little project, and how you can help me to shape it.