Blog Archives

Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

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!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 4: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Bram Stokers DraculaDirector: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes, Billy Campbell, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu, Florina Kendrick

Plot: In 1492, the warrior Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) returns from battle to find his wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) has killed herself after hearing a false report of his death. Enraged, Dracula renounces God and stabs a cross, which begins flowing with blood. He drinks the blood and screams.

Over four hundred years later, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is given an account from his colleague Renfield (Tom Waits), who has gone mad. Harker says goodbye to his fiancé, Mina (Winona Ryder again) and travels to meet his new client, Count Dracula of Transylvania – now a frail-looking old man, but with horrible power. When Dracula sees Harker’s photograph of Mina, he is stricken, believing her to be the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Harker explores the castle, only to be found and fed upon by Dracula’s three “brides” (Monica Bellucci, Michela Bercu and Florina Kendrick).

Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) is romanced by three separate men: a visiting American, Quincy Morris (Billy Campbell); Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant); and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes). She ultimately accepts Arthur’s proposal of marriage. Dracula, meanwhile, has boxed up himself and the most important parts of his household and is sailing to England and his new property in Carfax Abby. As they arrive in England, Dracula transforms into a wolf-like monster and seeks out the home of Harker’s fiancé. Mina awakens to see Lucy, mesmerized, leaving her home in the midst of a storm, and finds her being ravaged by the wolf-man. When he sees Mina watching, he flees. In the morning he appears as a young man, and introduces himself to her as “Prince Vlad of Sangre.”

Concerned for Lucy’s ailing health, Seward calls for Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He arrives to see Lucy again being drained of blood, this time by Dracula in shadow-form. He gives her a transfusion from Arthur. Elsewhere, Dracula plies Mina with absinthe, wooing her slowly. Harker manages to escape from Dracula’s brides and sends for Mina to join him so they can finally be married. When she bids farewell to her “prince,” he goes into a mad fit and kills Lucy. After her funeral, Van Helsing convinces her three suitors to join him in opening her crypt, only to find it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, enters the tomb with a small child intent on feeding, and the men slay her. Harker joins them and tells them Dracula resides at Carfax Abby, and they plan to destroy him.

Van Helsing and the others go to the Abby and begin destroying the boxes of Transylvanian soil Dracula must sleep in. He, meanwhile, visits Mina, who begs him to grant her his gift of eternal life. As she drinks his blood, Van Helsing and the others burst in and force him back. He transforms into a horde of rats and escapes. He takes a ship to return home, but the others take Mina by train, a much faster voyage. Van Helsing and Mina travel to the castle, while the others try to head off the gypsies transporting Dracula’s casket. The Brides attack Van Helsing, but he manages to track them to their crypt and slay them by the light of day. The hunters catch up to Dracula at the castle. Morris dies in the battle, but not before stabbing Dracula in the heart. The wounded vampire crawls into the chapel where his curse began and dies, Mina by his side. She professes her love to him before cutting off his head, releasing him from his curse. A fresco appears, picturing the human Vlad and Elisabeta rising, at long last, into Heaven.

Thoughts: You’ve got to give Francis Ford Coppola credit – the man doesn’t do half-measures. From the first moments of the film, when we see Gary Oldman marching around in blood-red armor sculpted to suggest bare muscle tissue, we know we’re in for a wild sort of ride. That’s only where it begins, though – Coppola took great pains to give this film a unique look, eschewing camera tricks, even the sort of green screen that was common when the film was made in 1992. Every effect is practical, including the projection of words on the faces of actors, the reflection of enormous eyes onto glass windows, and some frankly humorous model train work. Lightning strikes don’t look remotely realistic, instead giving the impression of someone shining a flashlight through a cut-out flat behind the actors. It’s as if Coppola decided that he was by god going to make sure everything he captured on film was no more complicated than he could have gotten out of a community theater production of the story. And boy, did he succeed.

Despite the inherent goofiness of doing something this way, though, I find that the look of the film is one of the first things I loved about it. This doesn’t look like any of the other Dracula movies I’ve seen… hell, it doesn’t look like any other movie I’ve seen. It has a unique sort of style, not just in the design but in the way all the elements come together, that appeals to me in ways I can’t fully articulate. Let’s just say there’s something really cool about all of it, the same way you realize your dad was kind of cool when you get older and catch yourself making the same kind of jokes that embarrassed the hell out of you when he told them to your friends.

On the plus side, some of the monster effects are really cool. While certain other films downplayed the notion that vampires could change their shape or were limited by the effects of the time, Coppola pulls off a pretty convincing monstrous transformation on the screen, with Oldman metamorphosing from a pale creature to a hairy, wolflike beast. (Yeah, folks, in classic lore vampires could turn into bats or wolves. Also mist. It’s cool.) The design of the human-sized bat is really creepy and worthy of the nastiest supernatural horror flick. The set design is impressive, and the costumes are top-notch.

Gary Oldman… if ever there was an actor who gave himself entirely to the movie, it’s Gary Oldman. He’s given us the finest interpretation of Commissioner James Gordon ever to fit a Batman movie, and he’s also given us the insane, over-the-top lunacy of The Fifth Element. One thing you can count on is that he never phones in his performance. In this film, he revels in the cheesy dialogue and ridiculous character work he’s asked to do. Every chunk of scenery to be chewed, every wild arm flailing or preposterous accent… when Gary Oldman presents it to you, you know he believes it.

Winona Ryder is pretty effective as Mina, pulling off a passable British accent and a convincing amount of young naiveté, as befits the character. Anthony Hopkins brings his usual air of class to Van Helsing, and Cary Elwes continues to prove, as I asserted back during Robin Hood week, that he should have been born in an earlier era, because he has the presence of a grand star of cinema’s Golden Age. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves.

I’m a little weirded out by the ending, to be perfectly honest. Coppola appears to be trying for some sort of fable about the healing power of love, showing some sort of redemption for Dracula after Mina’s love “sets him free” (by means of brutal decapitation). That’s all well and good, lord knows there aren’t many people that believe in true love as much as I do, but is Dracula really the best place to insert that particular moral? The man is, by every definition of the term, a terrible monster. He chose to turn against God, he brutally murdered countless people over 400 years, but at the end he seems to get a pass just because he got a woman (that he gave the vmpire equivalent of a roofie) to say she loves him. That’s the ending of Beauty and the Beast, except that the Beast was only guilty of kidnapping and a little mild verbal abuse. How does Dracula deserve redemption?

That aside, I enjoy this movie quite a bit. It’s a well-made production with its own look and feel that sets it apart from any other version of the character, and for me, that’s one of the most important things you can look for in a movie.

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!

Robin Hood Week Day 5: Cary Elwes in Robin Hood-Men in Tights (1993)

Robin Hood-Men in TightsDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: J.D. Shapiro, Evan Chandler, Mel Brooks

Cast: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Dave Chappelle, Isaac Hayes, Megan Cavanagh, Eric Allan Kramer, Matthew Porretta, Tracey Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

Plot: With King Richard away in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) have seized power in England. Really… if you guys have been reading these articles all week this should be no surprise by now. In Mel Brooks’s parody of earlier Robin Hood films (most notably the Costner and Flynn versions), we begin in Khalil Prison in Jerusalem, where Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) has been taken captive. He meets a Moorish prisoner named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), imprisoned for jaywalking. Together they free the captives and Asneeze asks Robin to look after his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), an exchange student, when he returns home. Robin agrees and swims from Jerusalem back to England.

Robin finds Ahchoo and rescues him from a band of the Sheriff’s men. They return to Loxley Hall to find it repossessed by the Prince’s accountant, leaving behind only Robin’s old blind servant Blinkin (Mark Bankfield). The Sheriff of Rottingham pursues a boy who killed a deer on the King’s lands, but Robin humiliates him and drives him off. In the palace, Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) confides to her servant Broomhilde (Megan Cavanagh) her wish that she could find her one true love: the man with the key to her “heart.” (Also her chastity belt.)

Worried about Robin’s return to England, Prince John turns to his gnarled, witchlike servant, Latrine (Tracey Ullman), who offers to brew a potion to disable Robin. In the forest, Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), battling over the right to use the bridge over a ludicrously small creek. After besting John and saving his life… sort of… Robin invites the two of them to join his band of Merry Men. Robin barges into one of the Prince’s feasts, charming Marian and antagonizing the Prince and Sheriff before battling free.

Robin’s men stop the wandering Rabbi Tuckman (Mel Brooks), who agrees to join them – along with his stores of Sacramental Wine. As the men “bless” everything in the forest, the Sheriff turns to Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), a lord who suggests using an archery contest to trap Robin. Overhearing the plot, Marian and Broomhilde rush to the forest to warn him, arriving just after the show-stopping “Men in Tights” musical number. Robin professes his love to Marian and promises to avoid the contest, a promise he promptly breaks.

The disguised Robin nearly loses to one of Don Giovanni’s men before checking the script for the movie and confirming that he has another shot. With his “Patriot Arrow,” he annihilates the target. He’s captured and almost killed, but Marian promises to marry the Sheriff if he allows Robin to live. Ahchoo saves Robin just before she can say “I do,” and the Prince’s men go to battle with Robin’s. The Sheriff drags Marian away hoping to consummate the marriage, only to be stymied by Marian’s Chastity Belt. Robin and the Sheriff duel, breaking open a medallion from Robin’s father and revealing the key to Marian’s belt. The Sheriff impales himself on Robin’s sword while trying to stab him from behind, and Latrine offers to save him if he’ll marry her. He agrees, and immediately regrets it. Robin and Marian plan a wedding, but are interrupted by the return of King Richard (a cameo by Patrick Stewart), who has his brother arrested and makes Robin a knight. Tuchman finishes the marriage ceremony and Robin and Marian dance away… only to find Robin’s key doesn’t turn in the lock.

Thoughts: Just as the Kevin Costner Robin Hood hit when I was 13 and looking for adventure, this version hit when I was 15 and looking for things to be cynical about. A Mel Brooks comedy was just the thing. And like the Kevin Costner version, I still like this film despite its flaws. Unlike the Costner film, though, I find the flaws in this movie a bit harder to defend.

Brooks is credited with co-writing the screenplay with the two men credited for the story, one of whom never wrote anything else and the other of whom went on to write Battlefield Earth. When you realize just how drastically this film lacks the sharp verbal wit of Brooks’s superior films, the preceding sentence makes a lot more sense. The best Brooks movies (by which I mean Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were so great because of how sharp and clever the writing and characters were. This movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, relying more on anachronistic dated references like Ahchoo’s pump sneakers and a kid parodying Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Anachronisms in Brooks comedies isn’t new, of course, but compare the impromptu musical numbers and wild finale of Blazing Saddles with Blinkin holding a braille Playboy magazine in this movie and tell me they belong in the same conversation. Other nuggets feel like lame Mad magazine gags (Will Scarlett O’Hara – “We’re from Georgia”), or the “Wide load” sign on the back of Loxley Hall as it’s carted away.

The best bits, in fact, are the ones that harken to Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a movie a good 75 percent of this audience never saw. Robin and Little John’s battle at the creek is great – the two of them duel over the right to cross a body of water approximately ten inches wide, their fighting staffs breaking in half over and over until they’re left swatting at each others’ fingers. The battle at the feast is set up much like the fights in Flynn’s movie, with added visual gags which work infinitely better than many of the verbal jokes in the film. The archery contest, similarly, is really funny. Brooks is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but having every character stop to check the script to make sure Robin was entitled to another shot… I don’t really know why, but I still chuckle at that.

A great Brooks comedy always has great performances, but this is the only one I can think of where the performances actually save the weak material. Cary Elwes is really great here, only a few years after The Princess Bride and playing a broader version of the swashbuckler from that film. While he does his share of mugging for the camera, he does it with charm and wit. His famous dig at Kevin Costner (“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”) is the one thing everybody remembers from this movie even 20 years later, and he sells it with real panache. Had he been born sixty years earlier, I think Elwes would have gone down as one of the all time great movie heroes. As it is, he has that one great movie, this lesser movie, and Saw. Wow, it’s depressing when you think of it that way.

Amy Yasbeck isn’t a bad Marian. While not a classic beauty, she has a sweetness to her that feels like it’s been amplified for the sake of the comedy, but remains sincere at heart. Richard Lewis and Roger Rees, similarly, work well in this film. While Lewis would never fit in to a straight version of Robin Hood, he’s perfect as this sort of weasely, incompetent Prince John. Roger Rees, probably best known for his recurring role in Cheers, is the perfect smarmy right-hand man. He’s the enforcer, with a little bit of muscle to back up the Prince’s gutless orders. At the same time, though, he’s a bumbler himself, constantly tripping over his words and never exuding any real menace.

This isn’t the best Robin Hood movie, I concede. And it’s certainly not Brooks’s best movie. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: at least it’s not Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

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!

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.