Awakening from a drugged stupor, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) finds himself chained to a pipe in a dingy bathroom, with another man (Leigh Whannell) in the same situation across the room. The men are the latest victims of the Jigsaw Killer, a maniac who uses elaborate traps to test his victims’ dedication to life. Given six hours, a hacksaw, and a bullet, Dr. Gordon tries to figure out a way to freedom, hoping his kidnapped family (including Monica Potter) can survive the nightmare as well. Hot on the Jigsaw’s trail is Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover), an equally as insane cop who was once the victim of the Jigsaw’s evil scheme.

For a film about puzzles, this film sure cheats a lot.

The debut feature for writer/director James Wan, “Saw” looks to put a little pizzazz back into the stone dead horror genre with heaps of perverse visuals and a killer concept that is ripe for the taking. What we actually get with “Saw” is a profusion of great ideas repeatedly sabotaged by Wan’s catastrophically limited range as a filmmaker. Wan appears to be a student of horror legend Dario Argento, stacking “Saw” with playful homage which genre fanatics will immediately recognize. However, outside of ghoulish black-gloved monkey business and a ripe eye for torture devices, Wan hasn’t stolen enough from the maestro.

Admittedly, Argento wasn’t the most reliable director in terms of injecting logic into his films, preferring style to substance. Wan’s film is the opposite, electing to explain everything that can possibly be observed in any given frame during the film. The sheer amount of exposition in “Saw” is both absurd and annoying, with the film’s clunky storytelling devices (a flashback within a flashback is a favorite) routinely interrupting the pace of the film, or severing the artery of the devilish fun that should be happening. “Saw” is relentless only in its desire to make sure the audience understands everything they are watching. This approach decimates the mystery at hand, and forces dreadfully limited actors to simply talk their way through scenes, which is not what any of them should be doing.

Wan and his co-writer (and co-star) Leigh Whannell stack the cards against themselves at the outset by only cobbling together about 5 minutes of good ideas (including a moral that was better served in “Fight Club”), and eventually suffocating them in an effort to drag this disaster out to 100 minutes. You can sense the stretch marks all over the film, from Wan’s insistence that every sequence have some type of unexplained tension, to the what-planet-are-they-fromr finale, which lumbers on in its robust stupidity for an eternity.

“Saw” works like this: if a scene isn’t pointless or expository, it’s endless. Wan has the defense of this being his first film (which is obvious from his Gap-commercial-like shooting style), but he asks the audience to swallow quite a bit of malarkey even for a horror film. This genre doesn’t usually demand much in terms of logic or common sense, but “Saw” still seems disquietingly lacking in both.

I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the cast of the film for their collective awfulness, considering that they are just carrying out Wan’s clueless wishes. Still, that doesn’t excuse them entirely, and if every year has a “Showgirls,” “Saw” is the prime candidate for 2004. If Danny Glover is hilariously bonkers, Monica Potter typically vapid, and Whannell needlessly boisterous, then I would classify star Cary Elwes’s acting in the film as a peculiar amalgamation of the previous three styles. The Razzies should polish their trophy up now, because I can’t imagine a worse performance this year. As the sniveling Dr. Gordon, Elwes huffs and puffs, moans and groans, and generally whimpers his way through the entire film. The actor leaves nothing to chance, infusing every movement with an acting tic, achieving a new level of amateurish performing that I’ve never seen him reach before.

The final crime of “Saw” is the careless way the film ends. It should come as no surprise that for the climax, Wan pulls out every last horror trick he could think of. But to expect the audience to accept the eventual revelation behind the identity of the Jigsaw Killer is a flat-out slap in the face, summing up the immense letdown “Saw” genuinely is. Wan had a superior premise here, and in the end, maybe he is the real Jigsaw Killer, since it is the audience that is truly made to suffer.

Rating: F