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Saw’d Off

By Andreas

I’m fascinated by the Saw series. I don’t like the movies, but they fascinate me. The first film was a modest, resourceful mega-hit—bleak but innovative. It could get repetitive and nauseating, but it made the most of its one-room premise and the presence of Cary Elwes. The sequels, on the other hand… ohh, the sequels. Whereas Saw I was mildly repugnant, the next three films (all directed by my bête noire Darren Lynn Bousman) exaggerated its worst habits. They’re little more than heaps of convoluted plotting and bad acting, interrupted only by gratuitously gory set-pieces.

And yet. And yet. I can’t stop watching them. I’ve given over about 6 1/2 hours of my life in order to watch the first four entries in the series. I could’ve watched most of Sátántangó in that time, but no, I watched half of the Saw series. The question, then: why? Why am I fascinated by these cheap, unimaginative, formulaic movies? I’ll explain it through a few of the series’ defining traits… (and I know saying they “fascinate” me sounds like a cop-out, that I don’t want to admit I like them, but honestly: they suck, and they’re mean-spirited.)

1) The continuing storyline. The Saw movies are anally detail-oriented. They don’t just have a single recurring villain; they have a whole host of dull, one-dimensional recurring characters. If you don’t remember Detective Eric Matthews from Saw II, you’re going to be very confused by the time Saw IV rolls around. The movies also obsess over the vagaries of their shared chronology, as if that obsession self-evidently signifies a well-crafted narrative.

2) The rapidly shifting tone. Think about the Saw series: you probably associate it with a stark warehouse setting, a computerized voice, and an array of gruesome, disemboweling traps. But that’s only half the story. The rest of the time, it’s a humorless cross between a Lifetime melodrama and Law & Order: SVU. Between scenes of over-the-top violence, the characters flash back to sentimental vignettes about their children, spouses, jobs, etc. It’s especially egregious (and tedious) in Saw III‘s treacly “dead son” subplot.

3) Their constant moralizing. All slasher movies, on some level, empathize with their killers. The Saw movies treat theirs as a mascot and, what’s more, as a font of perverse but profound life lessons. They evangelize his “Cherish Your Life” gospel in a pseudo-tentative way—well, they seem to say, his methods may be violent, but don’t Jigsaw’s misanthropic beliefs make a crazy kind of sense? But they don’t. The Saw series wastes whole installments (like all of Saw III) on inconsistent, convoluted lessons that don’t get learned.

Granted, these are all reasons that the Saw movies are bad, often to the point of being unwatchable. But these attributes also make them quaint, even cute. Look at how Saw IV‘s screenwriters take such delight in their (totally pointless) narrative trick: aha, it was all taking place concurrently with Saw III! Or how excited they are to have come up with such a morally ambiguous villain: who knows, maybe Jigsaw really is teaching these people!

I know I sound incredibly condescending, but how else can you talk about filmmakers who take so much pride in accomplishing so little? And yet, the films still fascinate me. Maybe it’s because of how compromised they are. They try to apologize for their fundamentally non-narrative atrocities, for their raw gratification (like a blend of Fear Factor and grand guignol), by diluting it with an onslaught of plot twists, soppy sentiment, and nonsensical morals.

Just look at the beginnings of Saw III and IV: they each begin with a few self-contained, contextless set-pieces before reluctantly getting into any kind of full-blown plot. You can tell that they want to showcase unfortunate men and women being blown apart, but alas, they have to frame it within Jigsaw’s ongoing saga. I feel for you, Saw movies. Underneath your half-assed philosophy and your TV drama clichés, you’re just an old-fashioned house of horrors yearning to breathe free.

You may be godawful movies, but I’ll be damned if I won’t end up watching Saws V, VI, and VII someday.

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Playing a Game

So, I finally caught up with that era-defining horror film, Saw (2004). I wasn’t expecting much, and I didn’t get too much out of it. It’s relentlessly bleak and grimy, its performances and writing were inconsistent to say the least, and it all amounted to very little pay-off (i.e., nothing but a sequel-baiting cliffhanger). I’ll grant that the filmmakers were crafty and occasionally innovative, effectively using their low budget in a resourcefully Roger Corman-like way. The film was entertaining to follow, and its two leads – Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Tobin Bell as Jigsaw – did great work with what they were given.

So I can understand why the film spawned an exponentially expanding franchise. Its characters and premise may be pretty dumb, but they’re also cheap to produce and somewhat rewarding in an icky, debased way. If I had more time on my hands, I could imagine stopping by Saw II. But not with any great excitement. Overall, I’ll admit that Saw was better – morally and cinematically – than the original Friday the 13th, barring Betsy Palmer’s performance, which finds no equal in either film. But my, oh my, this film does have an uplifting bone in its about-to-be-torn-apart body. I love depressing movies, they’re my bread and butter, but Saw‘s atmosphere is oppressively dank. Not a ray of sunshine gets into this movie.

In this and other ways, Saw‘s greatest influence is obviously David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). Let’s see what they have in common: a very limited color palette; unnamed urban areas as their settings; a moralizing, identity-less mass murderer who specializes in nauseating, ironic punishments; and a pair of investigating detectives, one of whom is either Danny Glover or Morgan Freeman. One key difference: at the end of Se7en, Freeman quotes Hemingway in saying that “the world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” then adds that he agrees with the second part. I’m not so sure that the creators of Saw agree with the second part.

Sorry if I’m giving short shrift to one of the most influential horror movies one of the past decade, but it just didn’t do much for me. I didn’t get the sense that the filmmakers were investing in or caring about their characters – so why should I? Dr. Gordon’s progress was gratifying to follow, and I would’ve loved to see him in another movie, but Saw is just too sunk into its ignoble torture chamber roots to be anything like great horror cinema. It’s plainly not “torture porn,” since it doesn’t really relish the quasi-orgasmic moments of torture themselves, but it does get off to its own cleverness. Call me crazy, but I prefer it when writers spend less time playing Rube Goldberg, and more time writing about people.

So… what did I miss? Or am I dead-on? Kindly comment and let me know.

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