Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Seeing a lot of Saw

I happened to be in the position yesterday to look in on the Saw marathon—you know, that less than stellar idea that it would be great to allow people to work their way through all five Saw movies with the big finish being the unveiling of Saw VI at midnight. Now, this isn’t to say that I sat through these movies. That wasn’t happening—not in this lifetime. I’d seen the five films when they first came out and that seemed quite enough. But I was curious enough to catch bits and pieces of them and the endings in each case. This, I might note, seemed to be more interest than most of Asheville had in the series, since there was otherwise a single hardcore fan in attendance and he skipped out on Saw IV. I frankly put this down to poor (as in non-existent) promotion and not to some expression of inherent local sophisticated taste.

When James Wan’s Saw came out in 2004, it was praised for a lot of things—mostly for being a “brilliant” use of a low-budget one-set idea. The odd thing about that is that it really wasn’t confined to one set, which was probably a wise move, since 103 minutes of being locked in the world’s filthiest public toilet (complete with a bathtub for a plot-driven reason) with an overacting Cary Elwes and the film’s screenwriter Leigh Whannell has tedium written all over it. It was, however, exceedingly popular and in Hollywood nothing succeeds like excess, so a franchise was born. And owing to the fact that the first film came out at Halloween, Lionsgate decided they’d own the holiday and churn out a new film every year at that time. Whatever you think of it as art, it’s certainly a defensible business decision.

Sequels are nothing new, of course. I guess the first came back in 1926 when some clever fellow decided that it would be a terrific idea to cash in on Rudolph Valentino’s first big hit The Sheik (1921) with Son of the Sheik, which was actually a better movie than the original. (That may say more about advances in filmmaking between 1921 and 1926 than anything else.) The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) rated two sequels, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931). And, of course, RKO quickly knocked out a lower budgeted Son of Kong in 1933, the same year King Kong appeared. It took Universal four years to wear James Whale down into making a sequel to Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein, which in turn would begat the non-Whale Son of Frankenstein in 1939, followed by more sequels and hybrids for half of the 1940s.

The idea, of course, is that if audiences liked a thing once, they’ll pony up a few bucks to see something connected to that thing again. More often than not, that’s proved true—though usually with diminishing returns on every level. Production values tend to go down. Artistic merit tends to go down. Audience attendance tends to wane. In the case of Saw, however, the production values almost inescapably had to go up for Saw II, though it’s debatable if the artistic merit especially did—apart from the acting and effects, which were generally improved on. Since then, however…

Seeing chunks of the Saw films in order largely served to convince me that this is less a series of films than the same film five—now six—times. Oh, I know the writers have enlarged, expounded and explained the reasoning behind Jigsaw’s (Tobin Bell) homicidal hijinks, and will doubtless continue to do so. A great deal of this frippery, however, is little more than MacGuffin material (as in the “what’s in the box?” biz in Saw V). It serves little useful function. In fact, the Saw franchise may be the ultimate in a generic movie product. No wonder the films follow the pattern of Chicago albums and don’t bother festooning their titles with something to set them apart from each other. A simple roman numeral does the trick because these might as easily be called Generic Torture Horror and left at that.

The films all adhere to a basic pattern: Horrific set-up, Rube Goldberg torture/death devices, some kind of plot (or time-shift twist) and an open-ended climax preceded by an outburst of rapid cutting that more or less puts the trick into perspective. That’s about all there is. No wonder it took seeing them en masse to notice. Then again, let’s face it the series mostly consists of trying to outgross-out itself, so the most memorable thing about the films are its excesses. As a result, I only remember which one Saw III is because it’s the one with people trapped in a vat of puree of rancid pig. I’ll likely remember Saw VI mostly for its whirligig of death or someone being offed by a massive infusion of acid.

That last raises the question of whether or not this stuff is even really horror. Let’s be honest, are you really scared by watching Cary Elwes saw his foot off in the first film? Or are you merely repulsed by the image of it? It’s not all that hard to make an audience cringe by showing them something inherently unpleasant to look at. Actually frightening them is something else, but then so much of the face of the modern horror film—or what passes for the modern horror film—is grounded in this concept.

What is most remarkable to me about the Saw franchise is its almost complete lack of any real growth. I can think of no other horror series that’s so afflicted with creative inertia. Even something as formulaic as the Friday the 13th pictures played around with the approach—refining and adding as it went along. Saw just repeats itself. In large part, this is due to the fact that the films take themselves very seriously. Some may find this refusal to guy the material admirable, and I suppose it might be—if the material could actually be taken all that seriously in the first place, something I can’t manage.

I think it’s instructive that when James Wan moved on to make Dead Silence (2007), there was a much greater sense of intentional humor to the proceedings. Flawed though Dead Silence is—Wan and Whannell (who wrote the screenplay) evidenced an understanding of the inherent silliness of the proceedings. After all, it’s a story that often works on people doing something really dumb in order to keep it going. The film actually plays to this—without sacrificing atmosphere—and is more engaging and fun in the process. Yes, they’re both still too sold on crafting a twist and then over explaining that twist—and congratulating themselves on how clever they are—but it’s a movie I remember with more fondness than any Saw opus. And it’s also the only of their films I bothered adding to my collection.

One thing that seems completely lacking in the the Saw movies is any sense of fun. This may in part stem from the fact that they’re virtually engineered backwards. The twist in the original was who the killer was, meaning that the subsequent entries were faced with trying to turn Jigsaw into an interesting villain. And therein lies a central problem. Jigsaw—no matter how much backstory gets tacked on (mostly to keep him in the films via flashbacks and stock footage)—is a one note character who isn’t even consistent to that one note. Is the point of all these Edgar-Allan-Poe-on-acid torture devices to make those he uses them on “appreciate life” (as he claims), or is he punishing people he considers guilty of one thing or another? The films trip themselves up on this at every turn to a point where there’s no very good answer.

Worse, Jigsaw is quite possibly the most insufferably boring old goat ever to pass for an evil genius. If he didn’t torture you to death, he’d almost certainly talk you to death. That might not be so bad if he ever said anything remotely colorful, but does he? No. Does he even express any delight over his perfidy? No. A little gloating would go a long way here, but we never get any. Instead, we get Tobin Bell’s apparently patented expression of ennui mixed with intestinal discomfort. No wonder so much of his many of his pronouncements are given over to the comparatively expressive Howdy Doody from Hell puppet.

So what is the appeal of these movies? I confess to having no very conclusive idea. Is it a fascination with the torture devices? That seems a good bet, but the films have all but run out of variations on that idea. By now they’re more like variations of variations. Is it simply habit? That’s a possibility. The films now seem more like a bloated TV series than films. It’s hardly surprising that co-critic Justin Souther remarked, “Previously on Saw,” at the beginning of Saw VI during its recap of Saw V. Is it simply that Lionsgate has lucked into the position of having the horror market pretty much to itself at Halloween? That seems the most likely explanation—and it’s one that may well be tested this year, since a major expansion of Paramount’s Paranormal Activities is out to give Saw VI a run for its money. One thing is certain—I am never facing these movies in a body (no, not even in bits and pieces) again.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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31 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Seeing a lot of Saw

  1. JOHN-C

    Ken, For movies you hate this much… You certainly had a lot of fun with them in this article? I mean these movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. They’re silly horror films, You don’t think everyone(including the studio) knows this?

  2. Ken Hanke

    I mean these movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. They’re silly horror films, You don’t think everyone(including the studio) knows this?

    Don’t know too many hardcore horror fans, do you? Anyway, if I limited myself to writing about movies that are meant to be taken seriously, I’d’ve run out of things to write about some time ago.

  3. brianpaige

    Great article. The first Saw almost has a bizarre Evil Dead type reaction from me personally, in that the first time I saw it I was actively shocked by what I saw (Elwes cutting his foot off, etc.). Yet on repeat viewings the film is actually quite hilarious. For all the grief that Elwes got for hamming it up, he was really the only person in the series that acted the way a lot of other people would act in such a situation. Namely he was freaking out and making horrible decisions. He cussed and ranted in semi hilarious, semi crazed fashion.

    Saw 3 is where I stopped caring about this series, though I do confess to having seen the last 2 as well. It’s not just the ending that seemed to wrap things up nicely with Jigsaw and Amanda. It’s also where the series overdid the crazy torture devices to the point where they became excuses to kill people rather than having any real idea. The whole film with the “hero” having to save various people responsible for his son’s death has zero suspense, since the guy himself is never in any danger and Jigsaw could care less if he does or doesn’t save anyone.

    I’d think nearly everyone would agree that the Saw series has run itself into the ground. It’s not a dumb series by any means (if anything it’s incredibly tough to keep track of everything). But it should have stopped at part 3.

  4. Will Oliver

    I’m convinced people watch mainly Saw for the following reasons:

    1. The elaborate traps. It’s got its own morbid appeal, I guess, but is it worth seeing a movie for?
    2. Curiosity about the twisting story. They’d be better off reading the Wikipedia synopsises–or better yet, watching “Lost”.
    3. They consider the movies scary. They should watch better horror movies instead.
    4. The movies are popular with their peers, and you’ve got to keep up with what’s popular, right? As if that made the movies better.

    …Off-topic, but how to I use bold and italics in the comments?

  5. Ken Hanke

    He cussed and ranted in semi hilarious, semi crazed fashion.

    Well, I found it semi-hilarious anyway — that was still true a few days ago.

    Jigsaw could care less if he does or doesn’t save anyone.

    That’s really the central problem I have with the series as it develops. Jigsaw is too uninvolved and dull.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I’m convinced people watch mainly Saw for the following reasons:

    I’m sure they’re all valid one way and another. But I would definitely add a fifth — there are people in this world (I’m one of them) who will watch any horror movie that comes along at least once.

    how to I use bold and italics in the comments?

    That’s always tricky to explain without causing one or the other effect to happen. Essentially, they’re the same thing — only you use a lower-case i for italics and a lower-case b for bold. You start with one of those sideways carrot things like this — < . Then you put in the i or the b and close it with the other sideways carrot. The put whatever text you want and follow it with sideways carrot, forward slash, i or b, and sideways carrot to close it. That's it.

  7. Jim Donato

    It’s my understanding that only the moderator (that would be Mr. Hanke) can input HTML tags. I seem to recall that I tried only to see plain text upon posting. Let’s find out for sure…

    Did that work?

  8. matthew

    Holy crap…that was the hardest article to read about nothing. You should go work for the ACT!!

  9. Dread P. Roberts

    Holy crap…that was the hardest article to read about nothing.

    …unless you’re a movie (namely horror, in this case) aficionado/geek. I’m sure there is something to say about weirdo’s like me, who look forward to reading the Screening Room posts. Sure, they might be a bit longwinded at times (expectedly so), but that can actually be part of the appeal for the Hanke reader base, who generally love reading, and discussing, all things movie related. Certain subjects (like f’n baseball) can bore me to tears within a mere paragraph. So what do I do? I choose not to read such subjects that bore me so. What a novel idea, eh?

  10. JOHN-C

    Ken… I never said these films aren’t worth writing about… I do think it would be fair to include that horror films don’t have to be good to be enjoyable. Especially considering most people(and most Xpress readers I’d be willing to bet) aren’t “Into” horror flicks for the story. They just want some spooky lightning and a weird killer once a year on Halloween. Why patronize us Kenny when we already know the scoop?

  11. Ken Hanke

    I do think it would be fair to include that horror films don’t have to be good to be enjoyable.

    I don’t believe I ever said that wasn’t true. I don’t find it true of these films, however.

    They just want some spooky lightning and a weird killer once a year on Halloween.

    In which case, they’re probably not reading an article about such films.

    Why patronize us Kenny when we already know the scoop?

    Who’s patronizing you, Johnny?

  12. Sure, they might be a bit longwinded at times (expectedly so)
    Hey, wait just a minute! I don’t find these articles long-winded, although I say that’s coming from someone who spent the wee small hours of this morning writing what amounted to an impromptu essay on the impact of the Beatles on popular music slightly longer than this article, as part of an argument on Facebook. And I would qualify as part of the ‘Hanke reader base’.

  13. JOHN-C

    I think your leaving out the reasons why these films could be the most successful horror franchise ever… People might want to know why other people like them so much… Not just why YOU don’t like them…

    I have to go know… My chat room nerd medicine is about to wear off

  14. Ken Hanke

    Hey, wait just a minute! I don’t find these articles long-winded

    Oh, I’m certainly capable of being more loquacious than this.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I think your leaving out the reasons why these films could be the most successful horror franchise ever…

    Actually, I offered some guesses on that point — and a reader offered some more. Of course, no one has raised the question of why the series just got pretty nicely trounced by Paranormal Activity on its opening weekend.

    People might want to know why other people like them so much… Not just why YOU don’t like them…

    I can only speak for myself. If others want to explain why they like them so much, that’s what the comments section is for.

  16. JOHN-C

    You can only speak for yourself? Come on Ken your not testifying before congress… HaHa… Your ducking the question… but whateva… I still enjoy your articles:) I’m passionate about movies too!

  17. Dread P. Roberts

    Hey, wait just a minute! I don’t find these articles long-winded…

    Perhaps longwinded is not quite the right wording to use. I can see how that might imply that I find the writing to be tedious, and even though that might occasionally happen a very small percentage of the time, that really was not my point. I actually meant it in a positive, complimentary way. The point is that another writer would more than likely have a smaller article about the subjects being discussed. I, for one, enjoy a little more length when I find the subject(s) interesting, and was stating that I’m thankful that Ken is writing these articles.

    Of course, no one has raised the question of why the series just got pretty nicely trounced by Paranormal Activity on its opening weekend.

    That’s because the Saw series severely sucks, seriously! And, yes, that’s my subjective opinion. If you disagree, that’s fine, I don’t care. (Actually, I just ‘saw’ the opportunity for slapping several s’s together simultaneously like Dr. Seuss) Funny thing is, even though I quit watching halfway through number three (after previously seeing the first two, which means that is all the exposure that I can comment on) I still am very entertained by this article. Maybe it’s just the whole matter of the “psychology of horror” that engages me. The fact that this one-show-pony is still cranking out the sequels is an interesting thing in and of itself. I suppose anyone interested in marketing (especially Hollywood marketing) should take note of the Saw series.

  18. Ken Hanke

    You can only speak for yourself? Come on Ken your not testifying before congress… HaHa… Your ducking the question

    Well, not really because I can’t actually get inside anyone else’s mind. I can listen to someone tell me why they like them. I can make a guess at it — and did — but I can’t claim to know it.

  19. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps longwinded is not quite the right wording to use.

    I prefer loquacious personally.

    The point is that another writer would more than likely have a smaller article about the subjects being discussed.

    It’s partly the background of writing books and long articles. That’s where I come from. So, when I get in the position of not having to worry about going long in terms of available space in the print edition, I revert to that old training.

    The fact that this one-show-pony is still cranking out the sequels is an interesting thing in and of itself.

    I still tend to think it’s largely a case of having had the Halloween market sewed up for several years. And I’m still curious to see what happens this coming weekend.

  20. Dread P. Roberts

    I prefer loquacious personally.

    I acquiesce.

    I still tend to think it’s largely a case of having had the Halloween market sewed up for several years.

    …Which comes across as a bit of a conundrum in my mind. Why hasn’t there been more horror offerings to compete for the Halloween market? Why didn’t Rob Zombie release his latest Halloween flick this past weekend, instead of a couple months ago? Is the Saw franchise really the big of a threat to other horror movies? Even with Paranormal Activity I can’t help but feel like the wide release might have almost been something of an unplanned accident, that happened as a result of the attention it ended up getting.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Which comes across as a bit of a conundrum in my mind. Why hasn’t there been more horror offerings to compete for the Halloween market? Why didn’t Rob Zombie release his latest Halloween flick this past weekend, instead of a couple months ago?

    It’s kind of like the way the Beatles and the Rolling Stones always kept each other apprised of when they were bringing something out so as not to directly compete with each other’s sales. That was the original reason that Zombie’s first Halloween picture came out in late August. Now that Halloween II underperformed with that release, they’re dragging it back this weekend — when it won’t be in opening weekend competition with Saw VI. Studios don’t like open warfare and always try not to release similar movies — or films with similar audiences — on the same weekend.

    Even with Paranormal Activity I can’t help but feel like the wide release might have almost been something of an unplanned accident, that happened as a result of the attention it ended up getting.

    I’d call it a planned accident. Paramount carefully and skillfully built this up — a smattering of locations, lots of PR about how scary it was, an e-mail write-in campaign (“we’ll take it wider when we get a million signatures”), an expansion, another expansion.

  22. LYT

    How can a guy named “Dread P. Roberts” hate a Cary Elwes movie this much?

    Seriously, though, I could and have gotten into elaborate arguments in defense of Saw and at least some of its sequels. It could go on forever. I’ve found those who are determined to dislike them won’t listen much to attempts to defend the merits.

    Let me just say that the first one is genuinely intended to scare. The bit with Michael Emerson hiding in the girl’s closet still makes me jump each time, and the first few appearances of the pig mask are also great shocks.

    It also has intentional humor — the scene of Leigh Whannell pretending to be electrocuted to try and fool Jigsaw always gets laughs, for the right reason.

    To also address the notion that Jigsaw doesn’t care — the point of part 3 is that he very much cares, though not about Angus Macfadyen, who is only chosen because his wife is a brilliant neurosurgeon and attractive to boot, both of which tie in to his larger game. He wants his work to continue via Amanda, but senses that she is unworthy to do so, and though it does genuinely break his heart to have to test her knowing she will likely fail, he does it anyway on principle. The evolution of the Jigsaw-Amanda relationship is what I like best about Saw 1-3, and it gives the series heart.

    My dislike of 4 and 5 is that they then introduce a second apprentice who was always reliable. Part 6 mitigates this somewhat by showing that he, too, was exhibiting signs of not being up to the task.

    It is also true that Jigsaw, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, can make a great pitch but is somewhat full of it, as the only people who pass his tests — far from being improved — are unstable nutjobs.

    Paranormal beat Saw 6, IMO, for two major reasons. One is that even Saw fans were bummed out and disappointed by part 5. Two is that Paramount chose Thursday midnight, head-to-head with Saw, to have Paranormal “parties” where people got free t-shirts and posters, to lure back existing fans for a second viewing.

    And Ken, thanks for noting what is likely the first sequel…I had always wondered about that. To the best of your knowledge, is it accurate to say that Godfather part 2 is the first actual “numbered” sequel?

  23. Dread P. Roberts

    Wow Lyt, what a great counter argument of sorts. Whether I agree with it all or not, I certainly applaud how well you’ve stated your case.

    How can a guy named “Dread P. Roberts” hate a Cary Elwes movie this much?

    Haha…that’s great. Bear in mind that he is not the real Dread P. Roberts, and he has admitted this.

    I like Cary, but at the end of Saw he certainly showcased a pretty crappy, overacted performance. I do remember asking myself “what happened to his acting ability.”

    The truth is that I don’t really hate what I’ve seen of the Saw franchise; my Dr. Seuss-esque dialog was really just me amusing myself. What I don’t like (and the reason I gave up watching the flicks) is the “how can we up the gore ante” torture porn direction that the series went in – or has at least been advertised as. I basically just see this all as a one-trick-pony, that is being bludgeoned to death by studios looking to squeeze every last dime out of the franchise. (I just know George Lucas’ evil twin brother is involved somehow.)

    Let me just say that the first one is genuinely intended to scare.

    When the first one came out I actually enjoyed it. And, yes, there was one scene in particular that I thought was very well done for creep factor, and in fact unnerved my wife quite a bit. The parking lot scene, where you see ‘the pig’ getting in the back of the car in the mirror. It was what I wanted – a horror movie – and I didn’t think of the movie at all in terms of being a ‘torture porn’. They don’t even show his leg being sawed off. But after that the idea became that what people wanted was more gore, in place of genuine horror. As I’ve said before, torture porn just isn’t my thing. Maybe I’m wrong, but the convoluted story just seems like filler in between what the general Saw audience really wants – torture. I’m just not that audience. I certainly don’t have a problem with gore, but I want more out of my horror movies, like maybe actually being scared.

  24. Will Oliver

    These things— <>

    That’s what I thought, but I was thrown off by the line “Please do not insert HTML code.”

    Anyway, I’ve remembered another reason people watch these movies, which I learned from a forum. Apparently, many fans actually think that Jigsaw’s “lessons” make the movies deep. It’s a bit depressing. As most of them seem to be teenagers, I’m maintaining hope that they discover better movies someday.

    Also, here’s an article discussing the earliest numbered sequel:

    http://stason.org/TULARC/movies/past-films/08-What-is-the-earliest-numbered-sequel-rec-arts-movies-p.html

  25. Ken Hanke

    Seriously, though, I could and have gotten into elaborate arguments in defense of Saw and at least some of its sequels. It could go on forever. I’ve found those who are determined to dislike them won’t listen much to attempts to defend the merits.

    It’s not like I walked into the first one determined to dislike it. And I didn’t exactly dislike it. I just didn’t think it was anything special. The second one is a pleasant memory for me, but only because I saw it at midnight with Don Mancini and Barry Sandler. (We tried to get Ken Russell to go with us, but were soundly dismissed with, “I didn’t travel 4,000 miles to stay up all night to see Saw II.” I admit I see his point.)

    The problem isn’t, I think, being determined to dislike the films. It’s simply that the pro arguments don’t line up with my own feelings about what I’m seeing. That’s not to say that I don’t find the arguments interesting, because I do and I appreciate this kind of approach.

    To the best of your knowledge, is it accurate to say that Godfather part 2 is the first actual “numbered” sequel?

    No, so far as I know it’s Quatermass 2 from 1957. Of course, it was called Enemy from Space (I think) in the U.S.

  26. FWIW, I would rather read about the Saw franchise than actually watch any of the movies. I think I lasted through about 15 minutes of one once. I’m a big horror fan, but I just wasn’t very interested. On the other hand, I have seen Wrong Turn a couple of times. I guess it’s the whole mountain incest thing that does it for me for those films. I have been places in WNC that looked like the Wrong Turn junk yard compound! Haven’t seen any of the sequels yet though.

  27. LYT

    greenasheville – Wrong Turn 2 is actually decent in a different way, as it takes a far campier approach than the original.

    Part 3, though, has a great opening and then is worthless. Only two evil inbreds the entire movie, and one is dispatched early on.

    And Ken, I wasn’t implying that YOU are determined to dislike the Saw movies…but I run up against many who are, and want to dismiss those who like them, and will not hear any of my arguments to the contrary. I don’t know if anyone here reads moviecitynews.com, but I have exhausted the patience of all the regular posters there on the topic.

    I appreciate Dread P. Roberts hearing me out, and will leave it at that.

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