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.