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The Series Project: Saw (Part 1)

Can Professor Witney Seibold survive the convoluted chronology and extreme gore of the world's biggest torture porn franchise? 

 

Hello, dear reader. I want to play a game.

As the 1990s ended, and the wave of cutesy self-award slasher flicks inspired by Scream began to ebb, I began to complain (but when am I not complaining?). I lamented the long-passed days of my youth, the halcyon slasher crest of the 1980s, when it seemed like a new slasher flick would be in theaters every other week. Halloween was a more magical time then, as theaters were flooded with violent, fun, and admittedly banal slasher sequels with increasingly immortal killers at their helms. By the late 1990s, the pattern had ended. Freddy was Dead, Jason went to Hell, and Michael Myers was watery (“H20?” Really?). It seemed like the slasher genre had come to a frustrating close, much to the chagrin of mewling gorehounds like me.

Horror films began to mutate into something much edgier and darker in the following years. The playful slashers with ever-increasing Roman numerals began to fade in favor of something more brutal. Some people blame the wars in Iraq and the shock of the World Trade Center incident. Some people like to point to George W. Bush for subtly altering the general intellectual culture in this country. But horror movies went from being cutesy and self-referential, to being gritty, grimy, and extra-extra-painful. It was around this time that a film like Hostel could be made, and the phrase “torture porn” entered into the lexicon. “Torture porn,” for the uninitiated, did not refer to actual pornography, but the way certain films fetishistically lingered over the details of physical torment. The pain in these films was used the same way orgasms typically are used in porn. The torture porn subgenre was maligned by most critics, and seemed to say depraved things about our culture. I wasn’t so fond of torture porn movies, as they focused less on making the audience feel scared, and more on making the audience feel nauseated. 

At the forefront of the torture porn movement was the Saw series, which is the topic of this installment of The Series Project. Saw, which was released in 2004, seemed to fulfill my complaints about the lack of horror franchises. The problem was, I wasn’t much interested in the Saw franchise. Sure it was a series of horror movies with ever-increasing Roman numerals, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Every year, on Halloween, from 2004 to 2010, a Saw movie was released. I ignored all of them but the first. How foolish of me to sit out on what can be considered the premiere horror franchise of the decade. Well, my gentle readers, now is my chance to catch up. I have now watched all the Saw movies, and I can report back on my findings. This week, I will talk about Saw through Saw IV, and next week, in addition to Saw VVII, I will have an elaborate flowchart, detailing the wonky chronology of the movies as best I could figure.

Here is the setup for those who don’t know: The films are about a mysterious killer nicknamed Jigsaw who has a very peculiar MO: Jigsaw will observe his victims, and quietly judge them. If he deems them to be apathetic in some way, or are merely not living their lives to the fullest (they’ll be obsessed with their work, they’ll be drug addicts, etc.), Jigsaw will kidnap them, and hook them into elaborate homemade machines that are designed to kill them after a short span of time. Jigsaw will leave audio- or videotapes for his victims, explaining the nature of the machine they are in, and will actually give them instructions on how to escape. In order to escape, however, the victims will have to do something horrible to another person or to themselves. In one instance, for example, a victim will only be able to remove a machine from her head if she digs the key out of the intestine of her still-living cellmate. The series gets its name from one of the first games, wherein the captives must saw off their own feet to escape. That sort of thing. The idea is that once his victims mutilate themselves to survive, to essentially prove that they want to live past their addictions and obsessions, they will have a new lease on life. This is colored by the fact that Jigsaw is himself dying of brain cancer. Oddly, for those that survive, this proves to be kinda true, and they do feel grateful to the experience. Most, however, don’t live.

The films start kind of interesting, but the series quickly becomes more about its gore and elaborate death traps than actual fear. Indeed, some of the films will feature long and involved scenes of surgery at one point, which is pretty much just an excuse for certain effects guys to build bloody corpses. Most of the films begin with an unrelated-to-the-main-story death scenario wherein someone comes about to a horrible end by failing to unlock one of Jigsaw’s death traps. These setups are pretty much just intended to leave you squirming. Especially the one in Saw III, where a guy has to rip out his own jaw.

The series, as it went on, also become almost mythically involved in itself. The chronology of the film began to double back. Certain late sequels take place almost entirely before earlier ones. Two of the movies take place concurrently. Jigsaw dies pretty early in the series, but, thanks to the weird chronology and obsession with flashbacks, he appears in several more films after his death.

SPOILER WARNING: I will openly discuss all the twists and surprises in all these movies. If you want the secrets to remain surprises, be warned. Of course, the surprises in Saw IV become so elaborate, I’ll need to openly discuss them just to keep them clear in my head.

Sharpen up those blades, dig the keys out of your eye sockets, shove your hand into a vat of acid, go swimming on fetid pig entrails, and prepare to lose a limb or two. We’re delving into the gory and disturbing world of Saw.

 

Saw (dir. James Wan, 2004)

Sawis actually a pretty decent movie, even if it is weirdly written. I can see why so many people became attached to it, and why it became a hit. I wouldn’t put it next to the ‘80s slashers I grew up with, but it’s certainly some kind of spiritual successor.

The premise is kind of simple, even if the film feels padded: Two men have been kidnapped and, for reasons unknown to them, locked in a grimy bathroom somewhere. Grimy bathrooms and basement rooms are a common setting of these movies, so prepare to spend a lot of time in them. Indeed, I would credit Saw for popularizing the now-usual horror aesthetic of slightly-turquoise horror scenes; where the image seems slightly green throughout. The men are Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell, the film’s co-screenwriter). They are both chained to pipes on either side of a large room, and a dead body, apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, lies on the floor in between them. The two of them talk about how they got here, and what they might have in common.

Had the film stayed in the small room, I think it would have been more interesting. The claustrophobia would have been more tense than the subplots we’re given. We do, however, have to learn about the killer in some way, so we see a pair of cops (Danny Glover and Dina Meyer) and their respective partners investigating other kills perpetrated by Jigsaw. One was a gal named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a drug addict who does indeed dig through a living man’s intestines to find the key to unlock a kill machine attached to her face. Remember Amanda. She’ll come back. Most of the cops’ scenes are actually a flashback, and we see them talking to Cary Elwes before his kidnapping. We also see a flashback as to how Adam got kidnapped, and we’re introduced to a creepy clown doll that Jigsaw uses to keep his anonymity. The creepy clown doll will show up in every movie, and, indeed, is a now popular pre-fab Halloween costume.

We also see, through a flashback within a flashback (sigh) how Danny Glover lost his partner, was cut in the throat by Jigsaw, and how he became obsessed with catching the bad guy. All this before and during Lawrence and Adam’s capture. The two of them are given saws by the killer (they’re hidden in a toilet tank) and are entreated to saw off their own feet. Lawrence is given an ultimatum: kill Adam, and he can go save his family (his wife is played by Monica Potter, who, for my money, is prettier than Julia Roberts), who might be kidnapped. More flashbacks reveal Jigsaw to be a creepy orderly who worked under Lawrence named Zep (Michael Emerson). We learn in another flashback that Lawrence almost cheated on his wife, but demurred at the last minute. This is why he was kidnapped: he’s a workaholic who neglects his family. Why was Adam kidnapped? Another flashback shows that he was hired by Danny Glover to take pictures of Lawrence. See what I mean about this film being oddly written? I would argue that speeches given in the prison room would reveal more and would be more interesting to watch than all these flashbacks within flashbacks. This structure, however, will prove to be a precedent: All the films will end with some sort of chronological double-back.

Eventually, Lawrence does succumb to the killer’s demands. He hears his family being tormented over a phone, and shoots Adam, saws off his own foot, and escapes. Ironic part: the sounds of his family were actually of them fending off the attacker. D’oh. Once Lawrence, pale and bleeding to death, crawls out of his prison, the film’s final twist is given to us: The dead body in the room with them was not dead. Indeed, this was the real Jigsaw killer this whole time, a patient in Lawrence’s hospital. This guy (played by Tobin Bell), dying of brain cancer, was the one who, in a further elaborate ploy, convinced Zep to pose as a killer. The final shot of the film is the real Jigsaw locking Adam in the prison to bleed to death. The final line? “Game over.” That’ll be the final line of pretty much all of these.

The story can be better summed up by these Bunnies.

I kinda like Saw, although the arch structure drives me crazy. Why, for instance, did Danny Glover hire Adam to take pictures of Lawrence? That’s never made clear. Indeed, the entire Danny Glover subplot was very clearly a red herring, and could have been cut from the final movie entirely. The film’s real strengths lie in the how-effed-up-is-that deathtrap scenarios. Indeed, the deathtraps play as little minidramas in themselves. The guy, for instance, who has to walk around on broken glass, reading numbers on the walls in order to find the combination to a safe before he accidentally sets himself on fire… well, it’s kinda neat. Although it doesn’t take much to see how arch and weird these deathtraps are. How long would it take to set up these things? How does he find so many victims so quickly? Where did he get all the gears and springs to make so many elaborate death machines? Being the Jigsaw killer is like having two full-time jobs. He’d need help to do that much…

Actually, that’s something we’ll address. Let’s look to…


 

Saw II (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005)

One year later, and just add a Roman numeral. My kind of horror thinking.

So remember Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the cute drug addict from the first movie? Not only is she back, but we learn through a long series of events that she is now sort of a disciple of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). We also learn that Jigsaw is actually named John Kramer, and we begin to learn a little more about his past, and what drove him to a full-time maker of bloody scavenger hunts and thumb-slicing devices. I do like the conceit that the killer is not necessarily hiding, and that he’s already dying, making his machines and plans way more insidious than he himself. Indeed, he points out to the beleaguered cop who catches him that he, indeed, has never committed murder. He lets his victims escape, provided they mutilate themselves or others. He often watches them on camera. Jigsaw is positioned as a sort of altruistic killer who uses extreme violence and self-torture as a means of shaking people from their own existentialist complacency. And even though it sometimes works in these movies, I would argue that forcing people timed automated death machines that can only be opened by solving elaborate moral puzzles is more insidious than, say, being a workaholic.

The story of Saw II is another chronological double-back. Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) has found Jigsaw and wants to arrest him. Dina Meyer is back as her cop character. The two of them, while questioning Mr. Kramer, find a videotape of a group of strangers locked in a house, and who are each facing their own deathtraps. Included in the captives are Amanda, and Matthews’ own estranged teenage son Daniel (Erik Knudsen). Jigsaw demands that Matthews just stop and talk to him, and his son will be revealed to him unharmed. Matthews, over the course of the film, becomes impatient, and beats Kramer several times.

Oddly, the bulk of the film (that is, the part in the torture house), and all the torture devices therein, is much less interesting. We essentially see the usual horror movie trope of desperate people screaming at each other, and never taking the time to figure out the simple mystery that the audience has already figured out (i.e. what do all these people have in common?). Glenn Plummer from Showgirls is in the house too, along with Amanda, although it’s the thug (Franky G) who ends up murdering other people to solve his own murder trap. They must all solve their own murder traps to get their hands on syringes that will cure them from the poison gas that’s leaking into the house. That’s… weird. Eventually, we learn that their prisoners’ connection is that they were all framed by Matthews at one point, and they all served jail time based on planted evidence. That means the cop was the real bad guy this whole time.

That’s something the Saw series bends over backward to do: get us to sympathize with the killer’s MO. Amanda, we see, was so convinced by her experience in Saw, that she’s a helper of Jigsaw, and is the plant. It’s an odd conceit, but I’m happy to see Shawnee Smith playing such a large role. I had a big crush on her back in the Who’s Harry Crumb? days, so it’s nice to see her playing such a central role in a popular horror franchise.

The big twist, though, is that the tape of all the people trapped in the torture house was actually recorded a long time ago, and that all the dead characters were dead from the outset. I’d like to ask when Jigsaw had the time to construct a torture house, but such questions of timing will drive you insane. Come back next week, and I promise I’ll have it all sussed out. Eventually, Matthews beats Jigsaw within an inch of his life, and demands to be taken to the torture house. As soon as they leave, an automated safe opens right where they just were, revealing Daniel is fine. The only person at the torture house now is Amanda, and she lures Matthew into the room from the first film where Adam is now a mummy, and Cary Elwes’ foot is still chained to the wall. She locks him in. “Game over.”

The final shot of the film is the bloodied Kramer in the front seat of a van, clearly dead. I think the series was too hasty here, as he’ll be back.


 

Saw III (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)

The longest and most involved of the Saw series, Saw III runs to 121 minutes on home video. It’s overwhelming length made me tired, and all the death traps left me a bit cross-eyed.

So Kramer (still Tobin Bell) is still alive, it turns out, although he is clearly at death’s door, and Amanda (still Shawnee Smith) is keeping him alive in his basement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be the same basement in all the movies, or if Kramer has a series of kill basements where he can build his machines in peace. In this film, it’s finally established that Kramer is an engineer, and that he’s experienced with making these kind of things. I think it was here also that we learned of a car wreck he was in that changed his view of the world and made him appreciate life more; hence his connection between violence and catharsis. Oh wait. That was in Saw II. The cancer, we learn, was a late-in-the-game development that only made him un-arrestable; why arrest a man who is slated to die in a few days anyway? I would say: easy. But that’s me.

The question the films want you to ask: Is strapping someone into an escapable death machine that kills them considered murder? I’m no lawyer, but I would still consider this an illegal and immoral act. But then it’s that kind of moral certitude that’s gets people in trouble in the Saw movies. Saw presents a scary world of violence and moral ambiguity to match the torture and violence we're seeing in the world around us in the early ‘00s when war was raging. I would never call them terribly sophisticated movies, but they are certainly growths from our time. There is, however, no direct comment on the realities of torture; politics are never explored. It’s all these adolescent and academic moral games that are undone by the extremity of their violence. Would you let a man die to save yourself? What if he was gonna die with a machine that first turns his arms and legs backwards, and then slowly breaks his neck? And what if you hated the guy, ‘cause he accidentally killed your son years before? Also, your wife may be watching. The extenuating circumstances are so bizarre that the morals kind of pale. By the time we see someone drowning in fetid pig entrails, the “game” part of these games have given way to creative deaths.

Not that creative deaths are a bad thing, especially not in the slasher genre, where the implement of death becomes often more interesting than the victim. But the Saw series’ insistent altruism rings false in the face of its gleeful gore.

"Fetid Pig Entrails," by the way, is the name of my new Death Metal band.

Anyway there are two stories going on in Saw III: The first is, like in Saw II, a man trapped in a torture house. The twist this time is that Jeff, the guy in question (played by very good Scottish actor Angus McFadyen) is not the one being tortured. Jigsaw and Amanda, you see, have found that this guy has been agonizing over the accidental death of his son years before, and blames several people for it. His obsession has driven his wife away from him. Jigsaw has now collected the people that Angus blames, and will force him to either watch them die horribly (fulfilling his revenge fantasies) or to be the bigger man, forgive them, and rescue them. He usually chooses to rescue them, although often too late, leading to their deaths anyway. In one painful game, he’ll only find the key to rescue a guy from a pit slowly filling with pig entrails if he burns all his dead son’s belongings. Teddy bears and all. Ouch.

The other story involves a kidnapped doctor named Lynn (Babar Soomekh) who has been taken by Amanda to Jigsaw’s creepy basement where he lies ailing. It’s Lynn’s job to keep Jigsaw alive along enough to see Jeff’s game through. If he dies, a special collar will kill Lynn. Jigsaw has conversations with Lynn and reveals his gentle side. This makes Amanda jealous, and there’s an odd romantic relationship going on. It’s during this story that we’ll see a makeshift trepanning complete with a lot of blood and gore and splatters of human ick. The surgery scene has nothing to do with anything in the story, and was clearly included just to make you squirm. Well, it is gross. It’s not as gross as the autopsy we’ll see at the beginning of Saw IV, but it’s plenty icky.

Eventually, we learn that Jeff, who escapes his torture house having accidentally killed all of the others, was actually married to Lynn this whole time. He finds his way to Jigsaw’s basement (which was adjacent to the torture house), and confronts Jigsaw. Oh no! Lynn was shot by Amanda! Jeff is mad. Jigsaw reveals that his game with Jeff was really just to test how forgiving Amanda was. It turns out: not so forgiving; we learn that she has, autonomously, constructed a few death machines of her own, and set up games of her own (one game we see early on kills Dina Meyer’s character from the first two movies). Only her games are not intended to be won, and the machines, even when unlocked, are gonna kill you. She has become a regular murderer. Jigsaw is very disapproving. Jeff shoots Amanda.

Jeff shoots Jigsaw too, but not before he swallows something (?). Jeff also learns that his daughter is locked away somewhere, and Jeff will be locked in that room to die with three corpses. Noooooo! Game over. Oh wait. Donnie Wahlberg is in this. It turns out he was able to escape that room form the end of Saw II, and he confronts Amanda, and then gets locked up again. Dang, these movies are getting complicated…

But it gets more complicated.


 

Saw IV (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 2007)

Saw IV begins with Jigsaw’s autopsy. We see his brain and stomach and other organs being removed. He is definitely dead dead dead. Odd, then, that this film should feature the most of him. Damn you, backwards Saw chronology.

Saw IV largely concerns itself with John Kramer’s origin story. We see back before the events of Saw, with John Kramer (still Tobin Bell) and his happy marriage to a woman named Jill (Betsy Russell). We see the car crash that changed him, and the ultimate cancer diagnosis that will cement his career as a death machinist. Lawrence, by the way, from the first film, was the doctor who diagnosed him. One of his crimes is poor bedside manner. It’s a good thing Jigsaw never met Dr. Gregory House.  We see how Jill lost a baby, and how John was pushed over the edge. We see his first death machine, and his hatred of complacency and criminals. In the previous films, people were punished for apathy. In Saw IV, it’s much more a vigilante thing, as Jigsaw goes after proper criminals. Oh yeah. In the last film, we were introduced to a random cop named Mark Hoffman, played by the musically-named Costas Mandylor. Keep an eye on this guy. We learn a lot of the flashback information from the still-living Jill, as she is being questioned by Hoffman.

Much of Saw IV, indeed, takes place before Saw, and we see Shawnee Smith again, and Jigsaw is free to wander about in the past, even though he is dead. In Saw IV we also get to see how difficult it was to set up the game from the first film. It’s hard work to move unconscious people around. The scene where Jigsaw and Amanda set up the room from Saw only feels like fan service; it does little to advance the already-complicated plot.

The main plot of the film surrounds yet another cop named Rigg (Lyriq Bent) who is given a weird scavenger hunt by Jigsaw before his death. When did Jigsaw build all this stuff? Like, did he figure out his marks years before and built all these elaborate hunts in the meantime? Well, as it turns out, no. To explain the big twist: Saw IV takes place over the exact same time frame as Saw III. So, yes, some other guy made this game for Rigg, inspired by Jigsaw. Or maybe Jigsaw made it, and it was only being operated by yet another disciple. I can’t really tell you for sure. It’s way too convoluted. Rigg is sent to various locales where death traps have been set up. Jigsaw, you see, has locked criminals in them, and is attempting to get Rigg to see the altruism of the murder ploys in order to make him into yet another disciple. Rigg’s only conflict is that he has to watch all this to free his kidnapped girlfriend.

Meanwhile Jill reveals some connection Jigsaw had to a lawyer named Art Blank (Justin Louis), who might actually be Jigsaw II. If you remember from the first Saw, though, the true killer was only manipulating the guy who looked like the killer (pant pant pant), and a similar twist will be employed here. The real Jigsaw II is actually Costas Mandylor, and it was he who was manipulating Art Blank. Is everyone following  me? Hands up all who are following me. Wow. Not too many.

Wait! There’s more! Art Blank was actually torturing Donnie Wahlberg from the last two movies! And the thing that Jigsaw swallowed at the end of the last movie was a tape that led Costas Mandylor further on his quest to be Jigsaw II. And Rigg ended up losing his girlfriend, and failed to save Donnie Wahlberg from having his head crushed by two big blocks of ice (don’t ask). Also, he found a secret room where Jeff (Angus McFadyen) was still hanging out. Yup, Saw IV took place at the same time as Saw III. Not that they’re good movies, but I feel I need to watch these last two parts again just to keep them clear.

I suppose this is an original approach: Complicated myth-building trumps cleverness. Also a lot of blood. But you’ll notice that I didn’t describe any of the death machines in this one. The death machines are still around (one guy has to stab himself in the eyes, another has her scalp pulled partly off), but the complex story is the only thing you’ll be able to pay attention to. Saw IV is almost nutty enough in its oblique self-absorption to be considered an "HFS" movie. Although we’re not to Saw V yet, and things will only continue to disappear further up their own asses.

When taken as a whole, the Saw movies might be considered an "HFS" phenomenon.

 


And that’s where we’ll leave it for now, kiddos. Read this several times if you must, as you’ll need a solid primer when charging into the final three chapters in next week's The Series Project. Like I said, I will provide a straightforward timeline on all the events in all seven movies. My current rough draft looks like a pile of spaghetti sneezed on a piece of paper, but I’ll try to make sense of all this.

In order to join me next week, you’ll have to shed some blood.