So, it’s Nondenominational Spook Season once more, and you know what that means: HORROR MOVIES. And this month, we’re going to be diving head-first into the great, towering pillars upon which the horror genre is based: the franchise.
And we’re kicking things off with a look at perhaps my favourite horror franchise of all time: the Saw series (some mild spoilers ahead). And yes, I can hear what you’re already yelling in my direction – they’re torture porn, dragged out way beyond their natural lifespan in diminishing returns that have reduced the series to microscopic levels of what it once was. And well, you’d be half right. But we’ll get to that.
The Saw franchise begun in 2004, when a couple of young Australian filmmakers, Leigh Whannel and James Wan, collaborated on a low-budget, low-fi morality play-cum-procedural drama. As with the rest of the series, the first film revolves around a number of people trapped in a violent game that forces them to commit unthinkable acts in an attempt to prove their right to life to an unseen manipulator (John Kramer, as played by Tobin Bell across the entire franchise), who mostly appears in these games via voice recordings and his sinister puppet, known as Billy. The first film was an extraordinary hit, bringing in more than one hundred times its original, tiny budget, and it spawned seven sequels, with the most recent, Jigsaw, released just last year.
Because of the time that it came out, with the prominence of horror movies like Hostel, Ichi the Killer, and Switchblade Romance, Saw as a franchise was soon lumped in to the “torture porn” genre. And that’s simply not true. Well, for the first couple of movies, at least. What separates Saw from the rest of the franchises in this series is the fact that there is nothing supernatural at play here, and that these films take place in the closest parallel to our real world that we’ll see across any of these series. The police hunt for each film’s antagonist (which isn’t always Kramer) makes up a major part of the narrative for each story – the Saw movies have always felt more like Se7en than Hostel, focused on the practical hunt for these violent murderers and their motivations as opposed to just the violent murders themselves.
And the world at large has a relationship with Jigsaw as an entity, as well, with support groups formed for the survivors of the traps, and fangirls collecting reverse bear traps out of admiration for their killer of choice. Out of all the worlds that we’ll look at over the next month, this is the one that feels the most real. And that’s no small thing.
Of course, I’m sliding the point here – these are exceptionally violent films, with much of the draw for the later films coming from the increasingly deranged and twisted (sometimes literally) ways the Jigsaw killer forces his victims to battle between life and death. From drowning in rotted pigs to having your chest peeled open to being chucked into a pit of needles, yes, the Saw films are packed with gore. A commitment to handsome props and real effects renders the violence more striking and hideous than many of its cinematic contemporaries. Add to that the frequently slippery use of timelines, the genuinely twisty-turny plots, and that iconic Charlie Clouser score – is this torture porn? Not quite. That suggests the main point of these movies is pure violence, and its not as simple as that (for the most part).
Because Saw, and I count the entire franchise in this statement, is really a series about the complexity of morality. John Kramer, the original Jigsaw killer who casts a long shadow over the series as a whole, claims not to be a murderer – he picks people who he believes do not appreciate life, and offers them a chance to fight for it. Many of the people in these traps aren’t standard cut-out horror movie victims. They’re often awful people, burdened by the weight of the horrors they have committed – murder, theft, framing those close to them for terrible crimes. We’re not meant to like them, which makes the fact of their death and/or injury more complex. The third movie revolves around a man who has been unable to forgive those he feels are responsible for the accidental death of his daughter, forced to make his way through a series of traps where he decides their fates. The sixth takes on heavy themes surrounding health insurance and the deaths allowed via denial of decent healthcare. This isn’t a stack of nameless bodies with frameless stories.
And then you’ve got the complexity of the villains to add to that. This is one of the only franchises where the actual main villain is a name under which many people operate: John Kramer, as played spectacularly by Tobin Bell who I have most certainly never had a crush on nosiree, actually dies in the third movie (though his presence is echoed down through the entire franchise thanks to that unforgettable voice work) and his mantel is taken up by a variety of characters for the rest of the series.
And these villains are often driven by great gulfs of grief within themselves: for Kramer, it’s the loss of his son and the medical mistake that led to his own terminal cancer diagnosis. After his passing, his loss is the one that drives the next Jigsaw killer. As the series delves further, villains are driven by seeking revenge for percieved injustices – ranging from the murder of their sister at the hands of an abusive partner to violence inflicted on them by Kramer himself. And that’s interesting to me, it really is. Knowing that when the hood gets pulled and we see who lurks beneath brings a different backstory and motivation nearly every time kept me coming back for more, and gives the series a consistently loose, open feel that lends itself well to a franchise as long as this one.
All these things are interesting on paper, and I really do want to commit to the fact that I love these films. But I also understand that, no matter how much I care for them, they are…bad. Okay, let me make amends to that: the first two films are very solid, with smatterings of quality throughout the rest of them. But they are just, often, not good. Bad acting plagues the series at large, and terrible writing is a burden it never escapes. The direction is patchy and often janky, the character work is almost consistently dire when it comes to anyone but the villains. These big ideas, however interesting, are generally poorly executed, and there’s no getting away from that, especially as the series begins to sag under the weight of its own enormous mythology. The fourth, fifth, and eighth movies are genuinely nearly unwatchably bad. So I can’t, in good faith, recommend these with any sense of decency in my soul.
And yet, I still love them. I really do. For me, Saw was an introduction to a slasher that went outside the standard modes of practice, boldly and often. Did it always do that well? Hell, no. But it did it with a commitment to producing something besides Freddy, Jason, or Michael: it wanted to be something different, and it is. From that low-budget, high-concept start right through to the ambitious but arguably disgraceful state of the series as of now, Saw as a franchise has attempted to push outside the box. And for that, I will defend it till the reverse bear trap.
Ranking The Movies, Best to Worst: Saw II, Saw, Saw 3D, Saw III, Saw VI, Jigsaw, Saw V, Saw IV
By Louise MacGregor
If you enjoyed this series and want to see more stuff like it, tune in for the rest of Franchise Fanatic for the rest of this month, and please consider supporting us on Patreon. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!
(header image courtesy of Den of Geek)