In Defence Of… Saw

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Latest posts by Michael Prescott (see all)

Halloween is over a month away, and yet Insidious: Chapter 2 has already followed its predecessor by raking in audience numbers (and dollars) at the US Box Office – as well as topping the UK charts last week – and it was only a number of weeks ago that The Conjuring was doing the very same thing. All three, to use the technical term, took ‘an absolute shitload’. All three, in creative terms, have one thing in common: James Wan. The director (who will next take a bizarre turn from horror to helm Fast 7) worked together with writer Leigh Whannell on both Insidious movies, but whilst the duo have previously collaborated on other films, their best work to date was their debut.

Saw, released in 2004 with the simple but excellent marketing tagline ‘See Saw’, was an important milestone for the “horror” genre, i.e. psychological-thrillers masquerading as horrors. There’s an important distinction to be made in that, here, I’m predominantly defending the original film (although the second one is pretty great too) as opposed to the entire franchise, even though there are merits to the often-condemned sequels. The Saw saga is now, in many parts, remembered for its “torture porn” aesthetic, but the reality is that the first film in particular (out of an eventual seven) offered the genre and its audience so much more than that.

It started out as a low-key indie project, but after significant producers and distributors picked it up, it went as huge as The Blair Witch Project before it or Paranormal Activity more recently. The Saw franchise also has a devoted fanbase that will forever cement its cult classic status, but its mainstream success means that it’s way beyond that point. And so what was it about the mystery-thriller that captivated us so? It certainly wasn’t the on-screen talent, with ‘stars’ of yesteryear Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) and Danny Glover (the Lethal Weapon series) providing the biggest names the budget could buy.

But Saw is notable for a number of other reasons: torture porn (which would go on to influence films like Hostel), a twist ending and a particularly memorable track on the score. The combination of this surprise ending, voted one of the most shocking in film history, with this track (which would go on to feature in every subsequent Saw film as a trigger in the plot for another major reveal, and a Pavlovian-esque audience cue) means that the spectators walk out stunned after first view. But the film stands up to repeated screenings, and there are a number of reasons as to why.

There’s some quite striking, startling and outright scary imagery for one thing, ranging from rather gruesome animal masks (more prominent in the sequels) to the pivotal puppet-on-a-unicycle appearance, equally terrifying and disturbing. The games, or tests, themselves are inventive but simple in the original Saw, with the requirement to be bigger, better and more batshit crazy with each film thereafter. They’re genuinely horrific in more than one way, and each of them tells us something different that we may not realise at first. One explains Jigsaw’s nuance of watching his games play out, another introduces us to his ­Se7en­-like logic and the picking of his victims, whilst others – particular Amanda’s – ask us that all-important question.

“Could you do it?” is perhaps the most repeated pondering in the mind of the viewer, but it’s far from the only question being asked. Jigsaw demands of his ‘victims’ not surrender but an appreciation of salvation. Like Phonebooth and An Inspector Calls decades previous, the test is not whether one has led a flawless life. It’s not even so much about whether you’re prepared to fight for a new one (Jigsaw is even more cruel than you think when he wants to be), but actually whether you deserve another chance. Is there repentance, or simply a desire to return to old ways? It’s a riddle that evokes evolutionary instinct, and demands both the physical and mental characteristics of those involved to survive (a la The Most Dangerous Game).

Many horror films have used the excuse of ‘bad behaviour’ in various forms from their characters as an excuse to punish them (via the splattering of blood) as is so well-parodied in the set of Scream films (basically having sex or committing a horror-film faux pas both lead to you being fucked in a sense), but Jigsaw takes it a few steps further. His twisted morality is a challenge to the protagonists – Amanda, Adam, Dr. Gordon and others – as well as the audience itself. The philosophy of (or perhaps underlying) the film – in particular its demented but complex antagonist – is by far its most interesting feature, and allows an extra layer of characterisation within a genre which traditionally forgoes such a delicacy. Saw, instead of minimalising characters down to the bare bones as slasher movies do in every sense, relies on its themes, questions and provoking discussions to carry it through, and to probe further viewings.

Despite the sequels descending into farce at times, and simply playing upon shocks and gore (particularly past Saw III at which point Wan and Whannell have both exited), the intriguing nature of the first film, or rather its psychopath, might seem like a somewhat unfinished story if these further chapters weren’t added. Saw has often drawn comparison to Cube for many reasons, although the value of the sequels is where they differ – at least to an extent. Cube II and III add little, with any apparent explanation for the existence of the structure seeming anti-climactic and forced, whereas at least the further Saw films successfully build upon the backstory of Jigsaw, which we crave.

Just how many positives there are to find in Saw III through to Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (completing the conversion into full-scale gimmick by the time the crescendo was reached in the form of film #7) is a different and potentially less interesting debate, although the value of the initial sequels is certainly a welcome discussion. What is clear and undeniable, though, is the status, success, influence and worth of Saw, the ten-year-old that’s way more grown-up than you may ever have given it credit for.