Usually I’m on top of the popular horror movies, especially if and when they get to the part 3 mark. But until now I never bothered with SAW. I know there was a pretty good buzz on that first one, but I just wasn’t buyin it. I had seen that fuckin puppet on the TV ads and I wasn’t so sure about a killer with an evil puppet. Evil puppets in horror should always be alive, like Chucky. A killer who plays with a normal, inanimate puppet – that’s just silly.
Plus, I read some essay years ago that referred to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 as ‘SAW 2, and since it takes a while to type out TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, and since that movie tends to come up alot for a guy like me, I started to use that nickname. Me and that movie are tight, we call each other by nicknames. It calls me V and I call it ‘SAW 2. Until now, because now there’s a SAW and a SAW 2. These movies interfered with my relationship with TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2. So I sort of resent them for that.
But yesterday I was working up a piece on this whole “torture porn” debate. As you know I think people who use that term generally don’t know what they’re talking about. But then I realized I really didn’t know what I was talking about either unless I watched these SAW movies, since those are the movies people are talking about half the time when they use the TP word. I wanted to really understand so that’s how I got in this predicament of watching three SAW movies in one 24 hour period, taking breaks to write about them.
I didn’t like SAW. I thought it kind of sucked. But I guess I can see why it’s popular. The premise and the structure are pretty clever. It begins with a guy waking up in a bath tub in the middle of some carefully dirtified warehouse somewhere. He’s chained to a wall, Cary Elwes is chained to the other wall, a guy with his head blown off is laying in the middle of the floor, nobody remembers how they got there.
I definitely think it was inspired by that movie CUBE, where a group of strangers find themselves in the middle of a room with doors that lead to identical rooms, and basically they are trapped inside a giant puzzle and nobody knows where it is or how they got there. And there are mysterious markings and if they go through the wrong door they will be killed by fancy booby traps. They try to figure out the puzzle and meanwhile get mad at each other and talk about their lives and make discoveries about themselves. And it’s kind of cool but the acting and dialogue are not naturalistic enough for you to believe it for a second so it doesn’t entirely work. This is the same way, but with additional problems.
Instead of a big cube these two are in this evil bathroom the whole time, but they find little clues that lead to other puzzles and horrible offers are made like “if you kill the other guy before 6:00 you will win the game.” And as they remember things it goes into flashbacks where you learn that a cop played by Danny Glover, having survived his partnership with that crazy guy and having defeated the Predator, is now obsessed with stopping this serial killer named Jigsaw. So he’s out there trying to solve this case, and you find out about another victim who had to cut open a guy’s stomach to get the key to remove the bear trap from her head. Not pleasant.
Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen in parts 2 or 3 yet, but despite all the torment in this one I don’t see where the torture porn is. The appeal of the movies, I’m gonna guess, is that morbid dude, would you be willing to cut open a guy’s stomach to save your life or dude, would you cut off your own foot if you had to kind of hypothetical. It’s a movie that makes you think about the questions that are important to a 14 year old boy who smokes lots of weed.
I think if the execution was different I might’ve liked it. It is kind of a creepy scenario. I think it’s trying to be gritty, it definitely wants to remind you of SEVEN a little bit, but it’s much more cartoony than that. The gorey stuff wasn’t all that upsetting to me, the only part that was really intense was when the little girl was crying from being kidnapped. (Don’t worry, the little girl doesn’t have to saw her foot off or nothin.)But it was just too contrived for me to take seriously, the way this all ties in with Elwes’s marital problems, the way they conveniently forget about things until the right time, the way it keeps flashing back and taking you out of the moment. And the two guys withhold important information from each other, which is just stupid on their part. I’m sure that’s intentional, it’s a cynical idea about human nature, that they would compete against each other for survival. But I don’t buy it. I’m a cynical guy but I think these two would immediately try to work together and pool their information. Maybe later they would betray each other, but not from the beginning. They would just want to get the fuck out of there.
Sometimes there are obnoxious stylistic flourishes like spinning the camera around the girl with the bear trap or a laughable scene where the killer is being chased and there are fog machines and electric guitars trying to tell you how awesome he is. The guy is just corny. He says corny shit, and he plays with dolls. I know I’m not supposed to like the guy on a personal level, but I definitely think I’m supposed to think he’s cooler than he actually is. Fuck this guy.
So I would have to pass on SAW, not for moral reasons but for quality control purposes.
So now I come to chapter 2 in the SAW saga. Part 2s are crucial, they can be make or break for a horror series (or “franchise” as the businessmen call them). FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 is probaly the most influential horror part 2 of all time, since it turned Jason into the killer and created many copycats. So that’s a make. A break would be BLAIR WITCH PROJECT 2 which pulled the emergency brake on what everybody up until that point thought was gonna be a 15 year long money avalanche with prequels, tie-ins, spin-offs and etceteras. So this could’ve been the end of SAW, but they managed to make it only the beginning. There is already a part 3 on DVD and a part 4 on the way. So good job guys, I guess.
I would say this one is probaly a little better than the first one, I don’t know, it’s hard to measure. Although they bring in the same crap from the first one they at least are smart enough to use a different structure. This time the killer (Tobin Bell) allows himself to be caught at the very beginning. He’s dying of cancer and hooked up to a bunch of machines. Before the cops can pack up his equipment and drag him downtown he reveals that he has Officer Donnie Wahlberg’s son, along with various other victims, locked up in a house somewhere. They can be seen on his spooky black and white security monitors. They have been breathing in poisonous gas and they have to “play a game” in order to find the antidote. Wahlberg has to “follow the rules” too if he wants to save his son. So it switches between Wahlberg talking to this asshole madman and the people locked up inside the house.
This is a good setup, but it immediately becomes apparent that we are not in the hands of serious horror masters. Because we get the same type of cartoon criminal characters as in SEE NO EVIL, but this movie is trying to be totally dark and twisted man, so you don’t get the same sense of trashy fun. From the very beginning they all yell at each other, calling each other sluts and saying “This is BULLSHIT!” Maybe they thought they were doing the classic George Romero theme, that people fail to communicate and work together during a disaster and make the problem worse. But these characters are less believable than Romero’s and so are their disagreements. They seem to hate each other just because the plot requires it. It’s just obnoxious.
One of the tapes they get as a clue for this “game” tells them they all have something in common that will explain why they are there and help solve the puzzle. They eventually discover what they have in common, but completely by accident. They don’t even make an effort to talk to each other. “Hey, where are you from? What do you do? Do you know any sadistic puppeteers?” That’s something the movie has in common with many other bad horror movies: the characters are unlikable morons. Morons you might be able to get away with, unlikable morons is harder. Especially when they don’t seem like real people at all. How do you sympathize with characters you don’t believe, like, or respect?
Like in the first one it is not “torture porn” per se, but alot of horrible shit happens to them, most of it more gross than scary. The most disturbing part by far is when a former junkie gets tossed into a pit full of dirty syringes, where she is supposed to dig out a key. Watching that just causes a primal revulsion, like when the girl falls on the razor wire in SUSPIRIA. In SUSPIRIA it worked better though because the whole world of that movie follows a nightmare logic, you don’t have to relate it to the real world, it’s digging into your lizard brain or something. This one is set in what is supposed to be the real world, so you are distracted by the fact that this cartoon Mean Drug Dealer character would toss her in there. Not really believable. Even if he was gonna be that much of an asshole that he’d force her to go in there, wouldn’t he lower her in there carefully so she stands a chance?
Also, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of Avid farts in this one, and more of the annoying quick flashbacks. Avid farts and quick cuts to flashbacks are poisonous to horror. I’m sure there are different ways to make it work and somebody could find an example of a movie where those things did not make a movie less scary. But in general, Potential Masters of Horror, please avoid that corny bullshit. If you are trying to make a serious horror movie you should be trying to pull the viewer into that world, not pushing them out. You have to put them in the shoes of the victim. Oh shit, what if I was there?
That’s why atmosphere is so important in horror movies. If the atmosphere is there, it creates a sense of place. You forget the world around you and focus on the movie. The place in the movie starts to bleed out of the screen a little and blend with our theater or living room and suddenly we are there and we are in danger. Occasionally a filmatist might use shock or disorientation as a tool, but the people making movies like this just don’t know how to use the tools properly. With all these flashbacks and blurps and bleeps they might be shaking up some young girls at a slumber party who haven’t seen this type of crap before, but those girls will then grow up and forget about it and watch LEGALLY BLONDE some more. When it comes to the real women and men who want to see quality horror you’re just wasting our time. The more you jump around between time periods and say BOO! with your editing the more you suck that sense of place back into the screen and remind us that we are not there, we are not in danger, we are just watching some assholes deliver your bad dialogue in a corny music video set inside our TV and it’s kind of dumb, maybe we should go check our email or read a book or volunteer to tutor at risk youths or go to the grocery store and buy some Cheetos because I don’t know why but I’ve been craving Cheetos lately. Hey what was the score on the Mariners game?
Okay, the more I describe it the more it seems like it is even less good than the first one. But believe it or not the guy who lends a little credibility to the movie is Donnie Wahlberg. This poor bastard, he was a superstar in the New Kids On the Block when he was young, but it was kind of a Faustian deal. He made alot of money but also will always be remembered as that asshole hopping around singing crap to screaming little girls. That’s a boomerang he should’ve seen coming back, but you gotta kind of feel sorry for him for having a little brother who outshines him. As “Marky Mark” Mark Wahlberg was riding his brother’s coattails into the world of garbage music. Who the fuck would’ve guessed he would’ve gone on to become a really good actor? The guy does BOOGIE NIGHTS, THREE KINGS, some respectable performances in not very good action movies, a hilarious supporting role in I LOVE HUCKABEES, then he works with Scorsese and gets an Oscar nomination and the movie wins best picture. All the sudden Donnie Wahlberg is not only the fuckin New Kids On the Block guy, he is the lesser known sibling. It’s not fair, but alot of times we laugh at the brothers or sons of celebrities who just don’t make it as far. The Frank Stallones, the Aaron Norrises, the Chad McQueens, the Don Swayzes, the Kevin Diesels. But honestly I think it works for this guy. It helps him look like a burn out. He’s not muscular like his brother, he’s lankier, he has a receding hairline. But he looks and sounds alot like him.
I don’t think he’s as good or as charismatic as his brother, but he’s a decent actor. And he’s managed to get pretty good roles, working with Bruce as “Crazy Naked Guy At Beginning” in THE SIXTH SENSE, and with Robert Forster in DIAMOND MEN. Cary Elwes and Danny Glover from part 1 are more respected as actors, but he does a better job than them. Elwes used a cheesy acting style I didn’t buy and Glover seemed like he just wanted to read the lines and leave. Wahlberg is the better lead, even if it’s laughable when it turns into LA CONFIDENTIAL at the end.
Speaking of turning into other movies, when the end of this one exactly duplicated the end of the first one, I suddenly realized that in the first one they were trying to end it like THE USUAL SUSPECTS. The music turns all REQUIEM FOR A DREAM dramatic and the Avid farter in the editing room craps through every scene in the movie trying to build drama by repeating every line of dialogue and image that ties into this SHOCKING REVELATION of what exactly is going on here and who is responsible.
So the premise is kind of trying to be CUBE, the killer is kind of trying to be SEVEN, the end is kind of trying to be USUAL SUSPECTS, plus throw in a little DEAD POET’S SOCIETY because the killer is trying to make everybody appreciate living. So it’s not all that original but I guess it is a weird enough combination of influences that it stands out from others in the genre. So that’s something, I guess.
Now if I could critique the killer. I don’t see this guy as being a great icon like a Freddy or a Jason. I’m glad he cut down on the puppetry this time. And it’s kind of cool that you see what he was like before he started this hobby, he just looked like a normal guy. To me it would be more believable if he felt powerful while tormenting these people but turned into a weakling as soon as the cops got in his face. But that’s not the route they’re going. They’re trying to make him a Hannibal Lecter type I guess, a super-intelligent prick who is way ahead of everybody the whole time and likes to sit there and smirk at them about how much smarter he is. It gives smart people a bad name, I think. And it makes you appreciate imbeciles. Give me Jason or Leatherface any day, those guys are teddy bears. You can feel sorry for them a little. But not this asshole. Fuck this guy.
So far I don’t find these movies offensive really, they just aren’t very good. But I guess I can kind of see what people are saying. While you are supposed to side with the protagonists and not the villain, the filmatists clearly have more passion for coming up with fucked up ways to kill or almost kill these characters than they do for making them seem like human beings. In the first one SPOILER the bad guy wins and it ends in literal darkness. And you know what, you can do that sometimes, movies don’t always need a happy ending. But when they do the same thing the second time it starts to seem a little too David DeFalco. This is my reality, Roger Ebert. Is that really their view of life, that it’s all hopeless and everybody’s fucked, and that we don’t deserve the traditional slasher movie satisfaction of the Final Girl or Boy winning, or at least escaping? Or is it just a tough guy pose? Either way, I hope all that money they get out of these movies will cheer them up. Maybe they should use it to buy a ranch, they could ride around on horses and look at the stars at night and breathe in a cool breeze and think positive thoughts.
Okay, after watching three SAW movies in a row I now have a little more sympathy for the anti-TP argument. I still don’t agree with it, but SAW III is their strongest argument of the current crop of mainstream horror movies. It still doesn’t fit the definition – not only is there a plot, but there’s a ridiculously complicated plot, and you’re definitely supposed to wince at the pain, not pop a boner – but it is pretty nasty. Especially early on there seems to be a heavy emphasis on finding the most disgustingly graphic way to kill and maim people, and not so much on characterization. In fact, I remember this one lady getting torn open like a bag of microwave popcorn but I had to think about it for a minute to remember that she was the cop from the last one.
Let me describe two different types of people to you. First there is the guy you know who is proud of how completely fuckin twisted he is, he likes to read books about serial killers and satanic cults, he knows trivia about Charles Manson, he has the daily rotten as his homepage, he can tell you which volume of FACES OF DEATH had the monkey brains on it and he likes to try to shock people by talking about shit like that. Basically, he’s just a show off. Then on the other hand you got a guy like a David Cronenberg or a Clive Barker, guys who think of crazy fucked up shit that first guy could never come up with, and they’re not even trying to. The first guy makes a movie where somebody gets pulled apart by hooks, like he saw in a Clive Barker movie, and he makes it even more graphic and laughs because ha ha that oughta get a reaction out of ’em. Cronenberg on the other hand is a quiet guy, but he makes movies where people fuck each other’s leg wounds and grow teeth in their assholes and grow working VHS vaginas in their chests and shoot teeth out of guns. And then he doesn’t laugh, because he’s serious about it. Because that’s just the kind of movies that come out of his brain.
The SAW guys strike me, obviously, as the first type. One way you can tell is this whole SAW business. The reason they’re called SAW I guess is because in the first one the victims get hacksaws that won’t cut through their shackles, but Cary Elwes decides to use it to cut through his foot. In this one Wahlberg almost does the same thing. But the thing about it is, neither of them really gives much of an effort to cut the chain. Maybe it’s not gonna work, I don’t know, but at least try it for more than 5 seconds before you jump to the “cut off my own foot” solution. That’s how original director James Wan and especially sequel director Darren Lynn Bousman show their cards. They aren’t willing to fully establish the desperation, they just want to jump straight to the limb hacking.
The first part of part 3 almost fits the torture porn definition. Because first you get the guy torn apart by hooks, then poor Donnie Wahlberg having to smash his foot to get out of some shackles, then the cop getting split apart, all in fairly rapid succession. Then it seems like the main storyline is about Angus Macfadyen having to be “reborn” by going around saving the lives of people he wants dead. His son was killed by a drunk driver and Jigsaw has kidnapped everybody involved, and put them in increasingly disgusting torture situations. For example, he has to save the judge who only gave the driver 6 months from drowning in pig guts.
If you really look at the meaning of what’s going on here it’s almost humanistic. He is making the ultimate sacrifice, having to put himself in the line of a shotgun to save the life of the guy who ran over his son. On the other hand it almost seems to be turning Jigsaw into a wise guru, because at the end Macfadyen has “failed the test” by not having a Jesus-like sense of forgiveness. And this sets off a cliffhanger because, wow, there is a part four on the way.
But the other storyline is a little more involving and managed to save the movie from a little game I was playing with it called “turn it off if it gets too boring.” As you know from part 2, Jigsaw has an assistant now. His inoperable brain tumor is being a real bitch and he’s bedridden. The assistant helps him kidnap a doctor and put an explosive collar around her neck which is attached to his heart monitor, so she can only live if she keeps him alive long enough to see the end of his “game.”
This storyline brings a little bit more humanity to the proceedings, I guess. The assistant is very attached to Jigsaw and gets jealous as he’s nice to the doctor (at least as nice as you could be if you have abducted somebody and made them wear an explosive collar). More importantly it’s good to see that the doctor takes her Hippocratic oath seriously. I kept expecting her to turn Rambo and get revenge if she got the opportunity, but she stayed humane. Like Jesus. If this asshole made Jesus wear an explosive collar he would do the same thing, even though he could easily get out of the explosive collar, because he’s Jesus. This doctor passed Jigsaw’s evil Torture Porn test, but also passed Jesus’s test. So good for her.
The most disgusting, most memorable and best scene as far as I’m concerned is the one where the doctor has to perform brain surgery on Jigsaw. She is not equipped with state of the art equipment so she uses some anesthesia, a scalpel, a syringe of alcohol, some clamps. Also a power drill and a buzzsaw. And she successfully removes a section of the crazy bastard’s skull in order to relieve pressure on his swelling brain. Well, I guess she has a better setup than Dr. Benway in that one part of Naked Lunch (I believe) where he performs heart surgery in a bathroom using a rusty can and a toilet plunger. But still, it’s rough.
I liked this scene because it was long and graphic and disgusting and yet what made it so audacious was that it wasn’t about torturing somebody. It was about healing somebody. Why you gotta torture everybody all the time, why can’t you try loving somebody? There is tension because as she’s drilling several holes into his skull you wonder if this is a trick, if she’s gonna give him a lobotomy so that she can essentially kill him but not stop the heart monitor. That would be smart and you couldn’t say the guy didn’t have it coming. But it would be unethical. Instead she saves the man who threatens her. Same thing Jesus would do, same thing Babe the Pig would do, same thing E.T. would do. Think about it, man. That’s about as Christian a gore scene as you’re gonna get outside of PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
One thing that’s kind of interesting is the way the movies continue to reference and add to the first one. Sure, the ELM STREET and HALLOWEEN series will often make reference to the lead character from the first movie or whatever, but this one is almost morbidly attached to the specifics of the first movie. So even in part 3 here they show Jigsaw setting up for the “game” he “plays” in the first one. And when we see Donnie Wahlberg from part 2 shackled up he sees the still-fresh severed foot of Cary Elwes from part 1, suggesting that these crimes happened almost consecutively. The more they emphasize this, the more you realize that this crazy motherfucker would’ve had to have been planning this thing for like 25 years to get all the intricacies down. And he must’ve had a buddy in homeland security, otherwise how does he find all these people and know everything about their lives? Okay let’s see, I’m gonna need to blackmail a hospital orderly into kidnapping the doctor’s wife and kid, and I’m gonna need to drug the doctor and shackle him and also I’ll have to drug and tackle the private eye who’s been following him and once I got that going I’ll leave a body somewhere with a clue that will lead a particular corrupt cop to my headquarters, and I already kidnapped his son and a bunch of people this cop planted evidence on and put them in this house I rigged with booby traps and puzzles and cameras and I already staked out a doctor and a guy whose kid was killed in a drunk driving accident as well as the driver, the judge for the case, a witness, his other daughter, and I’ve made all these recordings that explain the different tests he has to pass…
I mean, there’s a LOT of pain in the ass planning and preparation that goes into these “games.” Any psychopath in their right mind would’ve realized it was more trouble than it was worth and hung it up before part 1 even took place. It’s a miracle this prick can keep all of it straight in his head. I can’t even keep it straight and I’ve already seen the movies. It would’ve been so easy for him to forget to record one tape, or hide it somewhere too hard, and then it fucks up the whole game and he has all these people already kidnapped and he never even gets to use them.
Anyway, it’s part 3 and it still weaving itself into the events of part 1, and this is probaly because they are written by Leigh Wannel, the actor who co-starred as Adam in part 1. His character seems to be about to die at the end of part 1 but he still manages to write himself into all the sequels. This type of continuity is actually very uncommon in a horror series so give them credit for that, that’s one way it stands out.
So overall I would say I was not a fan of the SAW series, but they’re not some plague on horror movies. They got some good ideas here and there, they’re not that bad. In other words, they’re not highly enjoyable to watch, like porn, but they’re not torture to watch either.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.