If one were to have never seen Saw, the production and release of James Wan’s first film would come off as a familiarly inspiring Hollywood narrative. Straight out of film school, Wan partnered with Leigh Whannell and they penned a script about a secretive serial killer who builds elaborate death traps for those who he feels are ungrateful and unworthy of the miracle of life. They shot the film over 18 days for a little more than a million. Plans were set to have the movie released straight to DVD before Lionsgate took an interest and put the movie out just in time for Halloween. The movie opened with an $18 million gross, and went on to make over $100 million worldwide. Wan would go onto start numerous other hugely successful horror franchises before directing Furious 7, the best installment of the Fast & Furious franchise. The director recently wrapped production on Aquaman, the highly anticipated DC film with a budget that rivals the GDP of the Marshall Islands.
Wan’s gambit paid off. Much of the work that has come after his 2004 sleeper hit has revealed Wan to be an inventive director even when the material is familiar. Like so many young filmmakers, he is taking a similar track as Steven Spielberg and a turn toward more socially relevant, Oscar-appropriate material cannot be that far off. Which isn’t to say that Wan’s films and the franchises they’ve spawned haven’t been politically and morally engaged. Where Insidious and The Conjuring only breezily confront familial stresses, the dangers of ignoring history, and religious mythology, however, Saw represents what is inarguably the most viscerally draconian, joyless, and woefully self-serious horror film franchise of all time.
Wan went as far as to point out that the first Saw film isn’t as easy to label “torture porn” as the films that followed ended up being. With the exception of a pointless extended shot of a victim’s daughter sobbing while a gun is held to her head in Saw, he’s right in this. The inaugural volume of the film is primarily a gory chamber drama wherein a doctor, Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and a photographer, Adam (Whannell), are both chained to the floor of an abandoned deluxe bathroom by a murderous criminal mastermind known as Jigsaw. Lawrence must kill Adam to get out but the entire narrative is constructed around Lawrence avoiding that, as well as filling in an excessive amount of backstory that is only beneficial in providing reams of useless questions for the sequels to answer. In short, the best that can be said about Saw is that it gives you a vague idea of what Seven might have looked like if it was made on a million-dollar budget, penned by a lonely middle-school student, and sans David Fincher.
Rife with frenzied visuals and stretches of sped-up footage, the first Saw is strung together by little more than blood and gristle. The movies play around with time, eventually revealing that much of what happens in these movies happened before or right around the same time as Lawrence and Adam were kidnapped. It doesn’t come off as clever but rather as a way of reverse-engineering the franchise’s timeline to keep Jigsaw, who is eventually revealed to be cancer-ridden former engineer John Kramer (Tobin Bell), in the movies. Funny enough, the Saw series offers a peak at a narrative idea that has become integral to modern filmmaking: the franchise as enormous, convoluted narrative arc.
The sense of character in the writing or performances certainly don’t make that easy to forgive or ignore. Elwes’ doctor is only remarkable in that he has a family being held hostage and had a brief affair with a medical student, while Whannell’s character is not even afforded these dubious nuances. As the series goes on – there are seven of these, not counting the upcoming Jigsaw – this pattern continues with one primary victim being given little more than a vengeful hook, such as the grieving father who is faced with the reality of getting bloody vengeance on those responsible for his son’s death. The rest of the cast of any given volume of this franchise are mostly victims or utilized strictly to spout backstory and the occasional plot point.
The only fleshed out character that arise from these seven volumes is Jigsaw himself. In fact, as written, Kramer is the true hero of the series, and one of the most iconic far-right lunatics that filmmaking has ever dreamt up. Wan was smart enough to keep Kramer’s identity and reasoning behind Jigsaw’s murders essentially a mystery in the first film, but we incrementally learn much of his life story in the volumes that follow. The breaking point comes when Kramer’s wife, Jill (Betsy Russell), who works at a drug rehab clinic that he thinks is a waste of time, is attacked by a patient and subsequently loses their child, who was to be named (tellingly) Gideon. Not long after, he’s diagnosed with brain cancer and passed off to Dr. Gordon, whom he sees as uncaring and ungrateful for his family because of an extramarital affair with a younger colleague.
Kramer is a bitter, resentful old man who sees even the most minor outbursts or moral infractions as reason enough for citizens to be slaughtered by one of his “games.” In the first movie, his victims include a man who had failed to commit suicide, a man who pretended to be sick to get out of work, a former junkie, and a philanderer. He also clearly has an issue with any criminal receiving parole, as several of his victims include former cons who he thinks haven’t learned their lesson. In a misogynistic coup de grace that opens The Final Chapter, a teenage girl is sawed in half for cheating on her boyfriend with his best friend. Both the men survive and are happy to see her die, of course. In Saw IV, one major character is killed by having his head smashed in, not long after he severs his own foot by pulverizing his ankle with the lid of a toilet tank. And what was his great offense that made Jigsaw take notice? He raised his voice to his son once. The chances of someone getting decapitated because they take too many selfies in Jigsaw are extremely high.
The element of Kramer’s cancer has been used to suggest that he is not of his right mind but the movie never infers that this has caused mental instability. His body is presented as increasingly weak but his mind is as sharp as ever, allowing him to get the drop on literally every single person he encounters, including innumerable police officers. On top of this, his uproarious opinion that he’s never killed anyone and that all his victims committed suicide is never really challenged or called out plainly as bullshit. There’s no effort to present this man as a human being with exploitable weaknesses. The writers and filmmakers refuse to palpably entertain the idea that he has plainly lost his mind or, for that matter, that the only way he could have paid for all of his deathtraps, abandoned factories, toys, hideaways, and drugs is if he was the youngest Koch brother. He’s never presented as anything but a cool, collected man taking justice into his own hands after the system and society at large failed him. Therefore, we must assume that that’s how the people who invented and molded the character see him at the end of all this.
No one seems to die of shock in the world of Saw, which is at least part of the reason the franchise has a reputation for “torture porn.” As far as content goes, that’s just about what it is: extended, fragmented bouts of wails and pleas for mercy deployed for tension and some disquieting pleasure. The scenes are also meant to extoll guilt on the viewer for inviting such narrative indulgences. But the movie also makes clear theater out of each death, tracing over every gear, motor, and sharpened edge that go into Jigsaw’s perfect machines. They are the only genuinely inventive element in these movies and they are also the source of the movie’s most problematic element. Outside of the variety of killing implements, the movies are made up of a remarkable amount of recycled footage, filling out the bare minimum of an already familiar plot involving some cops and a dozen or so victims.
The Final Chapter ends with Dr. Gordon killing Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), seemingly the last of Jigsaw’s disciples. Over the last few movies, we learn all about Hoffman’s history with Jigsaw, filling in gaps in the backstory of the first film that don’t matter and have exactly no bearing on what’s happening. Great horror movies are great movies, no matter how much blood and guts spill, and even tolerable, forgettable slashers like The Mutilator or The Prowler find some interest in the world around them and the lives of the victims before they meet their end. If the focus on the pain and helplessness of Jigsaw’s victims is meant to make an audience reflect on how desensitized we are to violence, the film itself seems wholly disinterested in anything but violence in the world.
The Saw franchise’s overt and unearned cynicism is insufferable but beyond all the sadism, misogyny, and self-righteousness, what’s most troubling is just how lazy and thoughtless these movies are. Anything that doesn’t involve a corpse or one of Jigsaw’s games is often quite literally sped through to get to the “good stuff.” This is ultimately emblematic of what tends to happen with most franchises that start out as an unlikely success story: a spark of inventiveness overused to the point that it becomes to embody the very worst things about filmmaking, in the horror genre or otherwise.