I am an unrepentant fan of horror films. And while Saw and its six (6!) sequels are not films I could put up against The Shining or The Exorcist in terms of overall quality, I will defend them as entertaining, scary and holding a moral core. The Saw films are frequently referred to as “torture porn” but I’ve never subscribed to that as an accurate label for these films. Other movies like Hostel came out at the same time that I think fit that bill but the key difference is how much of a fair chance the lead characters have in escaping a death trap. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Saw movies are all about escaping death traps set up by a mentally unstable person who is trying to get people to either pay for their perceived crimes or be forced to radically change their ways. At its core that’s an interesting idea. I’m going to explain why I think the Saw films are worth watching if you haven’t tried them.
“I want to play a game.”
The first Saw movie was a low-budget affair with two name actors, Cary Elwes and Danny Glover, and a number of character actors. It was shot cheaply by its writer/director duo of Leigh Whannell and James Wan respectively. It’s one of my favorite setups for stories – the closed room mystery. Two men wake up in a locked and abandoned bathroom, chained to the wall. Eventually they find a microcassette recorder and tape and realize they’ve been abducted by the Jigsaw Killer. Meanwhile, the police are hunting the killer down. Jigsaw has been abducting people in the city and placing them in lethal traps. Technically, he has not killed anyone by his hand, but only one person has survived his trap so far. A junkie who now is grateful for her life. The men eventually learn how they have a relationship to one another and to Jigsaw in an attempt to escape before a clock runs out, trapping them permanently downstairs. They are left with a hacksaw that can cut through bone but not their metal handcuffs. How far are they willing to go for their freedom?
I can’t go any further into the plot or the characters without giving away the plot twists. And that’s one of Saw‘s big draws. Each film features twists, usually a big one at the end that changes how you perceive the events from before. There are usually two good reasons to tell a story on film: either a protagonist is changed by the events he just went through or the audience’s perceptions of what they just viewed are changed. Saw manages both in a pulpy way. Saw was a massive hit and a sequel was rushed into production. Every one of the seven films was released in a consecutive October. I liked that for seven years I had a horror movie to see in the theater.
While each Saw film features a different protagonist going through different challenges, characters and storylines do continue from one film to the next. Jigsaw, we eventually learn, was a man diagnosed with terminal cancer who had given up on life. Until he was in a terrible car accident and he fought to survive. It changed him and now he wants to change those he believes don’t appreciate their life. So he puts them in his traps. Of course he’s ultimately a hypocrite because he will put other victims into his elaborate traps that don’t have the agency to affect their situation – it depends on the choices of the people he places into his scenarios to make the bigger decisions about their lives. We eventually meet Jigsaw’s apprentices who are believers of his philosophy but are also, of course, not mentally sound and have their own issues. Jigsaw creates tests for them as well.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons I appreciate the Saw movies. Beyond the lethal traps, it’s ultimately about people making moral decisions. And decisions about how much they’re willing to put themselves through pain to survive. Survival is an interesting concept. How far are you willing and able to go to stay alive? Jigsaw doesn’t punish his victims for being teens that want to have sex, but he’ll absolutely go after you if you are an addict or a corrupt official. By the end of the series, you learn that Jigsaw has some very specific reasons for hating both junkies and those in authority and his victims usually share at least one of those traits.
Saw brought back low-budget horror and yearly franchises as a viable option for big film studios. It didn’t feature any supernatural elements and for several years, it brought that style in vogue. It’s been years since the final chapter in 2010 but I won’t be surprised if it’s brought back some day. While Jigsaw was a crucial element, he set up a philosophy that lives beyond him and other copycats could easily adopt it to continue the franchise. The reviews were rarely good for Saw and some of the chapters are better than others but I find it a perfectly engaging distraction. If you give it a try, be on the lookout for the grimy production design, the creepy Billy puppet and pig masks, Tobin Bell’s fantastic work as Jigsaw, and the hypnotic, terrifyingly intense main theme, “Hello Zepp.”