Time to Cut the Chains? Defending The Saw Franchise

Time to Cut the Chains? Defending The Saw Franchise 5

After a seven-year gap, a new Saw movie is hitting screens this weekend for Halloween. But it’s not screening for critics in Canada. Fair enough. That was true of the last four chapters as well. This series wasn’t exactly a critical darling. In fact, it was typically panned and held up as an example of everything wrong with horror during the sensationalistic-titled “torture porn” era. Here’s the thing though, I’m actually disappointed that I won’t get to review Jigsaw. It’s not in some cynical frustration that I won’t get to vent out a vicious review either. The dark and dirty little secret that I hold dear is that I kinda, sorta, really enjoy the Saw franchise in a guilty pleasure way.

I know that means that I should likely renounce my status as a film critic because we aren’t supposed to enjoy the Saw movies, but dammit I liked them and I’ve missed the Halloween tradition of feeling sick to my stomach in a theatre for the sake of Saw. So since I can’t review Jigsaw this week, I’m going to defend the whole gloriously disgusting and stupid series instead (although you probably know that by now since you clicked on the headline and so forth). That’s right. I’m not allowed to see Jigsaw before it’s released because as a critic I’m apparently predisposed to loathe it, yet here I am unnecessarily dedicating time and a luxurious word count to discuss why an eight-movie series about a guy making death traps (most of which were set up after his own death, incidentally) is worth watching. That’s because I care about gore movies with ludicrous continuity, people. I’m prepared to make that bold claim and stand by it.

Defending The Saw Franchise 1
Noam Jenkins in Saw II (2005)

The first Saw movie blindsided audiences in an era when mainstream horror had been diluted by years of PG-13 Scream knock offs and J-horror remakes. Made on a shoestring budget by a pair of Australian film school buddies named Leigh Whannell and James Wan (who would go on to direct the Insidious movies, The Conjuring movies, and of course, Furious 7), the mixture of police procedural and a serial killer who specialized in moral quandary death traps inspired by the gleefully gory excess of Italian horror movies was a massive hit. Sure, the narrative was needlessly convoluted and the acting was as over-the-top as the violence, but the flick struck a chord in 2004 and created a new horror icon in Jigsaw/ john Kramer (Tobin Bell). Soft spoken, diabolically brilliant, fatally ill, and determined to use his skill at crafting death traps to teach his victims a moral lesson (he’s more of an assisted suicide/maiming facilitator than killer), Jigsaw was a fascinatingly human twist on the iconic horror movie killer played by Bell with surprising levels of humanity. Jigsaw and his movies caught on. For the next six years, Lionsgate dutifully released a Saw sequel every Halloween.

It would be a lie to say that the first Saw or any of the subsequent sequels were masterpieces, but hey! No one would say that about any entries in the Friday The 13th franchise either and it’s hard to think of a more iconic franchise. The Saw movies were unapologetically trashy, obscene, and absurd. That’s why we loved them. Every sequel was assigned with not only topping the disgustingly graphic Jigsaw killer death traps, but somehow continuing a long an unending revenge plot carried out by super-duper killer mastermind John Kramer. Initially the plan was for the series to end as a trilogy with Kramer’s death. However, Saw III was the most successful entry at the global box office (it’s also my favourite Saw flick, for whatever that’s worth) and the movies made a mint at the height of the DVD era when they proudly flaunted their “Unrated” violence, proving the increasing irrelevancy of the MPAA by being more readily available to impressionable minds than the censored theatrical versions. As a result, Kramer’s master plan continued for four (now five) full films after his death. Somehow he had more dastardly and disturbing deaths to dole out after dying, saving the good stuff for a series of lackies with increasingly strained motivations.

Defending The Saw Franchise 4
Tobin Bell in Saw V (2008)

The continuity of the Saw movies never made much sense and was more often than not disorientingly strained and stupid, crammed in through endless revisionist flashbacks (I’ll never forget the reveal of the killer at the end of Saw V which shocked me not just because of his identity but because up until that point I’d thought the two generic looking actors playing generic detectives were the same character, not the hero and killer. Whoopsie!). However, that was part of the fun. You giggled at the excess of the writing of a Saw sequel as much as you gagged and marvelled at the gore. Walks home from screenings involved struggling to pull together the tangled narrative threads as much as they did recalling the expertly crafted gross out gags. And at least the sequel screenwriting team of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan cared enough to maintain and expand a continuity at all, even at one point turning a Saw prequel script into their own franchise (The Collector) while still keeping the Saw sequels coming annually. Unlike the parade of hired studio hands who lazily cranked out half baked Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street scripts until the franchises died, the folks behind the Saw machine actually cared about the series and how to keep their audiences guessing. The loopy stories and plot holes arose more out of impossible annual production deadlines than anything else.

Sure, it’s possible to read unintended deep meanings into the Saw series to explain its success at capturing the cultural zeitgeist. Torture and the moral ambiguity of violence were in the air thanks to the Bush administration’s expensive and deadly war machine, so a more thoughtful and mortal movie monster who earned minor moments of empathy felt right. Saw VI (arguably the best in the series) is even overtly political, taking stabs at the economic crisis and health care woes of the era between ripping apart limbs. However, that’s pushing too far. The fact of the matter is that the movies hit because they worked well as creative murder and makeup delivery systems for drunken Halloween weekend crowds hoping to gag and cover their eyes. The mix of police procedural and stylized murder played well to an audience who also made the CSI series such a hit that there were roughly 87 spinoffs on television while the Saw movies played in mall cinemas. Plus, they were fun movies delivered in a stylistic excess suited to a pre-YouTube culture still weaned on needlessly glossy and over-edited music videos and commercials.

Defending The Saw Franchise 5
Gerry Mendicino and Peter Outerbridge in Saw VI (2009)

The Saw movies looked and felt like the brutal horror entertainment that audiences needed in the oddball 2000s.  When the Saw producers attempted to extend into the 3D trend and Paranormal Activity made found footage the new normal, they promptly disappeared. It was sad, and while the jump scare freak-outs of a packed Paranormal Activity audience made for some fun Halloween weekends at the movies, they never left viewers battered and bruised by horror shenanigans like a Saw sequel. That was much missed. Well, thankfully the series is back just in time for a new politicized and dissatisfied age. Maybe the franchise will resonate again. Certainly Lionsgate hopes Jigsaw will make a mark at the box office, but who knows! It’s been as many years since Saw 3D as there were between the first and last entries in the series and all the movies feel rather dated to the 2000s now. It might not hit, but I don’t mind. I’ll show up for any late and lazy sequel to a horror franchise I adore and watching how the new team of filmmakers struggle to tie their narrative into the seven-movie tangle of continuity will be just as fun seeing what vomit-inducing wizardry and morbidly clever death traps are delivered to the gorehounds. It’s been just long enough that I’m excited about Saw again. I’ll be in the theatre giggling and gagging again this weekend, filled with nostalgia and desperate to hear that industrial theme song play over another ludicrous plot reveal montage. Join me, won’t you? Live or die, you decide (duh-na-na!).

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