My apologies for this post appearing a day late. Hope you enjoy this on a Scary Saturday instead of a Film-Review Friday.
The Saw Series
Directed by James Wan (Saw), Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4), David Hackl (Saw 5), Kevin Greutert (Saw 6, Saw-3D).
Written by Leigh Whannell (Saw - Saw 3), Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (Saw 4- Saw-3D)
CONTAINS SPOILERS. All the spoilers.
Do you want to play a game? These are the rules: I watched all seven Saw movies. You're going to give me money, or possibly a cupcake, and I'll tell you about them. I get a cupcake, and you don't have to watch ALL SEVEN SAW MOVIES. It's a win-win.
Seriously, though, the horror genre is the true breeding ground of long-running series. Even before the greats from the 80's (Freddie, Jason, Mike Meyers), we had Christopher Lee's Dracula and Dr. Mabuse popping up again and again in movies of varying continuity.
The issue is that many of these movies are made for money, and not necessarily out of... shall we say, artistic vision. Jason X works better as a gory comedy than as nightmare-fuel. Thus, they're pretty far down on the watch-list.
Up until this point, I've gotten by on watching the first, or possibly second, entry in these massive series. It works enough to be passingly literate. But, now's the time to bite the bullet and get actually literate. I've decided to watch through these massive series. Yup, every single last one. One of these days I'll get to Hallowen H2O, and you'll be able to hear my screams two counties over. But for now, I'm just going to write a lengthy, textbook-type article encapsulating my thoughts of the series as a whole, with short vignettes for each feature.
What is Contrapasso?
While the Saw series may have taken the gruesomeness of its death scenes to the next level, at its heart, it's in the business of telling a very old tale. What you do will come back to haunt you. Your sins will be punished accordingly. Justice will be served, and it won't be pretty.
For centuries, audiences have been captivated by tales of ironic punishment. Possibly the most well-known is that journey to the very bowels of hell: Dante's Inferno. In the second circle of Hell, those guilty of Lust are whipped about in a ceaseless, hail-laced whirlwind, representative of how these "carnal malefactors" were blown about aimlessly by their appetites. In the seventh circle of Hell, those who were violent toward others are immersed in a lake of boiling blood. In the eighth circle, there's a section devoted to sorcerers, astrologers, and false prophets, wherein their heads are twisted backwards on their body. These souls are now doomed for all eternity to look backward and stumble forward blindly, in perfect punishment for their attempts at future-telling.
Looking for a catchy word to sum up this rather heavy-handed device? Well, we've already got one! Contrapasso, from the Latin contra and patior, meaning to "suffer the opposite", describes punishment via a process that closely resembles, or is directly opposite to the sin itself. Dante seems to have taken this to heart, as contrapasso is clearly a guiding principal in his imaginings of Hell. For example, in one of the Bolgia of the eighth circle, Dante meets Bertran de Born, who has now been decapitated- a contrapasso for his involvement in the rebellion against King Henry II of England. He attempted to undermine the 'head of state', so guess what happened to his own head....
|Them's the breaks.|
Now, all this talk of sins has probably got you thinking about one of the best contrapasso-based movies of all time: Se7en. A film where Gluttony is forced to eat himself to death and Vanity has her face mutilated would certainly make Dante proud. I'm not going to review Se7en here, but do want to mention it as a star in this thematic constellation. Not just because it brought contrapasso roaring back into the American' consciousness, but because the Saw series is heavily influenced by Se7en, even unto details like scene framing and cinematography techniques.
Contrapasso, however, is not always as elegant as it is in Se7en. How do you punish someone who, say, poisons neighborhood dogs? I would safely say poisoning dogs for fun is pretty evil, but how does one make a device (figurative or, as Jigsaw likes it, literal) to punish such a person? Have a dog poison them? How would that even work? I suppose you could have him torn apart by drugged up dogs, but that doesn't seem to fit. The best I can think of is a device that measures the saliva a dog produces, and inserts an equal quantity of poison into the person's veins. As you can see, sometimes contrapasso has to get pretty unfocused and weird to work for every scenario. Sadly, this diffusion plagues the later Saw movies.
Saw - the creation of a monster
With a budget of $1 million, this debut by director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, is at heart more a mystery-thriller than torture-porn.
It begins with two men chained to opposite corners of a huge, crumbling bathroom. In the center of the floor is a dead body, an apparent suicide. As they investigate the room around them, they discover micro-cassette tapes that instruct them on their individual missions. Adam, a photographer, must use the hacksaw to cut off his foot and escape. Dr. Gordon, an oncologist, must kill Adam by 6 o'clock, or he, his wife and child will all be killed. At this point, Dr. Gordon announces that they've been captured by the Jigsaw killer.
Turns out the Jigsaw killer has a habit of kidnapping people and placing them in contrapasso traps, each with a possible escape. Only one person made it out: Amanda Young. Detectives on the trail of the Jigsaw killer accosted Dr. Gordon, one in particular (Tapp) believing Dr. Gordon to be the killer himself.
As the movie unfolds, Adam and Gordon recount the moments before their kidnapping, and we follow the detectives as they track Jigsaw. Gordon's family is held hostage, and as the plot-lines mingle and converge, it rises to a climax of Dr. Gordon making good on that saw. With minutes left, he hacks off his foot, and shoots Adam, then struggles to the door to make his escape and save his family. A few moments afterward, the hostage-taker arrives to kill Gordon, but is attacked and killed by Adam (with the toilet tank cover, in the dirty bathroom).
Upon searching the body, Adam discovers another tape, which shows the hostage-taker to only be a pawn in the game. This is when the body in the middle of the room gets up, and John Kramer, the real Jigsaw, is revealed. He walks out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind him, dooming Adam to death. Fin.
Jigsaw is a blunt but apropos thing to name a killer in a movie so twisty-turny. It's a cliche that a movie "keeps the audience guessing", but I think Saw actually accomplished this in its day. It's clear that a part of Saw's success was the twist-ending and accompanying montage. Unlike the Sixth Sense whose twist montage consisted of "See! Proof!" segments, the montage in Saw feels like snapping down that last piece in a puzzle, and the full image finally clicking into focus. Two things make this work. First, Saw kept enough secrets and its pace so rapid, that the audience didn't have time to linger on theories. Secondly, the movie has enough characters and story strings that it's difficult to even begin formulating coherent theories when you're simply trying to keep up with events. It's this controlled release of information that makes the ending surprising and not janky. Sadly, this buck stopped here, and despite the best efforts of six more movies, none of them had an ending that didn't seem pathetically contrived.
Another sad thing is how dated Saw appears. The grimy green aesthetic makes it look like they snuck onto a CSI set for any scene shot outside the bathroom. The torture scenes, in particular, suffer from the super-sped-up thrashing technique. I remember the first time I saw this technique in Jacob's Ladder and it Freaked Me Out. But since then, it's been used as a short-cut to terror so frequently that it's lost its kinetic energy. Sorta the same way that ghosts who tilt their head to the right aren't as scary anymore.
The other major flaw of Saw is its ham-handed script. Not the story, not the acting. But purely the script: the words that have to come out of the actors mouths. Now, I don't mean to rake Whannell over the coals for the cracks in his debut, however, I think this is a point worth making clear. A lot of people panned Saw because of 'bad-acting'. I don't think this is fair. Honestly, I felt like the actors were doing the best with what they had to say. There's only so much you can do with dialogue that belongs in a mid-century short story magazine. Laughably mechanical transitions, melodrama, and TELLING THE AUDIENCE THE OBVIOUS THING JUST TO MAKE IT CLEAR, are all faults that can be fixed with experience. So, just when you're laughing at how dumb Cary Elwes' Dr. Gordon seems, just remember, he's doing the best he can.
However, despite these flaws in aesthetic and wording, I thought that Saw actually stands up well as a really entertaining movie. It's got all the yummy tropes that I love seeing in horror/thrillers. Danny Glover's Tapp character goes crazy, so of course he makes The Crazy Wall full of notes and photos lined with string. Characters are kidnapped by the shadowy, cloaked figure with a pig-face. Of course, the piece de resistance is how Jigsaw uses a creepy ventriloquist dummy on a tricycle to recite instructions to his victims. It took me right back to second grade, reading Goosebumps.
|So doll. Much spoopy.|
Saw II through Saw 3D: All those other ones
It is disappointing how these all split into two sections where the original film blended them nicely. The sections being: people being tortured, and what's going on with Jigsaw's personal life. In the original Saw, the people being tortured were intimately intertwined with Jigsaw. Dr. Gordon was his oncologist who delivered the news that Kramer only had a short time to live. This diagnosis, in turn, was the impetus for Kramer to start his second career as Jigsaw. Adam was a photographer who helped Jigsaw stalk his victims. The brief section of torture scenes were included to set the stage for what kind of madman Jigsaw is. In all the other movies, though, there's a gulf between torture victims and Jigsaw, The Man Himself. Since this is how the Saw franchise is inflicted on its audience, so too shall I inflict my summaries upon you.
Saw II - the one in a house
|Waaaah. Why did I put both hands in?|
In Jigsaw's personal life: His secret lair has been found by a real asshole of a detective named Matthews (played by Donnie Wahlberg). Jigsaw's lair is outfitted with an array of closed-circuit tvs, all showing what goes on in the ex-con house. Matthews sees his son, Daniel, and proceeds to interrogate Jigsaw in an attempt to locate the house and save his plot-device. By the end of the movie, Daniel is threatened by Xavier, and Matthews forces Jigsaw to take him to where the torture-drama is playing out.
Twists: Amanda was working with Jigsaw ALL ALONG. The footage on the cctvs had been taped days before. Daniel was sitting in a safe in Jigsaw's lair, ALL ALONG. When Matthews gets to the house he's attacked by Amanda wearing the pig-cultist garb and thrown in the bathroom where Adam died in Saw.
Summation: Speed as directed by Foucault.
Saw III - the one with the doctor
|Hippocratic oath, my ass...|
In Jigsaw news: Jigsaw is dying. Dr. Denlon has been kidnapped to care for him. Of course, she needs some incentivization, so Amanda wraps a collar around her neck which is connected to Jigsaw's heart monitor. If Jigsaw dies, or Dr. Denlon moves out of range, it will explode her head. Unfortunately, Dr. Denlon doesn't want to participate, and even when she does, Jigsaw's lair is woefully under-supplied (and Amanda is quite the inept nurse).
Twists: The tortured man is actually Dr. Denlon's husband!!! Amanda gets very upset and shoots Dr. Denlon, just in time for Jeff to shoot Amanda in return. Jeff says he forgives Jigsaw and summarily bone-saws through his throat. Dr. Denlon's collar goes off, the doors lock, and Jeff is trapped in a room with 3 corpses.
Summation: More frustrating, pointless, and confusing than my Heidegger seminar.
Saw IV - the one with a black detective
|Sweet jacket, poor interior decorating.|
In torture headlines: Riggs, a detective featured briefly in previous movies, is led on a goosechase to teach him the true meaning of "saving a life". Riggs is put in room after room with "foul, irredeemable" criminals, and compelled to do nothing, letting their own contrapassos play out. This is a heavy-handed attempt at evangelism by Jigsaw, trying to get Riggs to see that the Saw method of rehabilitation is truly the only way to save a life. Bummer that a bunch of these people die anyways.
In Jigsaw news: Jill, Jigsaw's ex-wife, is brought in for questioning. During the interview, she reveals the long, tear-jerking backstory of John Kramer. Years ago, John was a civil engineer heavily involved in property development (makes sense of why he knows about ALL the abandoned buildings), and Jill had been pregnant, working at a clinic for drug addicts. One night the clinic is robbed by an addict, who in the process bashed a door handle against Jill's pregnant stomach, causing a miscarriage. That addict turned out to be Jigsaw's first victim.
Twists: This whole movie takes place AT THE SAME TIME as Saw III. Riggs bursts into the room with Jeff and the 3 corpses. I flipped the table and officially cast a pox upon this franchise.
Summation: Libertarianism 101 as written by people who hate Libertarians and spend too much time on Facebook.
Saw V - the one with a new Amanda
|It's my head in a box!|
In tortured souls: Five people who are known for their ruthlessness awake in a room with collars around their necks. They're implored to do the opposite of their instincts and work together instead of looking out for numero uno. Each room is on a timer, and when the timer expires, a nail-based IED will kill anyone left within. One by one, the people are killed, as it is slowly revealed they were all involved in a dirty real estate deal. They burned down a building full of squatters to make room for a fancy new development. By the last room, there are only two people left, and they realize all of the traps could have been escaped with a healthy dose of teamwork. Wah- wamp.
Meanwhile, back at the Jigsaw: A detective with a natural pout named Hoffman rescues the daughter of the Denlons. He's hailed as a hero, until one other, other survivor is found: Strahm, the guy with his head in a box. Strahm is suspicious of Hoffman, and with good reason. Turns out Hoffman has somehow also been Jigsaw's apprentice ALL ALONG? In one of the most epic semi-ret-cons and undercuttings in film history, Amanda is thrown under the bus and characterized as a mere nursemaid and floundering secretary while Hoffman gets all kinds of pouty, black glove, Man-work done. Strahm digs around and finds out that Hoffman is the new Amanda. Strahm is then tricked into a trash-compactor where he chooses not to lie down in a coffin full of glass. Hoffman duck-faces as the glass coffin lowers him to safety.
|And you thought I was joking. Quack.|
Twists: Shoulda laid in that glass coffin, yo.
Summation: What did any of this have to do with anything? Who are all these people? I need to make a Crazy Wall.
Saw VI - the one about healthcare
|I don't need insurance, I'm only sixteeeeeeeeen!|
No, really, I swear there was a point this: More people investigate Hoffman. Jill, Jigsaw's ex, gives him five envelopes of people Jigsaw wanted Hoffman to kill. It is revealed through a flashback that the health insurance guy denied Jigsaw coverage for an experimental Norwegian cancer treatment. At the end, Jill puts a reverse bear-trap device on Hoffman's head but he escapes it because he's sooooo much cooler than Amanda, you guys. No seriously, we need you to love him. Our self-esteem depends on it.
Twists: Jill is apparently the new-new-Amanda. You spent 90 minutes watching this thing.
Summation: Seriously, nobody cares about Hoffman. Where is Amanda? I miss her.
Saw 3D - the one where Cary Elwes comes back
|In a three-piece suit, no less.|
Torture IN 3D!: A self-help guru who claims to have escaped a Jigsaw device is on a book tour. Unfortunately, he's a bit of a liar. After going to a support group for Jigsaw survivors [Sidenote: I have to respect this because it really lampshades how many Saw movies there are, and how high the body-count is.], the guru is kidnapped and put through a series of tests. He has to save the team of publicists, lawyers, et. al. that helped him get famous on his pretense that makes a mockery of Jigsaw's life's work (snort). At the end, he has to save his wife.
Jigsaw IN 3D!: Jill turns herself in to the police for protection from Hoffman. Hoffman kills a bunch of people to get to her and eventually does. He kills HER via reverse bear trap this time, then sets his lair on fire, considering his work to be complete. As he leaves, three goons wearing pig-cultist garb attack him and leave him for dead in the original bathroom.
Twists: One of the goons is Dr. Gordon! HE WAS WORKING WITH JIGSAW ALL ALONG!!!! He's the new-new-new-Amanda.
Summation: Where is all the Saw/Princess Bride cross-over fanfic?!?!
So there you have it folks. A super tl;dr post that hopefully contains enough humor to make the topic of all seven Saw movies palatable. At this point, I think you owe me a cupcake. I am so done.
OR AM I?
*Cue Hello Zepp music*