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Our retrospective of horror's longest-running cinematic soap opera begins here.
I want to play a game: In anticipation of the September 29 release date of Saw X, I’m going to take a look back at all nine previous entries in the divisive slasher franchise. Each movie isn’t gonna get its own individual essay - I’ll be grouping them together in ways that hopefully make sense - but today I’m starting with the 2004 original, which DOES get its own post. My characteristically-neurotic thoughts about the movie are below. Read or die: Make your choice…
There was a time when I absolutely loathed the Saw series. The slasher franchises of my formative years - your Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets and Child’s Plays and what have you - were frequently stupid, but they were also often very funny. If you saw them at the right theater at the right time (for example, Times Square at 11:30 p.m. opening night), it was like going to a concert - the crowd would hoot and holler and yell at the screen (which is obviously not ideal if you’re watching, say, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but really enhances the experience if you’re watching, say, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland). But the Saw movies felt stupid and humorless, not to mention drab. They seemed like a horrible bastardization of something else I loved, the same way I got annoyed if I told people I liked metal and they assumed that meant bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn (perhaps not coincidentally, four of the ten Saw movies were directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who cut his teeth making music videos for nu-metal bands like Static-X and Mudvayne).
But the years have softened me considerably on the Saws, which have become one of the more interesting horror franchises in the genre’s history. Not because the movies are good - most of them are, objectively speaking, pretty bad - but because of what they actually are: The longest running soap opera in the history of cinematic horror.
The slasher franchises of yesteryear had what I would call a “loose continuity.” New entries frequently picked up where the previous movie left off so as to explain how the killer managed to come back to life yet again… although sometimes they didn’t even do that, and the killer was just back now regardless of how the last flick ended. Certain superficial details sometimes also carried over - for example, in one of the Friday the 13th movies, Jason Voorhees gets a machete to the head, chopping through a piece of his legendary hockey mask, and then, for the next few films, that piece of the mask remained damaged.
But characters didn’t recur far more frequently than they did - and even if one or more characters ported over from one film to the next, the actual stories weren’t serialized, which made it pretty easy to hop on board regardless of the Roman numeral at the end of the movie’s title. They were much more similar in that sense to the vintage James Bond movies than to the Star Wars or Marvel movies - if you haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when in subsequent entries Bond briefly visits his dead wife’s grave (For Your Eyes Only) or someone makes some vague allusion to him being a widower (License to Kill), you might not know what they’re talking about, but it won’t be central to the plot so you don’t feel like you’ve actually missed anything important.
The continuity for the Saw films, on the other hand, is not loose at all. New movies don’t simply reference or pick up from the ending points of previous movies - they often take place in-between or during the events of other chapters. And for the first seven entries at least - what I would call Saw’s original, “classic” era - there was a set of central characters who did keep coming back from movie to movie. No, the movies aren’t rocket science; if, for some reason, you want to start with Saw IV despite having not seen Saws I-III, you will be able to catch up reasonably quickly… but you won’t really get the full impact of everything that’s going on, same as watching Avengers: Infinity War without having seen the previous twenty Marvel pictures is bound to be a less-satisfying experience. As I said: The Saw franchise is a soap opera.
Furthermore, the Saw franchise is a soap opera in which the overarching protagonists are, in fact, the killers (not for nothing was Christophuh on The Sopranos a fan of these movies). One thing the people who make the Saw films understand for sure: The “bad guys” are who the audience actually came to see. Freddy, Jason, Chucky - they’re the stars of their movies. The poor schmucks trying to outrun them? Who gives a shit about those dimwits?
The original Saw was directed by James Wan and written by Wan and Leigh Whannell, each of whom have since made much better movies, both together (Insidious, directed by Wan from Whannell’s script) and apart (Wan made The Conjuring and Malignant with other writers; Whannell wrote and directed 2018’s Upgrade and 2020’s Invisible Man, which are both excellent). And while Wan in particular has subsequently helmed some really big budget movies, like Aquaman and Furious 7, Saw was made for just a million dollars (most of which I assume I went to stars Danny Glover and Cary Elwes). It’s an extended version of a short film Wan and Whannell had previously made, which is basically the reverse-bear trap sequence that was so central to the marketing of the eventual feature-length iteration, only with Whannell in the role eventually played by Shawnee Smith.
I know a lot of people believe that original Saw is the best one in the series, but those people are out of their goddamn minds. At their most insane, these lunatics will compare Saw to David Fincher’s Se7en, which, as far as I’m concerned, ought to be grounds for their families to have them involuntarily committed. Se7en is a legitimate masterpiece. Every frame is a meticulous painting. Andrew Kevin Walker’s air-tight screenplay is next-level both in terms of its laser focus on the integration of thematics and the manner with which it struggles with complex moral issues in an entertaining way that doesn’t feel pedantic. The acting is terrific. And despite what some people think, there’s actually not a ton of onscreen violence - most of it is suggested, which I believe is even worse, because nothing real will ever be as fucked up as whatever your brain conjures in the imagination (see also: Ridley Scott’s Alien).
Saw, on the other hand, is schlock. There’s a ton of explicit gore. It looks even cheaper than it cost (again, I assume most of the budget was spent on the cast), and Wan’s visual style is needlessly and irritatingly corybantic. There is very little correlation between the story thematics and the traps (later entries actually correct this to varying degrees). And while some members of the cast are normally quite talented, no one gives a good performance here. Whannell is particularly lousy…
…but I have simply never been able to watch Cary Elwes the same away again since seeing this moment in a movie theater almost twenty years ago:
That these two seconds of one scene did not ruin the careers of everyone involved in their creation is some kind of miracle.
The score, by former Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Charlie Clouser, is by far the best thing about the movie, and even that’s not-especially awesome until the final moments of the film, when Clouser’s now-iconic theme is used for the first time.
Candidly, I think this is 99% of why the first Saw was successful - everyone walked out of the theater talking about the big twist in the finale, which is pretty dumb and really only plays because of Clouser’s music and the fact that it contains Wan’s one really good visual choice.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Saw has an intriguing setup right out of one of those old Two-Minute Mysteries books: A pair of strangers wake up in a windowless, dingy bathroom, each chained to opposite walls, a dead body lying in a pool of its own blood on the ground between them. One of the men is told his family is being held hostage, and will be murdered if he doesn’t kill the other man - but their restraints won’t allow them to reach one another. How did they get here… and how will they get out?
The men - a photographer named Adam (Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) - quickly realize they’re the latest victims of Jigsaw, a serial killer plaguing their unidentified city. Jigsaw’s whole deal is, he abducts people he feels don’t appreciate their life, and makes them play “games” (they’re really just traps) that are supposed to teach them not to take their blessings for granted. The ‘Jigsaw’ moniker comes about because he cuts a small puzzle-piece-shaped chunk of flesh from the ones that don’t survive, which he asserts in Saw II is “meant to be a symbol that that subject was missing something, a vital piece of the human puzzle: the survival instinct.”
Wan and Whannell also use the nickname as an excuse to tell their story out of chronological order, which ended up being both a hallmark of the series (in fact, Saw X is really Saw 1½, as it takes place in-between Saw and Saw II) and key reason the story has grown into Days of Our Lives with viscera: They keep doubling back to give us “new” information about old scenes (they frequently do that moronic thing where the creators try to make it seem as though some character we’ve never met before was standing just off-screen in previous episodes - see also Lost, Rise of Skywalker, Spectre, Scream 3, etc.). The logic of everything becomes increasingly convoluted and implausible to such a degree that you have to laugh.
But none of that is what really makes the first Saw so silly, because no one knew when they made Saw that there would be a Saw II, let alone a Saw X. Original flavor Saw is nonsensical for reasons all its own.
One of the movie’s biggest issues is that the traps rarely reflect Jigsaw’s stated motive. One dude, having survived a suicide attempt, is made to find a path through a maze of barbed wire; another guy, whose “crime” seems to be faking illness to get out of work (and maybe collect disabilities? They don’t specify!), is smothered with a flammable gel and tasked with using a candle to decipher a specific combination; Amanda (Smith), a drug addict, has to retrieve a key by cutting open the stomach of a still-living, but otherwise immobilized and mute, second victim.
Of these three “tests,” only Amanda’s really has anything to do with the “player” proving their will to live, and even then, it’s not entirely clear how murdering an innocent enemy incapable of fighting back demonstrates one’s Darwinian superiority (in the movie, of course, it works - after surviving, Amanda gives up drugs, and she goes on to be a major character in future films). But the guy who bleeds to death before he can escape his maze? The man who accidentally lights himself on fire while desperately searching for that code? How did their games have anything to do with appreciating their lives? They didn’t have a hard decision to make - they just had to try and not be killed by an environment designed to kill them, and their failure was all but completely inevitable. All of Jigsaw’s instructional tapes end with him saying “Live or die, make your choice,” but there’s generally no actual choice to be made.
Even more aggravating, though, is just how stupid everyone is… especially Jigsaw, because the other characters are constantly talking about how he’s an evil genius, when he’s more like a malevolent toddler. For example: One of his clues for Dr. Lawrence, delivered via mini-cassette, is to “follow your heart” - but he says it in an extremely faint whisper at the end of a longer message of normal volume. Adam, understandably, doesn’t even notice it, as most people wouldn’t. So I guess Jigsaw didn’t think it was that important for Dr. Lawrence to hear? Or perhaps he just felt as though he had to do something to make things tricky, because right next to Adam is a toilet with a heart painted on the tank, so when they do hear the “follow your heart” bit, it’s ridiculously easy for them to decipher.
In other words, the riddles in Saw aren’t clever in the slightest. Consequently, it’s not exciting or impressive when the victims figure out what they mean - you don’t get the jolt of joy that comes from watching a detective who’s smarter than you are. Saw is, truly, like an unsophisticated child trying, and failing, to imitate a movie they saw once about a brilliant serial killer.
As for the movie’s final big twist - that the “dead body” laying on the floor between Gordon and Adam is not actually dead but is actually Jigsaw - well, frankly, it’s predictable if you adhere to the Law of Extraneous Information. There’s no reason for that dead body to be in the room if it’s not going to somehow play a key part in the plot. They provide a fake plotting reason for the body to be present earlier in the story, during which its implied that the corpse’s blood has poison in it, and Gordon is encouraged to dip a cigarette in the blood and then get Adam to smoke it (this is, again, a less-than-brilliant plan on Jigsaw’s part, because the odds of Gordon being able to dip the cigarette in blood surreptitiously are low, and the odds of Adam then sticking a blood-soaked cigarette in his mouth without question are really low). But that’s a LONG path to take in order to justify the body’s inclusion. And after the blood gambit inevitably fails, the viewer should feel really suspicious of the cadaver’s placement, because now the movie still has to justify the body’s existence. It’s Chekov’s corpse.
It’s a little harder to figure out that the “dead body” is John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a patient of Gordon’s we encounter briefly during one of the expository flashbacks… but not much. You have Gordon, an oncologist, being semi-cavalier about a patient with an inoperable tumor, and then this orderly, Zepp (Michael Emerson, a few years before he got Lost), comes in and scolds Gordon for being too-detached, and the movie so obviously wants you to THINK the orderly is Jigsaw that you know he isn’t, and now you’re wondering why they called any attention to the dying guy in the bed, and that’s when you realize, “Oh, he must be the dead body in the yucky bathroom of doom.”
There are also other, more subtle clues that Kramer is Jigsaw, like the fact that he’s seen laying in the hospital drawing the goddamn reverse bear trap right in front of everyone.
That the last scene of the movie still connects with people regardless of this idiocy is, I reiterate, a testament to Charlie Clouser’s music. But the sequence also has one really good shot, where the camera slowly moves around Adam as he’s putting the final pieces of the puzzle together, and then the “dead body” slowly stands up behind him. These two elements give the moment the feel of a great surprise ending (its construction strongly suggests that Wan, Whannell, Clouser, and editor/future director of multiple Saws Kevin Greutert spent a lot of time studying the final sequence from The Usual Suspects). But it’s not actually a great surprise ending.
Now, having said all of that negative stuff about the Saw that started it all, I do have a caveat: Some, if not all, of these seeming missteps may have been deliberate.
In 2021, Wan made Malignant, a movie which also totally preposterous. Except the thing about Malignant is, while it’s a “horror movie,” it’s really a comedy, and when viewed through that lens, it is arguably the best thing Wan has ever made. It has perhaps the single best plot twist in the history of cinema, because it is abso-fucking-lutely LUDICROUS - and Wan is clearly in on the joke. The whole movie is an homage to giallo films, a very particular, hyper-stylized form of mystery-slasher movie (think Hitchcock’s Psycho on psychedelics) that was predominantly made by Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento (Deep Red), Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace), and Lucio Fulci (Don't Torture a Duckling), but did attract the occasional American as well (Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Irving Kirshner’s Eyes of Laura Mars, and Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice all come to mind, but even the original Halloween owes a debt to giallo, especially with regards to its first-person prologue). Wan loves these movies, but he also recognizes how nutty they are, so he just kinda goes for it and turns the volume up to eleven. He’s making what might be an adolescent’s ultimate fantasy for that film’s genre; it’s an operatic homage to an already-histrionic storytelling style.
This has made me ponder to what degree, if any, Wan’s other films are also deliberately campy - and I earnestly can’t quite tell. In some cases, like the aforementioned Aquaman and Furious 7, I think they certainly are, but I don’t get the sense that he ever intended his possession/haunted house franchise kick-offs, Insidious and The Conjuring, to be funny. And I really go back and forth on whether or not he made Saw with a Malignant-level of self-awareness.
(I also happen to think that screenwriter Akela Cooper had as much to do with Malignant’s genius as Wan did; she also wrote the Wan-produced M3GAN, which is similar in tone.)
The other thing is, even if I find Malignant to be highly amusing, I’m not sure it’s meaningful. Some directors riff on other movies in ways that are clearly deconstructionist and/or subversive (once again, De Palma comes to mind, as does Quentin Tarantino). The changes they institute don’t just make the movie all the more engrossing - they’re thematically consequential. But with Malignant, Aquaman, Furious 7, and possibly Saw, Wan isn’t really deconstructing anything so much as he’s just pushing every trope to its most illogical conclusion. I don’t get the sense that Wan is particularly mean-spirited, but if you told me he thinks all movies are ultimately brainless, I’d believe it. “These are not serious stories,” he seems to be saying, “so we will not take them even the least bit seriously.”
Even if this is the case, and we assume that Saw’s shortcomings are actually part of Wan’s vision, I think it’s pretty weak… because it’s not outrageous ENOUGH. There’s no drumming octopus, no sentient tumor chopping off one person’s arm and using it to viciously beat someone else; the violence is gross, but not Looney Tunes-level fantastical. In other words, even if it’s deliberate camp, it’s not campy enough.
Fortunately, the producers of this franchise wound up with nine more chances to get things right.
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