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John’s Horror Corner: Saw (2004), James Wan’s progenitor of modern torture porn is all about the characters!

September 16, 2017

MY CALL:  Although unrelentingly gruesome at times, its gore always finds integral purpose.  This film is more about its characters than its death, and never dares to revel in its brutality in lieu of story.  MORE MOVIES LIKE Saw:  Well there are six sequels and now part VIII, Jigsaw (2017). Cube (1997) and Se7en (1995) share some of the death trap and methodical villain themes, respectively.  Subsequent torture porn for gory thrill-seekers would include Hostel I-II (2005, 2007; but not part III), Martyrs (2008; not the remake), The Human Centipede films (2009, 2011, 2015), and the I Spit on Your Grave series (1978 original, 2010-2015).  For more fun and innovative kills I’d also recommend the Final Destination films (2000-2011; but skip part 4).

Director James Wan (The Conjuring 1-2, Insidious 1-2) and writer Leigh Whannell (Insidious 1-4, Saw II-III, Cooties) don’t like to play by the standard horror rules.  This pair leaves all the guilty tropes behind and I love them for it!

Wan spins atmosphere like orb-weavers spin webs; elegantly elaborate, yet walk into it and all you’ll find is panic!  From the very start, things look hopeless as we meet Doctor Gordon (Cary Elwes; The Bride, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) in a filthy bathroom of a clearly long-condemned building.  The walls are painted in feces, they’re chained to rusty pipes, and the corpse of an apparent suicide lays in its own blood with a tape player in one hand and a gun in the other.  Oh, right.  And they find tapes with ominous instructions regarding their fate.  How’s that for tone?

As these two quibble over who’s to blame for how they got there, flashbacks account detectives Tapp (Danny Glover; Predator 2), Sing (Ken Leung; Lost, Red Dragon) and Kerry (Dina Meyer; Bats, Saw II-IV, Piranha 3D) busy trying to solve the string of deaths linked to the terminally ill Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell; Boogeyman 2-3, Saw II-VII).  Elaborate, mechanized death traps lead to frantic self-mutilation sparing Jigsaw from ever having to perform murders himself.  Among his macabre masterpieces we discover tangled webs of razor wire and the iconic jaw-breaking reverse bear trap.

This film is unrelentingly gruesome at times, yet its gore always finds integral purpose.  People desperately plunge their hands in putrefied stool or bloody tangled intestines literally searching for freedom. They grovel as they realize the horrors they must perform to survive…like sawing off their own foot or killing a fellow victim of Jigsaw’s cruel game.

Despite the occasional brutality, this film is more about its characters than its death.  Our mastermind may kill most who befall his plans, but he wants those who actually live to appreciate their lives differently.  Amanda (Shawnee Smith; The Blob, Saw II-III/VI, The Grudge 3) is our lone survivor, and she gives a tremendous performance as a hysterical victim.  Between her, Zep (Michael Emerson; Lost), an obsessed detective and Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter; The Last House on the Left), we are up to our neck in red herrings that sort themselves out to our satisfaction.

This really set the stage for modern torture porn—although the script seems so thoughtful that the application of this subgenre feels on the verge of derogatory.  This film never dares to revel in its brutality in lieu of story. Cube (1997) and Se7en (1995) clearly colored Wan’s palate, but didn’t overly guide his brush strokes.  All resistance feels futile from the moment the set-ups are revealed, everyone dies, and evil wins with nary a silly nor ill-explained nor eye-rollingly ironic twist to be found.

Anyone who hasn’t yet seen this is in for a treat.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2017 8:12 am

    I do like the Saw films, especially the first few. The original Saw is a brilliant film, really gory, great plot, and characters!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      September 17, 2017 9:26 am

      It’s funny, with all the sequels getting more and more about showcasing the elaborate kill scenes I had forgotten how character-driven part 1 was. Really a great film–tactful.

      • September 17, 2017 2:09 pm

        Yes, I think that’s what makes the first film so engrossing. The characters are just as important as the gory kill-set-ups. Something which got sidelined more and more as the series progressed.

  2. September 17, 2017 11:16 pm

    I’d dig even deeper into film history and point to “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “And Then There Were None” (1945) as progenitors of the SAW franchise. Phibes even features a key embedded in a victim’s body that must be removed before acid pours down.

    The Saw sequels vary in quality and may be of questionable cultural value in many people’s perspectives, but I have to say they make for great binge watching. Lots of interesting continuity, call-backs, and seeds that bear ugly fruit later.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      September 18, 2017 10:08 am

      I recall enjoying the kill scenes but getting frustrated with the elaboration of plot in the sequels. It was like if you hadn’t just seen part V recently, then part VI’s story is lost on you.

      Now I’m watching 1-2 Saw movies per week until Jigsaw. I’m wondering how seeing them closer together (while everything is fresh in my mind) will affect my enjoyment of the sequels past/between the deaths. I mean, I love them either way, but I hope to enjoy their depth a bit more.

      BTW, never seen Phibes.

      • September 18, 2017 10:23 pm

        Sometimes I wonder where Jigsaw hid his $300M in funds and his team of engineers too. An offshore death-trap enterprise? Lol.

        Phibes is hard to describe. Sardonic, kitschy, surreal… a swirl of odd elements. Definitely fun to watch.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      September 19, 2017 7:40 am

      I could see him getting away with the events in part 1 on a lower-upper class budget of a former engineer…although he would have lost a lot of savings on medical expenses. He might have sold his home and bought a foreclosed warehouse. But once we get into part 2 he’s using nerve gas and a dozen computers (like an electronics command center)…I feel like that’s where financial disbelief must be thoroughly invoked. I wonder where/how he buys equipment….junk yards, fire sales?

Trackbacks

  1. John’s Horror Corner: Saw II (2005), more brutal, more death traps, more ominous tapes, more Jigsaw! | Movies, Films & Flix
  2. John’s Horror Corner INDEX: a list of all my horror reviews by movie release date | Movies, Films & Flix
  3. John’s Horror Corner: Saw III (2006), proving that torture porn sequels can have good writing AND loads of lingering, gross, chunky gore! | Movies, Films & Flix
  4. John’s Horror Corner: Saw IV (2007), very ambitious story with lackluster execution and so-so death traps—my least favorite of the franchise so far. | Movies, Films & Flix
  5. The Best Moments of one of the Worst Decades in Horror: looking back 20 years to 1997 | Movies, Films & Flix
  6. John’s Horror Corner: Saw V (2008), just okay—I miss Leigh Whannell and characters that matter. | Movies, Films & Flix
  7. John’s Horror Corner: Saw VI (2009), Jigsaw fights the insurance industry from the grave in this redeeming sequel! | Movies, Films & Flix
  8. John’s Horror Corner: Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010), bravo, Jigsaw! The game is won and your puzzle is complete! | Movies, Films & Flix

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