Say Anything: The Unsinkable SAW Franchise
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 24, 2008
I want to write a blog entry…
Ah yes, two weeks ago it still felt like summer, and now it’s suddenly once again time for Halloween. While the rest of us are out carving ironic slogans into our jack-o-lanterns, assembling our Ministry and Bauhaus-laden holiday playlists and attempting to come up with as blissfully esoteric a costume as humanly possible (don’t bother, by the way, a friend of mine once went as The Bees That Killed Macaulay Culkin in My Girl, which will never by topped by me, you or anyone else), the powers that be are ensuring that for the fifth time in five years, the latest Saw flick will be raking it in at the theaters. By the time our kids are grown up, concepts like trick-or-treating, haunted houses and uh, getting killed by Michael Myers will all be antiquated notions–the only scares (or candy, for that matter) they will be getting will be courtesy of Billy and Jigsaw.
The brand loyalty and dedication here is what I find so remarkable. Sure, the concept of multiple horror sequels in the same franchise is nothing even close to new–there are probably enough Halloweens, Friday the 13ths and Nightmare on Elm Streets to occupy AMC’s entire October viewing schedule, after all. But in this day and age, when Event movies seem to necessitate six months of hype in between their trailers leaking to the internet and their actual release dates, the fact that these movies not only come out as regularly as they do, but are as consistently successful as they are….It’s something, all right, especially considering that none of the filmmakers or cast from the first time around are still in the picture (except , of course, franchise cornerstone Tobin Bell, who will once again be starring in this year’s Saw, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure his character has died at least twice already).
It’s remarkable, but I guess it’s not all that surprising. Saw has become nothing less than the ideal horror franchise of the early 21st century, a nearly self-perpetuating series that can formulaically crank out profitable movies at limited expense without leaving their constituents feel cheated. Like all the eternal horror franchises, Saw wisely bases its central premise around a concept, not a set of characters (which, for instance, is why the Scream series could barely stretch into a trilogy–by the end, no one really gave a fuck whether Courtney Cox and David Arquette lived to see a IV). Actors aren’t important to it, nor are directors or screenwriters, or even special effects. All that really matters is how unexpected and ironic the torture/escape sequences are.
Torture Porn,” the sobriquet that Saw, Hostel and their ilk have assumed, is a fairly appropriate moniker, but more for structural reasons than for visceral ones. The torture/escape sequences are laid around Saw like sex scenes in a skin flick, with just the necessary dialogue and character development to give context. Most decent horror franchises are like this to an extent, but most of them also have a central victim protagonist of some sort to provide some sort of stability, which Saw certainly does not. Jigsaw, played by the always supremely creepy Bell (his white-haired company villain in The Firm bumped up the movie at least a half-grade), is the Freddie/Jason/Myers-like antagonistic anchor to the franchise, but even he feels slightly expendable–what his character represents as a plot function is far more important than the character itself, or the actor who plays him.
This also brings me to one of the things that I initially found the most confusing about the Saw series–there is absolutely no one to sympathize with. None of the victims are ever particularly likeable, and while the movies often ask the audience to at least see Jigsaw’s mechanizings from his point of view (he redeems Amanda’s soul, he often claims to “have never killed anyone,” he punishes people that often deserve punishment of some sort), his dealings are so egregiously sadistic that even the idiots who look up to Tony Montana for having a “moral code” couldn’t possibly justify this asshole. The effect of having no one to root for in this movie is that people can either envision themselves in the struggles of these characters that are little more than placeholders at best, or they can simply root for Jigsaw’s contraptions to be as elaborate and gruesome as possible.
The other thing of these movies I find so confusing is how much I enjoy watching them. I got hooked watching the first movie on Sci-Fi tonight before Game 2 of the World Series, and as it progressed into the second movie, I kept finding myself flipping back to the movie in between pitches because I was so enraptured. Something about these movies is undeniably spellbinding–whether it’s the Fincher-like set grit and dim lighting, or the inevitable symmetry of the plots, or the fact that I can never remember which twists and Rube Goldberg devices belong to which entry in the franchise. They’re tired, they’re largely predictable, and they keep getting worse–but when they’re on, they’re almost always the most compelling thing on TV.
I don’t get it. But I’m downloading IV for the first time as we speak, just in case. I hear Luke from Gilmore Girls is in this one.