For better or for worse, the 'Saw' series has been the dominant horror series of the past decade. The serial killer named Jigsaw and his attempts to make his victims appreciate life by forcing them to survive nasty traps and torture devices has become borderline iconic. It's impact can be measured in its influence, on the sheer number of rip-offs it inspired and the debate over the merit of "torture porn' it started. This series has greeted Halloween moviegoers on a yearly basis for seven years now and like it or not, audiences have embraced this low-budget, schlocky series more known for it's sequences of brutal torture and bloodshed than its characters or story.
But reputation is one thing. What exactly are the 'Saw' films? Are they worthless trash? Are they fun little horror romps? Are they dangerous? Are they stupid? Are they worthwhile in the slightest? I had seen a few of the films, but I had seen them out of order and instantly forgotten them. With the newest (and supposedly final) entry in the series, 'Saw 3D,' on the horizon, it was time for me to take a new look at the 'Saw' series, to pass ultimate judgment on them.
It was time for me to watch all of the 'Saw' films in one sitting.
When I sat down to watch all six films, I thought hard (for about 15 seconds) about what the series was known for, eventually isolating three key elements that I would track during my journey: body count (how many victims per film and how they meet their demise), traps (some of the more interesting, disgusting or unique torture devices employed during the film) and continuity (keeping tabs on the series' infamously convoluted overarching mythology). This way, I could see how the films escalate and change, becoming bloody or less bloody, more complicated or less complicated.
Oh, and for your viewing pleasure, a nearby camera took a picture every few minutes, capturing my marathon for posterity (and for you to point and laugh). And here we go.
Body Count: 6 -- One barbed wire entanglement, one burning to death on pile of broken glass and one death from digestive track invasion. Miles from 'Lost' meets a tripwire ceiling shotgun, Benjamin Linus from 'Lost' gets his head smashed in with a toilet seat and Danny Glover, not from 'Lost,' dies from a serious case of the grizzleds...he also got shot.
The Traps: Compared to the traps in the later films, the nasty torture devices here are downright quaint. You've got your two guys chained in a bathroom with de-limbing hacksaws available, you've got the infamous "reverse bear trap" that almost turns Shawnee Smith's skull inside out, a naked man in a room full of razor wire...you know, the works. It's sick, but it's sick on a reasonable budget. An inventive man with a credit card and time to kill could set up the traps in this film with the help of his local Home Depot.
Obsessive Continuity: We meet Dr. Gordon and Adam, chained in the bathroom by Jigsaw. We meet Amanda, a survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps. We meet Kerry, the lovable lady cop. We first see Jigsaw's puppet mascot and workshop filled with all sorts of deadly gizmos. Jigsaw is revealed to be a dying cancer patient, trying to force ungrateful people into appreciating life by making them fight for it. Gordon crawls away minus one foot and vanishes. The "dead" body on the ground rises, revealing himself to be Jigsaw. Then he locks Adam in the bathroom.
Thoughts: 'Saw' was a Sundance film. Let's say that again, all together, just so we can see how far things have come (or how far they've fallen): 'Saw' was a Sundance film, a low-budget indie horror movie that fared pretty well with critics and became one of the Cinderella stories of the festival when Lionsgate bought it and primed it for a major release. It's almost unfair to look at the first 'Saw' in the context of the series it spawned because it's almost quaint in comparison.
The film's scale is small and you can see its tiny budget around the edges. Most of the film takes place in a disgusting, abandoned bathroom, where Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell) find themselves chained to pipes with only a couple of hacksaws and a dead body for company. Realizing that they're victims of the "Jigsaw killer," they struggle to make sense of their situation and escape. Meanwhile, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) goes rogue and attempts to track down the killer himself. This two-pronged story, one following victims of Jigsaw and one following the cops on his tail, will form the template for the entire series.
With no budget to spare on anything too elaborate, 'Saw' is a movie about people in a horrifying situation, attempting to rationalize what's happening to them and grapple with distrust and overcome fear. It's raw and it's human. Jigsaw's motive is to force people to fight for their lives, to shed their own blood, so they can realize that life is actually worth living. The best scene in the film involves the interrogation of Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who barely managed to survive one of the killer's traps. Formerly a suicidal drug user, she's realized the worth of her existence and repented. It's a thoughtful concept executed in the most brutal of ways.
Granted, this does not mean 'Saw' is a great movie, because it's not. For all of its good intentions, the dialogue is poor and the acting (even from professionals like Glover and Elwes) is worse. Not helping matters are the music video flourishes and Avid tricks employed to make scenes more "intense." Look, a woman being trapped in a device that will rip her face open unless she digs a key out of a living man's stomach is intense enough, I don't need the image to shake and warble while the camera spins around the room twenty times, 'kay? 'Saw' is a slight film, a decent horror movie that's a more-than-solid first effort. The fact that they manged to build a franchise out of it boggles my mind.
Body Count: 9 -- Having a portable iron maiden strapped to your face is not a good thing. Two cops climb an electrified staircase. A gun behind a peephole takes out an unlucky peeper. A man learns that crawling into an oven in a 'Saw' movie will usually result in that oven turning on. A homemade mace meets the back of a head. Lady just can't handle her toxic nerve gas. Getting your arms stuck in a blade-lined armhole is not a good life plan. One throat cutting...you know, for good measure.
The Traps: With a bigger budget come bigger traps! The traps are still on the realistic side though, with the nastiness feeling somewhat plausible, although certainly stretched. This time, instead of a series of individual incidents, Jigsaw has rigged himself a dilapidated old house, filled it with toxic gas and trapped some folks in there so they can stumble from room to room, dying as they go. A pit filled with used syringes is particularly nasty and the rigged revolver behind the peephole is a pretty great "Oh my God" moment in a film filled with lousy "Oh my God" moments. For pure Ick Factor, though, nothing quite tops the opening scene, which features a man digging into his own eye to find the surgically hidden key that will unlock the device around his neck.
Obsessive Continuity: Donnie Wahlberg takes the "obsessed cop" role now that Danny Glover has been dead-ed. Kerry returns to hang out on the crime scene. SWAT officer Rigg shows up and does little. Amanda finds herself, once again, in one of Jigsaw's traps. It is revealed that Jigsaw was the patient of (the mysteriously absent) Dr. Gordon. The bathroom from the first 'Saw' is under the house where 'Saw 2' takes place, complete with a dead Adam and a severed Dr. Gordon foot. It turns out that Amanda has been working with Jigsaw as his secret apprentice and she locks Donnie Wahlberg in the bathroom! Oh no!
Thoughts: 'Saw's low budget was a double edged sword, making the film often feel cheap but also contributing to the disgusting, grungy aesthetic. 'Saw II,' on the other hand, feels like a real studio film, polished and clean in its nastiness. Whereas the first film felt like it was taking place in real found locations, the sequel's "Bigger is Better!" attitude compromises the rawness that made the first film work in the first place. Granted, 'Saw II' is still a low-budget production by blockbuster standards, but you can feel more hands at work, more voices competing. It lacks the personal touch of its predecessor.
In most regards, 'Saw II' is not a particularly good film. Like the first film, much of the acting and dialogue is wooden and the stylistic flourishes remain as obnoxious and unnecessary as ever (and they remain so throughout the entire series). Like all of the films in this series from here on out, the entire film, from the script to the filming to the editing, was thrown together in a year to meet a release date and the result is sloppy storytelling and weak characters. Still, credit is due to new director Darren Lynn Bousman, who keeps the pace so frantic that the film goes down easy enough. Even though 'Saw II' is never scary and rarely suspenseful, it's also never a chore to watch.
Not that 'Saw II' has nothing going for it. On the contrary, it improves on the first film in key way: its villain. In 'Saw' the identity of Jigsaw was a mystery with the revelation saved for the final moments of the film, meaning that our antagonist was a cipher for much of the running time. In 'Saw II,' we're with Jigsaw from the opening scenes and Tobin Bell takes what should be a third rate villain and elevates him with intelligence and a bizarre sense of dignity. Having trapped a group of people in a booby trapped house, he spends much of the film being interrogated by Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). Cool, calm and always the smartest guy in the room, Bell elevates dull dialogue with subtle menace, more than earning his place as figurehead of this franchise (although he'll spend most of it dead).
I think it says a lot about 'Saw II' that I can talk a great deal about Tobin Bell's performance and really don't feel the need to expound on the various traps and torture sequences. Yes, 'Saw II' is gross and filled with all sorts of nasty violence, but it pales next to a single cold glare from the man who made the traps. The other half of the film, following victims as they attempt to escape from the trap-filled house, is filled with walking cliches, a group of characters who exist just so they can die horribly.
The film ends with a cliffhanger and four or five plot twists, setting up a sequel while rewriting the film we just watched. From this point on, the 'Saw' series starts to develop its mythology, a borderline insane continuity that the series will struggle to maintain at all times. Most horror series disregard the previous entry the moment the new film starts. In this way, the 'Saw' series is a unique beast, a horror franchise that refuses to leave anything to question, even if it's not a question that needs to be answered.
Body Count: 9 -- The only thing worse than having chains hooked through your body is the nail bombs that kill you after you rip a few out. Lovely Carrie survives two 'Saw' movies, only to get de-ribcaged. An unfortunate woman learns what a popsicle feels like. Arms, legs and head get the 'ol twist around.. One smothering, one stray bullet in the head, one vengeance bullet in Amanda's stomach, one non-lethal bullet to the torso followed by a serious case of the head explosions for the lovely doctor. Oh, and Jigsaw gets his throat cut with a power saw. End of the series, right? Right?
The Traps: Okay, now we're getting a little silly. You're telling me that a dying cancer patient, aided by his slightly crazy sidekick, managed to design and build a hydraulic vest that screws into a victim's chest and can spring open when necessary? You're telling me that this sick guy, on his deathbed for the entirety of the film, managed to build a giant cross-thing that twists a victim's appendages right off? You're telling me that he rigged a conveyor system that drops dozens of rotting pig carcasses into a series of blades that liquify them and slowly drown a man strapped down at the bottom of a pit? I mean, c'mon...where did he even get the pigs? How do you go about buying that many pigs? Did he buy the pigs rotten or did he buy them and wait for them to rot? And where do you find the real estate to house all of this nasty business? There must be ten square blocks of nasty happening in this labyrinth of torture. Why doesn't anybody hear anything? Why?! How?!
Obsessive Continuity: Donnie Wahlberg is still missing following the events of 'Saw 2.' We meet Agent Hoffman, who has a scene or two. Kerry returns, only to get killed by a trap rigged by Amanda, who spends most of the film taking care of the ailing John, AKA, Jigsaw. Dr. Gordon remains mysteriously absent, but gets namedropped. Jigsaw has visions of a mysterious blonde woman. We flashback to events that take place during the first 'Saw' and see Jigsaw training Amanda how to be a socially conscious serial killer, including a scene where he gives her a pep talk before letting her capture Adam for the bathroom trap. We also see the two of them meticulously prepare for the events of the first film, including seeing Jigsaw getting his make-up ready for his stint as a fake dead body on the bathroom floor. Also, Adam's fate is finally revealed as Amanda kills him between the events of 'Saw' and 'Saw II.' Amanda finds a letter that upsets her. We see Jigsaw coat a small cassette tape in wax. Amanda and Jigsaw both get killed by Jeff, who has managed to escape from Jigsaw's obstacle course of death. It is revealed that his daughter is trapped somewhere in the building. Dun, dun, DUN! Donnie Wahlberg remains missing.
Thoughts: Oh, Jigsaw. Engineer. Architect. Builder. Electronics expert. Surgeon. Private investigator. Sound editor. Armorer. Puppeteer. Serial killer. A jack of all trades, a true renaissance man. If he wasn't so preoccupied with forcing people into horrible situations so they can learn valuable life lessons, he'd be saving the world. He'd build the perfect electric car. He'd cure his own cancer. This is some next level Da Vinci sh*t.
'Saw III' is where the 'Saw' series officially goes off the rails and embraces the wacky, soap operatic weirdness that was hinted at in part two. This is a loud, bloody, completely implausible and very, very silly movie that's probably twenty minutes too long. It's a total mess in its attempts to define who its characters are and it often seems to completely contradict the thematic elements established in the first film. 'Saw III,' like most of the films in the series, is not a good movie when taken on its own, but when placed in the context of an ongoing story, it's too bizarre to ignore and too kooky to die. The tether connecting the 'Saw' franchise to any semblance of reality, frayed during 'Saw II,' have been completely cut, allowing the 'Saw' series to become what it was born to be: 'Days of Our Lives' for gorehounds.
Just two films ago, we were watching a simple procedural about a serial killer with a unique, vicious modus operandi. Now, we're watching a movie about a dying, socially conscious psychopath and his unhinged, ex-druggie personal assistant kidnapping a doctor and putting her in a collar lined with shotgun shells to force her to perform do-it-yourself brain surgery on the ailing serial killer while another man is forced to wander through a very expensive house of horrors where he can choose to save the men and women responsible for his son's death or watch them slowly die, all so he can learn a valuable lesson about forgiveness.
This is just as ridiculous as it sounds, made all the more ridiculous because the film is played with a completely straight face, seemingly unaware of how preposterous and silly it really is. In fairness, a wink and nudge would have made this movie unbearable. This is a completely honest movie, seemingly convinced it's making a grand point and delivering on a true dramatic level. The total lack of self awareness propels 'Saw III' into the B-movie stratosphere. This is a bad movie, folks, but it's a bad movie of epic proportions, elevated by another top-notch Tobin Bell performance and a graphic brain surgery sequence that may the most memorable moment in the entire series.
And come on...how can you not admire a series that kills off its lead character in part three and still manages to bring him back in a major capacity in ever subsequent movie without making him a zombie? The audacity! The nerve The cojones! The total lack of self respect as storytellers! Amazing.
I know this isn't a good movie. It's just a big 'ol mess and I'm sure that if I had paid to watch it, by itself, in a movie theater, I probably would have stomped into the parking lot complaining about how I just wasted $10. However, taken in the context of series, seen as a radical evolution over the course of three films, 'Saw III' somehow manages to be kinda' sorta' almost but not quite a real fun time.
(Will the series get better or worse? Will I survive the marathon? What emotions can you pick up from the time lapse video below? Boredom? Anger? Sadness? A brand new emotion that you can only experience by watching all of the 'Saw' films in a row? Keep your eyes open, part two of the marathon in right around the corner!)
The 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Series (Part One, Part Two)