I Saw Saw

One intrepid writer watches the six Saw movies one after the other, so that you won’t have to

by James Robinson

There’s a conversation I keep having with a friend of mine about the marketing of modern cinema. You put the preview for a movie on television often enough, and you are bound to create an audience out of shallow curiosity. Sadly, art is a completely redundant concept. People just need to know something is there for it to be a commercially viable addition to the modern multiplex.

I sat through the grim reality of all six Saw movies consecutively. Standing in Amalgamated Video two weeks ago (the clerk did not bat an eyelid at my choice of movies, killing my hope for ironic banter to dumb down any potential judgement) I was taken with the notion that I was going to discover why these movies were popular. Or at least some pattern or reason within them as to what this popularity means. Instead, in the days that followed my mind circuited back constantly to the above point.

The low budgets give these movies the appearance of something cheap and made for TV. The plots have all of the melodrama of camp pornography, and soon run in a similar fashion – with plot exposition only filling the screen till we can have our next burst of sadistic violence. There are no good characters of any note, no clever writing ; the movies aren’t dangerous; the violence has no subtlety and does no damage. It has the same effect as watching someone throw up : unpleasant and stomach weakening at worst, but hardly traumatic. The franchise’s attempts at moralising to explain the actions of the dastardly Jigsaw are not persuasive.

From no imaginable angle are these movies entertaining. The two facts that seem pertinent about closer readings of their success are as follows: the movies were all made for less than 11 million dollars, and they come out reliably on, or around, Halloween. Case closed.

The following is a transcript of my notes from the experience.

Saw I (12.30pm-2.13pm)

With a dead body laying between them, two men wake up in the secure lair of a serial killer who’s been nicknamed “Jigsaw” by the police because of his unusual calling card.

12.40pm: The premise is a good one. It is dark, if unoriginal.

12.50pm: The doctor looks at the saw, looks at his ankle, and back again before declaring that “We’re not supposed to cut through the chains.” The dialogue is leaden.

1.15pm: 45 minutes in and we have the first slightly terrifying moment – “Jigsaw” holding the stethoscope to the chests of the doctor’s family with a gun at their head. There is a sort of cruel, humored sadism to it that is fun.

1.20pm: Like all good horror villains Jigsaw can easily withstand a blow from a shotgun to the chest.

1.25pm: I am probably more amused than I should be by Danny Glover flailing around with his throat cut.

1.35pm: The action in the bathroom is watchable, but the back-story is dull and they lever in a lot of it for a 90-minute movie. Jigsaw’s back-story, and general aesthetic, is aiming for ghoulish but comes across as cheap. The detective component is immediately stuck in sub-CSI cliché.

1.50pm: Finally we get some plot exposition on the actual story we started in on. The fact is, we’ve spent too much time away from the abandoned bathroom, so it means a lot less, and feels like a lot less of a reward.

1.55pm: If you have till 6pm to kill a strange guy you’re locked in a bathroom with and crawl to safety or your family dies, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be able to be surprised when it is 6pm all of a sudden.

1.57pm: Watching the doctor saw off his ankle is unpleasant, but the low budget means it isn’t shown in great detail.

1.58pm: Cary Elwes is a horrible actor, and this is hilariously apparent when trying to act out “Guy with no ankle crawling to safety”.

2.06pm: One down! Saw makes a simple narrative error. It takes a core premise with more than an iota of interest in it, but then chooses to stuff in back story rather than exploit the tension from the dynamic right in front of us. It is also a really cheap looking film, with some horrible performances. Which bodes badly, because it is the only film with actors good enough to put names on the front of the box.

Saw II (2.20pm-3.50pm)

Jigsaw locks a few unlucky people in a booby trapped shelter and they must find a way out before they inhale too much of a lethal nerve gas and die. But they must watch out, for the traps Jigsaw has set in the shelter lead to death also.

2.20pm: I’m intrigued as to where it all goes from here. Movie one passed by quickly and didn’t set the bar very high. Movie two has Donnie Wahlberg

2.25pm: We open with a key in the eyeball and an exploding facemask. I feel uncomfortable for the first time.

2.28pm: An informant is killed – with more peculiar moralising from Jigsaw. Informants are scum worthy of Jigsaw’s “games” – not career criminals who have decided to do some good and assist in the prosecution of fellow criminals.

2.30pm: Donnie Wahlberg is on the trail of Jigsaw, alongside the unnamed girl cop from first film. They have a rapport that feels like the first real human interchange in the series yet.

2.35pm: Donnie Wahlberg is a bad Dad, as was Cary Ewles from the first movie.

2.40pm: The cops get to Jigsaw. Why they don’t immediately arrest Jigsaw confounds me. Surely they can interrogate him from jail, even if he does have Donnie Wahlberg’s son hostage?

2.50pm: The nurse in the new game is defending Jigsaw – “he’s helping us”; she played a nervy drug addict in the first film, the only survivor of Jigsaw’s games.

2.51pm: There are no even entertainingly cheesy moments in this.

2.55pm: The black guy (so hastily and loosely drawn from stock character stereotypes are our six contestants in Jigsaw’s trap, I can hardly remember their names three seconds after they move offscreen) references jail: “Guards don’t give you a way out, they trap you”. Is this a sly nod from the writers to the fact that Jigsaw’s moralizing is no good?

3pm: This isn’t scary.

3.10pm: We get Jigsaw’s motive from his own mouth. He helps make people feel alive, and he sees that they have something missing, We live in a world where Darwin’s theory of evolution no longer applies, so he reapplies an edge.

3.18pm: Watching a junkie hunt for an antidote in a pit full of needles is gross. It is the most unsettling scene of the movie. But it is just unsettling, not scary.

3.21pm: The house is rigged like crazy. How could this be done on the sly?

3.35pm: Wahlberg beats the bejeezus out of Jigsaw, right in front of the other cops. Breaks his finger. It is very unrealistic police work.

3.40pm: Wahlberg goes rogue, taking Jigsaw to the crime scene, and immediately lets Jigsaw out of his sight.

3.44pm: Wahlberg’s son was in the room with the cops the whole time, and now he has fallen into a trap, the original target all along. The junkie has become Jigsaw’s new apprentice and is set to continue the business when he dies.

3.46pm: Number two actually ties up into a neater, more succinct film. But the violence is a large step up, and step down for the franchise. There is little meat on these bones even to mock. We’re thrown cheap tropes, cheap sets, and a cheap film. There is no laughable pretension in the cinematography. I wish I had more jokes.

Saw III – (4pm-5.40pm)

Jigsaw kidnaps a doctor to keep him alive while he watches his new apprentice put an unlucky citizen through a brutal test.

4.08pm: Movie three has started off horrifically. Donnie Wahlberg bludgeons his own foot off, snapping his ankle.

4.10pm: A man had to rip himself free before the bomb went off, but the door was welded shut. The game is rigged!

4.12pm: The lady cop has been captured and killed horrifically, with her ribcage ripped out.

4.15pm: 15 minutes in, and movie three is brutal and industrial. Far more gore, and flash cuts.

4.21pm: The violence breaks for some plot exposition, a doctor with personal problems (her sin is antidepressant use) has to keep Jigsaw alive for 24 hours. Our second contestant is an angry father (third straight bad father protagonist) who has to face the people who helped free the man who killed his son in car accident.

4.27pm: Jigsaw’s lair has a peculiar amount of mannequins in it

4.41pm: Jigsaw is really sick, but the troubled doctor doesn’t know if she can save him. It is like a Grey’s Anatomy episode directed by Rob Zombie

5.05pm: The angry dad has the option to kill his son’s case judge, and for the life of me I cannot decide whether Jigsaw wants him to kill these people? The judge is dosed repeatedly in pig guts. It is both pointless and stomach turning.

5.10pm: Troubled doctor operates on Jigsaw, and the camera revels in the gore of the amateur surgery. It is a recklessly bloody scene, with no context apart from putting the watcher on edge.

5.12pm: We have our first scene of the film set in daylight!

5.40pm: Three down! The last 28 minutes of the movie were a convoluted, melodramatic mess. Jigsaw’s protégé fails her own test, for being too brutal. No one has a chance to win her games – making her more of a “murderer” than Jigsaw, who perceives himself to be more of a benevolent sadist. The film keeps coming back to this point, and repetition makes it no less laughable. The distinction of why Jigsaw is different, and why or what we’re supposed to feel towards him is never really set up. Both Troubled Doctor and Angry Dad die, and the twist is they’re married. Jigsaw dies. Protégé dies. Movie three is 20 minutes longer than the other one, extraordinarily more gruesome, convoluted and melodramatic. This is the first movie of the series that I can safely say really, really sucks.

Saw IV (6.30pm-8pm)

Jigsaw and his apprentice Amanda are dead. Two seasoned FBI profilers arrive in the terrified community to assist the veteran Detective Hoffman in sifting through Jigsaw’s latest grisly remains and piecing together the puzzle.

6.30pm: I found myself a bit depressed after the last film’s embrace of awfulness. . I’ve had a break. I have dinner in front of me. I’m refreshed. I have turned the lights on.

6.35pm: The opening scene is a brutal autopsy. Shown in extreme detail with close ups. It is a stomach curdling passage, with no purpose again but to unsettle. I feel a bit cross.

6.38pm: Having Jigsaw’s voice come out from a tape hidden in his stomach is a novel way to bring him back from the dead.

6.41pm: The crux of movie four is appearing that maybe there was a third accomplice… it is tiresome.

6.51pm: The aggro black cop (Detective Rigg) with about three minutes of screen time in the first three films has been elevated to main character – and we’re supposed to care deeply for him. He has a softer side! He is a neglectful husband and father! The Saw franchise likes violently dispensing with neglecting parents.

6.54pm: Detective Rigg’s abduction gives me my first genuine jolt in four movies. He has to try and save Donnie Wahlberg (alive!) and some other bit part cop.

6.56pm: Rigg is being framed as the other accomplice, and goes on the lam. Like a lot of badly put together fugitive films, there’s not a lot of good reason as to why he is running.

7pm: FBI agents take Jigsaw’s ex-wife into custody. She’s well put together. Flashbacks bring Jigsaw back in to the action.

7.10pm: Jigsaw’s wife miscarried when a junkie broke into the ‘wellness’ clinic they ran. Jigsaw left her. The parallels being made between social welfare and Jigsaw’s work are clichéd and really in your face. “They have to help themselves…”

7.15pm: The movies are getting more melodramatic – B-movie plots on top of increasing violence.

7.30pm: As part of Rigg’s game with Jigsaw (or faux-Jigsaw?) he lets a paedophile die, and saves his wife. This is justice, Jigsaw style.

7.40pm: Flashbacks show us that Jigsaw himself was a neglectful husband! I’m not sure I understand Jigsaw any better, even with the overblown origin story.

7.55pm: Depressingly, Rigg got shot, Donnie Wahlberg gets his head smashed by two huge blocks of ice. No one wins, and the other cop held hostage with them (Hoffman, by the way) is the villain. Not for the first time my reaction is “We’re supposed to care?” Yet another two-bit character is elevated to the front of the story.

8pm: Four down! I’m actually completely confused. Apparently this all took place before the first scene of the movie, which took place right after the last movie ended – so films three and four actually run concurrently.

I actually have no new criticisms of this – movie four did develop a good pace, but it still sucks. When the best thing you can say about a movie is that you feel like it went by quickly, you’re in trouble.

Saw V – (8.20pm-9.50pm)

Following Jigsaw’s grisly demise, Mark Hoffman, the final apprentice to the serial killer is deigned a hero. Meanwhile, Agent Strahm is tested and follows all the leads he can get until it boils down to a gruesome and bone-crushing finale.

8.20pm: With the two original villains dead, and the fourth movie heavy on flashbacks, where can we go? I’m in a surprisingly good frame of mind. I was nervous that this was going to get the best of me, but it is probably a bit of an indictment on the series so far that I am not close to unsettled. Numb to extreme violence? Yes.

8.26pm: True evidence that Saw is entirely about the violence, not the plot. A man (murderer who was released on a technicality) chooses to have his hands crushed in order to escape being sliced in half by a pendulum. But it slices him in half regardless. It would be more interesting if it didn’t – but it is further proof that we’re looking at murder, not moralism.

8.40pm: Strahm is investigating Hoffman, it is a cop against cop cliché – but its an entertaining enough one.

8.46pm: Within half an hour we’ve had neck braces rigged to razors rigged to keys, timers rigged to nail bombs, and a girl getting rather comically beheaded.

8.56pm: The new game is survival of the fittest – kill or be killed. Only one from six can live. It is entertaining. Five movies in, and you realise that you should appreciate the good times.

9.06pm: Another flashback heavy film. We get the Jigsaw/Hoffman origin story, Hoffman was a copycat for vengeance, Jigsaw is annoyed – he doesn’t “murder” anyone, okay? We learn that Jigsaw thinks that subjects who survive his method are instantly rehabilitated. How? Everyone dies anyway. Do these films actually think that Jigsaw is a good guy? He’s a pretty weak antihero.

9.22pm: As soon as anyone acknowledges the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept in the game they die. One would think in a battle royale stand off where people die one by one that that was the point?

9.28pm: Hoffman is framing Strahm. I’m losing interest in this – but miraculously this movie did hold my attention for a whole forty minutes.

9.32pm: The game was set up so they were all supposed to work together! Not kill each other. These psychopaths are actually benevolent life coaches!

9.50pm: Five down! It is the classic scenario here that afflicts a lot of poor films, where any sort of weak tension is lost upon plot resolution. I’m going to declare this film the best so far. A slightly less ridiculous plot, but a story that you can involve yourself in if you turn off just the right amount of your brain.

Saw VI (10pm-11.30pm)

Special Agent Strahm is dead, and Detective Hoffman has emerged as the unchallenged successor to Jigsaw’s legacy. However, when the FBI draws closer to Hoffman, he is forced to set a game into motion, and Jigsaw’s grand scheme is finally understood.

10.11pm: The opening victims/meat/offerings or however you want to label these two-dimensional bit players wheeled across our screen in order to have horrific violence visited upon them are predatory lenders.

10.25pm: The action then moves to a health insurance company! This movie is very 2009.

10.40pm: Truth be told, I’m having a very hard time paying attention to this. I struggle to stop myself from checking my email.

10.50pm: Is my final response to the Saw franchise going to not be disdain, or repulsion, but complete and utter indifference?

10.55pm: I’m fighting sleep. This movie is boring. Hoffman kills the cops who work out he’s the bad guy. Jigsaw’s ex is in the mix.

11.10pm: There are a heap of traps in play. More badly drawn characters. A spinning, blinking carousel may be my favourite of the series so far.

11.20pm: This film is big on getting the characters to choose whether another character lives or dies. It is very 2009.

11.29pm: Six down! I’m done. Jigsaw’s ex tries to kill Hoffman. He escapes. Messes his face up.

I stand up, walk away from the screen. I make myself a cup of tea. Watch the new episode of Outrageous Fortune.

I fall asleep thinking about cricket.

Saw has recently been declared the highest grossing horror franchise of all time. Saw VII: 3D will be released on October 29, 2010.