Saw (2004) [2004 Week]

Saw (2004)
Starring Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell
Director of Photography: David A. Armstrong
Music by Charlie Clouser
Edited by Kevin Greutert
Written by Leigh Whannell
Directed by James Wan
Rating: 5 out of 10

Saw is a movie that started another horror franchise that, in the spirit of these things, simply repeated the most basic concept over and over again. Looking at the original movie, you can only barely see the appeal of continuing it, which mostly comes from the fact that not much is explained in the end and that there is one central element that producers thought was worth repeating, which, again, as in other franchises, is mostly creative ways of killing victims. That’s what drove other series, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination or Friday the 13th. The movie itself is nothing really special, it’s not well-made, its plot and structure is a mess and the acting is serviceable at best. Its central story, two guys trapped in a room, trying to find out what’s going on, is effective, but once the flashbacks starts and the connections are overflowing the movie loses a lot of momentum.  There are some nice moments, but overall I wasn’t really interested in watching more of these movies, let alone six more of them.

In the first of two movies this week, I will ask the question of why we want to see what they are showing. Saw has been in discussions of torture porn since it came out and as I understand it, the sequels feature much more gore and sadism than the first one does. Director James Wan has said that he doesn’t consider the first movie torture porn and screenwriter Leigh Whannell doesn’t care. The term itself is irrelevant I think, but the question remains what exactly the audience is supposed to consider “entertaining” about the movie? The basic premise makes sense, we have two people being trapped and you identify with them and want them to find a way out. As you find out more and more about them, you might like them less, but you still don’t really want them to suffer more than necessary.

But that is one of the conceits of horror movies, they make people suffer and we watch it to feel better about not suffering ourselves. It takes away the terror of our everyday lives for a while and makes them seem less scary. I accept that and I’m a really big fan of horror movies. What I don’t like, though, is sadism. And when I see that someone has to climb through barbwire fence or walk over broken glass and risking to set himself aflame or someone having two drills attached to his head or, in the movie’s iconic poster image, seeing Shawnee Smith playing a woman with an absurdly elaborate contraption on her head that will rip her jaw apart if she doesn’t kill her cellmate and retrieves the key from his stomach. Writing it down like this makes it sounds like ideas teenagers find funny and doodle in their notebooks while being bored at school.

What is the point of these exercises? Unlike the two men in the room from the main story of the movie, these others are characterless victims and the only pleasure we could possibly get in seeing them caught in these horrible situations is to enjoy the pain they go through. Their traps are set up in a way that no matter if they win or lose, they will have to suffer some pain, no matter if they live or die. And no matter what Wan and Whannell say, they can’t deny that we are supposed to feel glee when things go wrong and people are burning, cut into pieces or drilled through their heads. What else is the point?

“Wait”, you’re saying, “aren’t you a big fan of Se7en and isn’t the premise of that movie exactly the same?” There are similarities, yes, but there are major differences that change everything. In Se7en, we don’t see the deaths of the victims, so there is no way to enjoy it. The killer has a plan that, as crazy as it is, seems almost reasonable, while the killer’s motive in Saw is incredibly stupid (“I send you through hell, so you enjoy life more than you did before.”). Se7en doesn’t need the contrivance of silly names like “Jigsaw” or creepy dolls that have no connection to anything else in the movie or the complex killing machines that go beyond any logical reasoning for their existence. And Se7en confronts us with difficult moral choices that makes us question some assumptions we have about our lives. Saw ends with a twist ending that gives us nothing, no logic, no coherence, no satisfaction. Both movies show a world of dread and darkness, but only one of them has something profound to say.

This looks creepy and makes no sense whatsoever.

This looks creepy and makes no sense whatsoever.