It could have been an exercise is grievous torture. In fact, I was counting on it. My idea was simple. Biff Bam Pop Art Director D. Borges had recently acquired all four films in the SAW franchise for dirt cheap. Surprisingly, neither one of us professed horror film fans had ever ventured to the theatre to see any of them. Now you may be saying, “Andy B, you’re a horror fan but you haven’t seen SAW? What’s the deal?”, to which I humbly respond with the following simple answer – I have no interest in the torture porn genre. Watching people get limbs hacked off and severed doesn’t really do it for me. That being said, there’s no denying that the SAW franchise is huge, and with a fifth film set for release October 24th I decided it was time to see what, if anything, I’d been missing.
So I proposed to D. Borges a SAW-A-THON</STRONG. Brave man that he is, he accepted. The goal was to watch all four films in sequential order on one particular Friday evening. However, it became apparent leading up to the event that because of my new work schedule watching 6 hours of film in the evening was going to be tough. So we agreed to watch the first film separately the night before SAW-A-THON so that we could get as close to finishing the series as possible.
Heading into the original film I had some rudimentary knowledge about the franchise. I knew that Cary Elwes and Danny Glover appeared in the first low, low budget film, and the main “villain” went under the name Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell. I knew there’d be some moments of hardcore violence and some dismemberment, but I had no idea about the twist ending. I won’t spoil it for you (in fact, I’m aiming for this piece to be as close to spoiler free as possible) but I didn’t see it coming, and even though there was some serious bad acting courtesy of screenwriter Leah Wannell, SAW left me at least curious to see where the franchise would go.
With sushi, Doritos, and Dr. Pepper serving as nourishment, D. Borges and I proceeded to make our way through 4.5 hours of the most popular horror franchise in the world. Things started off strong with SAW II, featuring once and future New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg as a tough-as-nails cop with a dirty secret that makes him Jigsaw’s latest target. The film utilizes the “strangers trapped in a mysterious house” tool of other horror films, but actually offers up some fairly cool twists. Throughout SAW II you get to know a little bit more about Jigsaw, who you’d consider a criminal mastermind, except for the fact that he isn’t a criminal per se. He’s more of an avenging angel or a harbinger of awareness. One of the common refrains from his character throughout the film is “I didn’t kill anybody”. There’s definite truth to that. In each film Jigsaw give his victims the chance to live, but only if they are willing to sacrifice some aspect of themselves. Normally it’s a limb.
One actor who appears in each SAW film is Shawnee Smith, who plays Amanda, one of the earliest of Jigsaw’s victims and the only one to in fact survive his tests. Midway through SAW III I turned to D. Borges and guiltily remarked “is it wrong that I find her attractive?” Throughout the first three films, Smith’s Amanda becomes a horror film icon, without the trappings that most female characters find themselves in. And really, who was the last horror film franchise female who really was appealing? Neve Campbell in Scream?? Forget that. While you can question her morality and her inability to digest what exactly Jigsaw’s point is, there is nothing stock about Shawnee Smith’s Amanda. And while she may start as a victim, by the end of the second film she becomes something much more.
Smith’s performance is one of the few things I actually enjoyed about the majority of SAW III. With the exception of Smith and Tobin Bell, any of the characters that manage to return from previous ones are quickly…disposed of, which I found was just too much of an easy out for the filmmakers. This is where I thought the franchise took a huge dip. It’s hard enough to get horror films viewers to really give a shit about characters outside of the villain himself. Why they were jettisoned so rapidly I just couldn’t figure out initially, especially when the new victims of SAW III are introduced, none of whom appears remotely appealing. Bahar Soomeh’s performance as Dr. Lynn Denlon is terribly wooden, and not for a moment do you believe that she could be a doctor, let alone a freakin brain surgeon. And while Angus Macfadyen’s performance as the vengeance seeking Jeff is fine enough, the horrible exposition the screenwriters use to introduce his character is more cringe inducing than any of the violence that occurs throughout SAW III. The film does manage to redeem itself at the end with another clever twist ending, paving the way for the fourth with the question “where do they go from here”.
By the time D. Borges and I got around to SAW IV it was late and we had to decide if we were going to press on or call it a night. But we wanted an answers and press on we did (it helped that the film was only 90 minutes long, or else I don’t know if we could have made it). It turned out to be right decision, as in my humble opinion SAW IV is one of the best of the bunch. Characters from previous films that had seemingly been forgotten about return, we get a huge amount of Jigsaw’s backstory , and the film ties random moments and characters all together in a way that almost necessitates watching all four in a marathon viewing just to catch everything.
By the time the final end credits rolled, I had realized something about the SAW films. Simply put, this isn’t simply a horror franchise. This is a crime franchise. While there are horrible moments and images within, there’s nothing supernatural at all about these movies. In many ways, this is a simple cops vs bad guys story. Sometimes intricate, sometimes infuriating; sometimes grotesque, sometimes inane. And while SAW has a villain, he doesn’t come across as a psychopath like Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter. The credit has to go to Tobin Bell, who is never once over the top in any of the films.
At the end of SAW IV I was left with a feeling of satisfaction. D. Borges and I had made it through our marathon and I had an appreciation for a series of films that are far from critic’s favourites. Some view the franchise as needlessly convoluted, but I think that’s bullshit. How many genre films are out there that lay on the bodycount and bare breasts because that’s what’s expected of them? The writers and producers of SAW are determined to create a mythos and have actually succeeded in doing so. How long it will last is the real question. The filmgoing crowd may be getting bored of the franchise, seeing as how SAW IV underperformed when it was in theatres in 2007. But there is still some juice left. SAW V is out October 24th, and the sixth is already written and in preproduction for a 2008 release.
I think I smell another marathon.