It’s crazy to think that the first Saw movie came out over a decade ago and I only saw it this week for the first time. In 2004, I was just starting to admit that I enjoyed horror movies, but I wasn’t quite ready to see something that seemed so gruesome and terrifying in the theater yet. Jeepers Creepers, 28 Days Later, and Signs had all left quite an impact upon my still-impressionable psyche.
After numerous sequels – including the recently announced Saw: Legacy, which will hit theaters in 2017 – I figured it was time for me to finally see what all the fuss was about.
The opening scene of the film, which takes place in the world’s grossest bathroom (Trainspotting’s toilet has got nothing on Saw’s shit-encrusted everything), immediately made me sick. There’s something to be said for the fear of filth and it looks as if Saw’s $1.2 million budget was spent entirely on making everything look as disgusting as possible.
Once we get into the reasons why Adam and Lawrence, two supposed strangers, are shackled to the wall in this nasty-ass room, Saw’s influences and impact upon other films quickly becomes apparent.
There’s a serial killer on the loose in Saw, although according to one of the cops, “technically speaking, he’s not really a murderer.” The killer, nicknamed Jigsaw, devises elaborate traps for his victims. He puts them in untenable situations where they ultimately commit a form of involuntary suicide, targeting his victims because he feels they don’t appreciate their lives. The death of Paul Leahy, the man who is forced to crawl through a room full of barbed wire, recalls Dario Argento’s Suspiria; unlike that film which created elaborate murder tableaux to transform death into art, Jigsaw’s concoction is a direct inversion of Leahy’s previous suicide attempt by straight razor. Because of this, David Fincher’s Seven and its epic, Biblically inspired murders seems to be an obvious influence on Saw.
Such intricate methods also seem to not only take a page from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter but to prefigure the murder tableaux of Bryan Fuller’s TV series incarnation of the character, as well as some of the other serial killers featured in the show. Consider Hannibal’s murder of the councilman who is responsible for a decision that endangered local birds in the show’s second season episode “Futamono”: Hannibal removes his organs and turns him into topiary full of poisonous flowers.
Saw’s Amanda Young, who is imprisoned in a device that works like a “reverse bear trap,” is targeted by Jigsaw because she’s a drug addict. She survives and eventually thanks Jigsaw for saving her, even though it meant she had to someone in order to remove the device’s key from his intestines. Visually and thematically, this scene feels like a direct influence on one of the characters in the 2008 New French Extremity film, Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier.
It’s not all contrived killings, though. Saw also plays upon basic fears – absent fathers, divorce, the bad man in the closet, home invasion – and brings them all to fruition. Even though the trope of the detective who loses his mind because of one unsolvable case is given a fresh twist by having the detective set his sights on the wrong man. In this case, Danny Glover’s David Tapp thinks the murderer is Lawrence but only because Jigsaw wants him to think this.
With all that said, Saw is certainly a frightening film. Even knowing the basic premise of the story and having had the final twist somewhat spoiled through years of parodies still makes for a terrifying, thrilling, and frequently gory ride. Perhaps it was too gory for some, as it seemed to kickstart the pejorative term “torture porn.”
What is “torture porn” anyway, and what makes it so different from any other horror film with gruesome practical or digital effects?
These films were named “Torture Porn” by critics, most notably by David Edelstein, the chief film critic for New York, who is thought to have coined the term. Films such as Misery and Silence of the Lambs involve imprisonment and torture, but they are seen as general Horror. This is because typical horror films deal with fear, whilst Splatter films and Torture Porn deal with physical harm and pain. They also lack any real moral compass, overlooking social and moral order in favour of style and gore. Torture Porn [sic] rarely have any real closure, or in other words, good never overcomes evil, even if they get revenge, the damage has been done, whether that be physical or mentally.
But who determines whether or not a film has a moral compass? And why should a film like Saw be subject to such derision when there are plenty of previous films that don’t have any “real closure”? The Descent, to my knowledge, isn’t considered “torture porn” despite its downbeat ending and copious amounts of blood, so this categorization seems unfair, just another way to ghettoize and diminish the horror genre.
Unlike many slashers, which film fans adore specifically because of the grisly murders of characters that are unlikable, Saw’s characters undergo transformations between the beginning of the film to the end, because of the awful circumstances they endure. Adam, for examples, transitions from a whiny, untrustworthy, unlikable guy into someone who literally got caught up in something much bigger than him.
Regardless of any classification under the torture porn subgenre, Saw is still a definitive moment in horror cinema, and definitely deserves its reputation as one of the most effective and ingenious horror films of the last few decades.