Thursday 12 February 2009

Watching "Saw"

As I finally arrived at the end of the fifth part, somehow, the relief overpowered this odd feeling of emptiness. Somehow, I managed to get through the past five years without seeing any of the oh-so-successful torture movies that ran in the "horror"-genre, but seriously transcended any convention this category might have had when people like John Carpenter or Wes Craven were playing on that particular field. If anything, what kind of horror movies were made in a particular decade of filmmaking always leads to conclusions about the state of the society producing and consuming them. In my early teenage years, horror movies were very much like any other teen movie: gossipy, self-referential, deeply tied to the general buzz of pop culture. "Scream", or the less well made "I Know What You Did Last Summer" for me, were anything but terrifying. There were rules to the game and the final girl always came back for the sequel. There was a certain amount of bloodshed but when "Final Destination" came along with its smart death sequences, that was as far as you could go in turning the actual act of killing into a work of art.
"Saw" is a different story. I find it hart to talk about it without declaring some kind of "post"-era. Saw is post-irony, post-self-referentiality. When I decided to watch these movies, I knew that they were not meant to be watched alone and then intellectually analyzed: it's not the point. They provide the kind of entertainment that drives groups of teenage boys and emotionally tough girls into the movies in groups to eat popcorn and occasionally scream out "eeew, gross" while giggling or, alternatively for the boys, afterwards discussing the precise details of every death.
The deal is always the same: there is the bad guy, who has come to the essential conclusion that because he is dying of cancer, he needs to show to those who don't live their lives to their full potential how much life is worth. And to drive this point home, he captures them in really awful situation where they either have to endure a lot of pain or act against all moral barriers and hurt somebody else in order to survive. Sometimes they have to be willing to sacrifice body parts, other time, they have to kill somebody else in order to survive. When the series starts, only one person has made it. The final girl in the case of the "Saw"-movies is Amanda (played by Shawnee Smith, who does an exceptional job in my opinion, especially if you've seen her as Linda in "Becker" before) - a former drug addict who, when surviving what Jigsaw does to her, sees the deep logic in his thinking and becomes his willing left hand.
The problem about the "Saw" movies - they lead into each other. These aren't just sequels: each new part tries to become another piece of the puzzle that promises to be finished at some point. Part of this is achieved by usually giving the viewer no real indication of time and place, and thusly leaving him completely disoriented. Time plays an essential role: there is always a ticking clock.
I guess what I never expected when I decided to watch the series was that it would actually be so smart with composition. The first part starts out with a similar premise as the genius "Cube" (a 1997 Vincenzo Natali movie with the same "homo homini lupus" topos) - two men wake up in a small room and one of them is told that he has to kill the other if he wants to survive (with the necessary tools hidden in the room), the other that he needs to survive. If it wasn't for the big, complicated mess the whole story turns into in the second part, it would be incredibly smart, and it is actually executed well too.
The problem about "Saw" is the flawed morals behind it. It is a psychopathic rendition of the yearbook into which all of your friends have written "carpe diem" as their life motto. And if you don't, I'll bloody well force you to. Since Jigsaw is the only constant (until the fourth part at least), and since he always controls what is happening perfectly well, with the same apparantly super-human logic and intelligence, his perspective is the closest thing the viewer has as a guide to this twisted world. Amanda, who admires him, is the best proof for this: as she points out, Jigsaw never lies. There is never any double play in his rules. When you follow the rules, you live. In that sense, Jigsaw must be regarded as reliable and possibly even fair, since the only reason why the people in his traps end up killing themselves is because, according to his logic, they did not try hard enough to survive and therefore don't deserve to. This is a new level of psychopath - the kind that is allowed to prevail and can never be defeated because his message bears such an intricate logic that it is carried on even when the guy himself is dead (like in "V for Vendetta" - ideas are bulletproof).
Consequently his favourite victims are, if he isn't putting criminals to what he perceives as justice, the very police officers that hunt him down. Since he is the type of mass murderer people become obsessed with, he always finds reasons to make the officers fit his scheme (remember Dexter and his strict moral code about who deserves to become his victim... this is even more twisted than that). Obviously, they are throwing their lives away on their obsession with him, and therefore need to be reminded that they have to cherish it. Naturally, they don't survive that little lesson.
What has become on of those often-repeated rules about horror movies is that whatever isn't seen is usually more horrifying than what actually does happen, graphically and in detail, on screen. In the case of "Saw", this rule is just brutally discarded as nonsense. When killing and blood and violence is pure aesthetic joy and an art without anything else but the picture to consider for Quentin Tarantino, it becomes the adoration of the logic of an actual machine, not a computer, but something mechanical in "Saw". you are supposed to hold these well-thought-out machines in awe, the creativity of the filmmaker put into the mind of the killer. Actually, what Heath Ledger's The Joker tried to prove in "The Dark Knight" (and failed to execute in the end) is the twisted and awful conclusion of "Saw" - that faced with the prospect of death, humans are much more willing to kill each other than to sacrifice something dear to themselves. The hard thing to accept about "Saw" though is that, despite the fact that these are not movies meant to be discussed, as said in the first paragraph, they should be, because the horror doesn't lie in the blood and gore, but in the way the killing is justified by such a twisted theory that is allowed to succeed, again and again, in the series.

"Saw", 2004, Director: James Wan, with Leigh Whanell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Mike Butters, Michael Emerson, Shawnee Smith, Monica Potter.

"Saw II", 2005, Director: Darren Lynn Bousman, with Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Erik Knudsen, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Beverley Mitchell, Dina Meyer.

"Saw III", 2006, Director: Darren Lynn Bousman, with Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer, Mpho Koaho, Barry Flatman, Lyriq Bent.

"Saw IV", 2007, Director: Darren Lynn Bousman, with Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis.

"Saw V", 2008, Director: David Hackl, with Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good, Greg Bryck, Laura Gordon.


Occupied Funk... said...

I haven't seen any of the series but I'll be checking it out based on your review

flame gun for the cute ones said...

I'm not sure if I want to recommend the series though - I was interested in the morals or constructed ideology of it, and the movies are painful to watch - but totally worth discussing.