Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saw: A dissection

First off, I might as well confess right now that I'm giving up on this whole "blogging the month o' horror" thing. While I did entertain the idea of removing my previous "Month o' Horror" posts, I've decided to leave them as is, as a testament to my failure, and, perhaps, a reminder that I need to be more on the ball if I'm going to try doing this same sort of thing again.

Having abandond the strict "let's review each of the movies I've watched this month" structure of the "Month o' Horror" however has given me the freedom to do something a bit more vague, like write about a film franchise in general. Which is what I'm going to do right now.

The "Saw" franchise, specifically.

I think it's fair to say that there has not been a more successful horror film franchise to emerge in the 21st century. Sure, the "Hostel" films have their fans (and I'm among them). Rob Zombie built a mostly-successful mini-franchise with "House of 1,000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects" before switching focus and helming the "Halloween" remake. And, sure, some of the old classics are still breathing (barely) thanks to films like "Freddy vs. Jason."

But if there is one horror franchise that has grabbed the attention of audiences, and won their hearts, it's "Saw."

But the question is, why?

I'll admit it, I'm not a huge fan of the first film. For the most part it works as an interesting and engaging mystery and thriller. Why are these two people chained up in a grungy bathroom? Who put them there? For what purpose? The film captures your attention right out of the gate, and manages to find the right balance between handing out information and keeping shit secret to make you happily go along for the ride, waiting to find out what's around the next sudden curve.

Unfortunately, the twist ending comes across as a twist for the sake of a twist, and that's something I just can't support. The sudden, shocker, twist ending is the lazy device of a bad a writer. Just ask M. Night.

If all we had to judge "Saw" on was it's original incarnation, it wouldn't have likely made a significant dent in the history or horror. It would be looked back on as a mildly interesting thriller that happened to exist smack in the middle of what some call the "torture porn" phase of horror. And that would be that.

Of course the money-men at Lion's Gate Films weren't content to leave it at that after the original film's opening weekend drew in significantly more money than was spent in its creation. And thus, horror history was made.

What's interesting about the "Saw" franchise is that, unlike traditional horror franchises like "Friday the 13th" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" or even more current examples like "Hostel," the "Saw" movies have actually tried to make their sequels feel like extensions of the original story, instead of just a bunch of new people being killed in a bunch of new ways (although, admittedly, the "Saw" films are also guilty of this one).

Maybe I'm in the minority, but to me, it's the growth of the "Jigsaw" character in "Saw 2" that makes that an interesting film for me. And it's the continued story of that character in "Saw 3" that makes it a compelling film (because, judged just on the film alone, it's not quite as strong as the second, though still above the first -- in my own humble opinion, of course).

Of course there's still more the "Saw" franchise than just that. As much as I hate to admit it, there's an almost existential heart pulsing at its center.

Okay, so it's unlikely that the "Saw" franchise will ever face serious critical study as part of a university film program, but you have to admit that a serial killer who tracks down people who have squandered the gift of life and forces them to re-evaluate their own desire for life (or death) has a little bit more going on under the surface than your average slasher flick (not counting attempts to find threads of Freudian subtext in the Friday the 13th series).

I'm not sure it's possible to watch one of the "Saw" movies without thinking to yourself, What would I do in that situation?

And any film that makes you ask questions about your own life and your existence has to be doing something right. Even if it's doing it with some of the most brutal and disgusting images to have yet been capture on film.

Unfortunately, what was a near-perfect existential horror trilogy has been marred by studio greed. While "Saw IV" isn't a terrible film, it doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessors, and was clearly a film made for money's sake, and not because the filmmakers felt the genuine desire to follow the lives of the characters they had created in the previous films. As much as "Saw IV" tries to be a part of the franchise, tries to continue to job of fleshing out the character of Jigsaw, it ultimately comes across as a pale imitator of the previous films, and not quite worthy of their praise.

Hope for the franchise isn't completely dead, of course. Horror films like this never really die, and Saws V and VI are already planned. As a horror fan in general, and as a fan of the first three "Saw" outtings, a part of me hoping that two more films will once again elevate the genre to something at least slightly above the norm, but if "Saw IV" is any indicator, we're in for more of the same thing we've already seen enough of.

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