In 2003, two young Australian filmmakers put together a nine minute short film called Saw, which told the story of a young man who had survived one of the legendary Jigsaw Killer’s specifically designed contraptions. The young man recalls to a detective how he was kidnapped, bound to a chair with a reverse bear trap on his head and told he had one minute to choose whether to live or die… Produced for a meager $5000 Australian dollars, Saw 0.5 as it is now known was an excerpt from James Wan and Leigh Wannell’s script about a killer who allows his victims to choose whether they live or die using intricate traps that will undoubtedly inflict pain on themselves and potentially others. Using this short film/excerpt to shop to potential investors for investment in the full version worked, with Twisted Pictures fronting the $1.2m required to get the film made. Saw was independently released in 2004 after receiving distribution from Lionsgate Studios thanks to a successful run at the Sundance Film Festival. Initially intended to be a straight-to-video release, Lionsgate chanced a theatrical run which was instantly met with success. The film returned 1oo times its original budget. The total revenue of $103m unequivocally sealed the future of this franchise. A 21st century horror star was born…
Saw (2004) is an incredible horror film. Taut, violent, intricate, suspenseful – it is everything a horror film should be. The relatively low budget guarantees a concentrated focus on story, and Saw embodies this by embracing its limitations. Though ‘less is more’ is not the mantra for Wan, nonetheless there is an effort to deliver the story as well as the scares. Saw crafts a brilliant sleight of hand with its storytelling, crafting a non-linear story line on a canvass of spit and blood. The setting for most of the story, with its strikingly bright blue and yellow lighting makes for a claustrophobic atmosphere which is only heightened by the characters desperation to fight the clock. With a dead body lying in the room they must figure out why they are and how they get out. Meanwhile, as the two main characters struggle with each other as well as their situation, we follow Detective’s Tapp and Sing on the hunt for the Jigsaw killer – a man who drugs and kidnaps his victims then places them in life or death situations in which they must choose whether to live or die. Their choices, which will involve some form of sacrifice, are centered around their lifestyle and their lack of respect for life itself. The narrative weaves in and out, building suspensefully to a shocking finale with one of the most unexpected twist endings in horror history. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, it’s still a surprise even now (like Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense) – when that bathroom door slams shut we are left with the most unhappiest of endings, a stark reminder that horror does not sugar coat its audience with false pretenses.
The overwhelming success of Saw – both financially and critically – inevitably led to a sequel announcement before the blood had cooled on the bathroom floor. Though there is certainly room for growth at the end of Saw as we are left with questions surrounding John Kramer/Jigsaw, you can also argue that the film should be left where it is. The most dark and macabre horror films are the ones that have such a bleak ending its impossible to return. The feeling we are left with is the pinnacle emotion every horror film should invoke – one of pure dread. Yet Saw II happened, and was going to happen with or without the involvement of its original creators. Already tied down on their next project, nonetheless James Wan and Leigh Wannell lent their support for the sequel by providing re-writes and ensuring any continuation of their story at least paid respect to the original. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and adapted into a Saw film from another horror film he had written, Saw II was an instant financial success and went on to be the most profitable of all the Saw film entries. Despite being met with negative reviews from critics, the revenue gained during its opening weekend meant that Saw II wasn’t going to be the last in the series.
The Saw franchise went on to produce another five entries after Saw II each year at Halloween until the final entry (though it wasn’t initially planned to be) in 2010. The continued financial success meant that the films would continue as long as audiences put bums on seats. As with any horror franchise, the box office gradually declined for each entry as audiences grew tired of the concept and so the planned eighth film was incorporated into the seventh entry. Though the idea of the Jigsaw killer and the barbaric kill devices wore thin with each entry (as did the shift in antagonist), make no mistake about it – the Saw franchise is unique. The franchises discussed yesterday focus solely on profit making and though there’s no exception for Saw in that respect, the difference here is that there is a continued storyline throughout the Saw films which is actually quite intricate and at times plain baffling. As opposed to Friday the 13th which was pretty much just repetition film after film as Jason just killed teenagers for no reason, there is actually a complex storyline that doesn’t feel like it’s made up as they go along. Here’s how it goes, in not so much of a linear way…
Jigsaw dies at the end of Saw III. It’s of no surprise due to his crippling cancer, but not least of all because he is the most sought after man from victims to police officers to shunted apprentices. Yet the events of every film from 1-7 are orchestrated by this tactical madman. And not from beyond the grave either – there is no Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers-style resurrection with John Kramer. He dies at the end of Saw III and remains dead, but every event that takes place thereafter has already been planned by him. The wheels he set in motion haven’t once veered off course, and this is testament to his character who really does know the people he surrounds himself with.
Though he dies, he’s still in every entry after the third film, seen in flashbacks and recounts from characters. The narrative weaves in and out of each film but none of them are linear, as events of films later in the series take place during the same time as the events in earlier films of the series. For example, Saw IV chronologically happens at the same time as Saw III; Saw V takes place immediately after Saw III and in Saw III we see Shawnee Smith’s character Amanda read a letter that sends her crazy – we don’t find out who wrote the letter until Saw IV and it’s not until Saw VI that we even find out what the letter says. Such is the complex narrative of Saw, you have to watch each entry to even begin to understand just what or who has caused these events. The underlying influence is Jigsaw, who manages to predict the behaviour of his apprentices, testing them despite their belief that they are already healed.
Towards the end, the concept grew thin as we were given the lead of Costas Mandylor’s Detective Mark Hoffman, Jigsaw’s successor who veers from the mantra of John Kramer. The focus on Detective Hoffman became tired, and the final Saw 7 (or Saw 3D as it is poorly known) was the worst of them all, doing little to no justice to the complex narrative that had been established since the first sequel. The final film is such a let down, a poor portrayal of the characters we have followed since the beginning. Though it features one incredible final twist ending (set again in that bathroom) it still feels as though we are cheated out of a finale that did nothing to serve the events we have seen.
The Saw franchise became synonymous with the furore that surrounded the early 21st century as critics derided this poorly dubbed ‘torture porn’ sub-genre. Though it does feature excessive gore, brutal scenes of torture, death and a gruesomely detailed postmortem, the franchise relied on the audience’s need to satiate their bloodlust and the appeal of this films became just as much about the design of the traps as it was about the weaving narrative. Torture porn is such a derogatory term and though the brutality and detail of what is scene is these films is certainly hard to bare, they don’t deserve to be labelled as such.
It was disappointing to think that the final entry of the Saw franchise was a poor effort that did nothing for the series, but despite financial and critical derision, it appears that the Saw franchise will be making a return to multiplexes and painting it crimson once again. As of 2014, it was announced that the Saw franchise would be ‘re-booted’ with the potential for the original creators to return to write and direct the next instalment. It’s comforting to know that that might be the case; too often we’ve seen with franchises an attempt to re-boot them after some time with no consideration for canon. At least with Whannell and Wan returning we are guaranteed something that stays true to the original film that crafted a tense, difficult and complex horror film.
TOMORROW: The ‘Torture Porn’ Sub-Genre