Saw I, II and III


Saw : Directed by James Wan : Written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell : Starring Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith and
Dina Meyer

Saw II : Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman : Written by Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman : Starring Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith and
Dina Meyer

Saw III : Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman : Written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell : Starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Bahar Soomekh, Donnie Wahlberg and
Dina Meyer

The ‘Saw’ films have been an extremely successful franchise to date, grossing over $400 million at the worldwide box office against a combined production budget less than the fee per film for the average “A-list” (male) star. Combined American DVD and television revenue has been estimated at something close to $300 million. There is no reason to assume that the fourth film will not be equally as successful. Apparently, Tobin Bell is already signed on to appear in ‘Saw V’ and ‘Saw VI’.

Although it is rarely mentioned, the saga began in 2003 with a short film made in Australia, written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, in which a hospital orderly tells the terrifying tale of being kidnapped and forced to play a horrifying game of survival.

In the first proper film two strangers find themselves in a derelict bathroom of some description. Both are chained to the wall by shackles around one ankle, on opposite sides of the room. In the middle of the room lies a body, seemingly dead, with a severe head injury. They don’t know where they are and they don’t know why they are there.

The strangers are played by Cary Elwes, who is probably best known from a six-episode story arc in season nine of ‘The X Files’, and Leigh Whannell, the co-writer of the film with director James Wan.

As the film unfolds they each discover small clues to explain the situation they find themselves in. Elsewhere, the police have a serial killer on their hands, one whose operandi modus is to have his victims kill themselves in a variety of horrendously inventive and brutal ways. The killer is given the nickname “Jigsaw” because he carves the shape of a small jigsaw piece into the flesh of his victims. His catchphrase is, “I want to play a game.”

The detective leading the case, played by Danny Glover, eventually drives himself insane in pursuit of “Jigsaw” and is dismissed from the police force, becoming increasingly deranged as he continues to pursue the killer on his own.

The most “famous” scene in the film, one that was parodied in ‘Scary Movie 3’, has Cary Elwes’ character saw off his own foot with a hacksaw to free himself from the shackle around his ankle.

The film is gory, although perhaps not as gory as might be imagined. However, it is unpleasant. The premise is quite inventive and Wan makes the most of his zero-budget. The main problem is the acting, which in places is decidedly poor. The pacing of the film is also plodding, quickly becoming borderline tedious.

‘Saw’ was released in the UK first, on 1 October 2004, and then in America, on 29 October 2004, one week after ‘The Grudge’. Although it took less money than that film, both at the cinema and, I believe, subsequently on DVD, it was the point at which the change in trends within the horror genre occurred. Films like ‘Saw’, ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ and ‘Hostel’ were a direct reaction to the remakes of “J-Horror” films that had dominated for a couple of years.

Ultimately, we were taken from ‘The Ring’, an intelligent and well-made remake of a fascinating Japanese horror film that used the imaginations of its audience to create the scares, to ‘Captivity’, a film that would seem, at best, to be a repugnant cesspool of misogynistic twaddle.

‘Saw II’ doesn’t have the surprise factor of the first film. We already know what is happening and who is responsible, even if we don’t initially know why Jigsaw has chosen this particular group of victims. None of this is of any great relevance because, whether or not there was ever any intention to make some kind of statement about the fragility of life, the premise is simply a set-up to wheel out a succession of elaborate medieval-type torture/death contraptions.

The various deaths are gruesome, with extravagant use of offal and fake blood. One character is cooked and then burnt alive inside an old crematorium furnace, which made my stomach churn, but even more sickening is the hand trap with blades that cut into the wrists and arms of the victim.

The deaths of the male characters are brutal and gratuitous, but I can’t shift the notion that the camera lingers rather longer on the torture of the female characters, creating an abstractedly sexual connotation. Possibly I am being overly sensitive and reading too much into the imagery, but it does trouble me.

Although the second film can no longer claim the inventive premise of the first one, it is better constructed and is probably a better film. It is actually a re-interpretation of a film called ‘The Desperate’ that had been hawked around Hollywood by its writer and director Darren Lynn Bousman without success. The script was re-written by Leigh Whannell to fit the ‘Saw’ template and Bousman was hired to direct it.

This time around Donnie Wahlberg plays the police detective in charge of the case. He does what he is there to do, but principally he simply proves that he doesn’t quite possess the acting chops and screen presence of his younger brother Mark. Dina Meyer, who made a fleeting appearance in the first film, reprises her role here and although she doesn’t have a great deal to do she is given a lot more screen time. I think it would be fair to say that, in keeping with much of her career, Meyer’s talents are wasted, but she is very popular with the loyal fanbase of the franchise.

Tobin Bell is very effective in the role of Jigsaw and he seems to be developing the same kind of reputation that Robert Englund once enjoyed because of the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ films. Back in 2000 Tobin appeared in ‘Brand X’, a season seven episode of ‘The X Files’, playing a character called Ashman who shares some similarities with Jigsaw. I have never seen any mention of this elsewhere, but I would not be surprised if it were not just coincidental.

Shawnee Smith also returns from the first film. She plays Amanda, a drug addict who was the single victim of one of Jigsaw’s games to actually survive the ordeal. Smith is an actress who seems to have been around forever, having made her film debut back in 1982 playing a bit part in ‘Annie’. By coincidence, or possibly not, she was in a season two episode of ‘The X Files’ (‘Firewalker’), playing a character whose personality is not entirely dissimilar to that of Amanda. James Wan has said the character Amanda was specifically written with Smith in mind.

By the end of ‘Saw II’ we discover that Amanda has become Jigsaw’s protégé.

This brings me to ‘Saw III’, which opens as a direct continuation of the second film. Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) makes a third appearance, but becomes an early victim of Jigsaw and Amanda. She is suspended off the floor and locked into a contraption in which metal pins pierce her skin and hook around her ribs. The key to unlock this torture device is dropped into the bottom of a large jar full of highly corrosive acid. She is given one minute to retrieve the key and unlock the contraption, before spring mechanisms release the pins, ripping her ribcage open and allowing her internal organs to spill out.

The third film is another succession of grisly and shocking brutality. This time around there is a subplot about the strange relationship that develops between Jigsaw and Amanda, who is becoming increasingly deranged, unstable and psychotic. It has been suggested that Amanda suffers from Stockholm syndrome, although this is not referenced in the films. There are, however, allusions to an abusive childhood, a predisposition towards self-harm, as well, of course, as her addiction to heroin. Whether or not this is sufficient to explain her participation in Jigsaw’s sick games, I don’t know. Maybe there doesn’t need to be an explanation.

‘Saw III’ contains a scene of horrendous brutality near to the beginning of the film. A man has a dozen chains attached to his body by large metal rings piercing his flesh. He has to rip out the rings with his bare hands, tearing the flesh apart, to free himself from the chains and reach an explosive device to stop the countdown.

It cannot be denied that it has a visceral impact, but basically it’s just revolting.

In a later scene, a young woman is locked inside a walk-in freezer (like a meat store), suspended off the floor by her wrists. She is sprayed with freezing water from a number of hoses, building up a covering of ice across the length of her body until she becomes entirely frozen and dies. In the original script the victim was male and clothed. However, it was decided that for it to be visually effective the victim should be female and naked. Bizarrely, the makers of the film have claimed that showing the female victim naked avoids the trap of making the scene too sexual.

I have been quite critical of the three films. The first one is quite clever and the next two are very well made, playing to the strengths of the franchise. They are repulsive in places, but this isn’t something that should take viewers by surprise. I would be a fool were I to pretend not have expected an overabundance of gore. They are not blatantly misogynistic, at least not as I interpret them, but the second and third films do fall into the trap that snares a lot of horror films (especially from the “slasher” genre) and I think there is at least the suggestion of a misogynist undertow that becomes much more noticeable with each film.

Tobin Bell, Dina Meyer and Shawnee Smith are very good. The films are not to be avoided at all costs, but they did open the door that seems to have allowed a whole lot of shit to come flooding through. Having said that, it’s quite conceivable that even if Leigh Whannell and James Wan had not made their original film the likes of Eli Roth would still have found an audience for the stuff that followed.

Is there any need for films like ‘Saw’? Are they actually harmful?

These are hard questions to answer. There is obviously an audience for them. Ultimately, however, I think they are, or can be, harmful because they lend a certain validation to a particular mindset. Having said that, I am not trying to suggest that everyone who watches these films turns into a psychotic serial killer.

The problem is that even the suggestion of a misogynist undertow, be it intentional or not, sends out a dangerous message.


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