For those still here, let me defend myself: next weekend witnesses the release of Dead Silence, a new ghost film from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, the creators of the current franchise (although Wan would split as director after the first, returning to executive produce the sequels). It seems wrong to me to watch that film, as I intend to do, without having the same knowledge that the rest of the audience certainly will of their previous, highly successful work. I am a truly thorough critic.
The second reason is that a very good friend whose view on things filmic I trust very much told me that I really, really needed to see and review the trilogy, not because it is good but because of the ways in which it is bad. And because he wanted to read my review. The moral of the story: I will totally do reader requests if you massage my ego enough.
That said: the Saw trilogy. A particularly grim 6 hours of my life that, while not pleasant were certainly instructive, and at least I'll never have to do anything like this for the rest...
What's that? God DAMN it.
Stripped to its bare essentials, the first Saw, from 2004, could have been a pretty great little film. Two men are trapped in a grimy bathroom, chained to pipes, a dead body lies between them. There are a handful of clues tossed around the room about what they need to do to get out, and it's not very pleasant.
So many of my constant complaints about the horror genre are answered in this first moments of this scenario! It's completely trashy-looking, a side-effect of the film's minuscule budget, and that puts it into the hallowed company of the low-fi masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre right off the bat. And because of its look, it's unsafe and it's nasty - a genuinely sadistic concept that makes you question the filmmakers' sanity. It's an elemental film, claustrophobic and paranoiac. This makes it all the more frustrating that the movie fails so completely in so many ways.
As the men in the room talk, one of them realizes that they must be in the clutches of the Jigsaw, a serial killer whose MO is to create elaborate situations in which the healthy victim is forced to kill him- or herself in order to escape. At this moment, Saw goes skipping down a path of pure banality that squanders its beautiful set-up more thoroughly than I can ever think of a set-up being wasted in the whole history of the cinema.
Flashbacks. Fucking flashbacks. Whannell and Wan take this incredible locked-door exercise and they chuck it into the dustbin, leaving the nightmare of the bathroom to take up perhaps 40% of the film. This could have been the genre's Waiting for Godot, but that would have been "boring," apparently.
So instead, flashback upon flashback of the most rote shocker scenes imaginable, forming a sort of Jigsaw's Greatest Hits reel. See! - the woman in a jaw-exploding helmet. See! - the man crawling through a nest of razor wire. See! - the wooden doll from ALL of the advertising that isn't actually remotely scary or creepy at all. And that's when we're not watching an indescribably tedious subplot about the police investigation into the killings. This is the point where the film's low budget, so richly exploited in the bathroom setting, becomes an outright liability: the sets look cheap, the props look cheap, and the gore is totally non-existent.
The gore....the gore. One must get to the gore eventually when discussing Saw and its children, and I do hope you'll indulge me for a bit. The primary subgenre of horror films in the late '70s and '80s was the much-storied Slasher Film. And while I will not get into the gritty details of what makes a Slasher a Slasher, the basic core is that a group of teenagers are chased by an individual psychopath who kills them one or two at a time until only a final girl (usually) remains to confront and overpower the killer. There will almost always be female nudity and the deaths are shown in significant detail using elaborate gore effects. It is important to bear this in mind: the deaths in a slasher film, while esoteric, are usually fast, and surprising. Most victims are not aware that the killer is near until moments before the short sharp shock.
The primary subgenre of horror films today does not have a consistent name, although you will often see the phrase "splatter film." A splatter film does not have a large group, like a slasher film, and it does not have much of a chase; it is a film in which the typically non-teen protagonists are captured early on, or oblivious of anything like danger until they are captured midway through. Upon their capture they are physically and psychologically tortured. While splatter films are often much bloodier than slasher films, they are typically less creative about their gore effects.
Saw did not invent this genre, which probably came to prominence with the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and is almost certainly a delayed response to the Italian cannibal films from 25 years ago, as exemplified by Cannibal Holocaust, literally the only film in existence that I have no desire to see whatsoever. And in a very important respect, Saw isn't really a "splatter" movie at all; as a result of its budget, there is practically no blood in the movie. Ignore the many reviewers who decry the film's unspeakable exploitative depravity! They are wilting violets. Visually, Saw is indeed a rather chaste film, if anything (especially coming a mere eight months after the truly horrifying The Passion of the Christ)
There is however another name for splatter films that's less popular amongst the fanboys and more among the scholars: "torture porn." It means that when you sit down to watch Hostel or Turistas, you are expected to take some measure of delight in watching ordinary humans suffer and feel pain. Saw is the ur-text of torture porn.
Mountains of text have been belched upon the link between the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks and the rise of torture porn, not to mention the laissez-faire response to the Abu Ghraib scandal a few years ago. I am no sociologist. But I know that there's a great gulf between a lo-fi nasty shocker like 1977's The Hills Have Eyes and a lo-fi nasty shocker like Saw. It's not precisely a difference of tone: if anything, THHE is more vicious. I think it's a difference of empathy: watching Wes Craven's film, it's obvious that he wants to crush us and make us hurt. It's an assaultive film, and that's what I always mean when I talk about the need for dangerous and nasty horror films: films that beat upon the viewer, making us feel the raw animal evil of what is happening onscreen. That is the film that I briefly expected Saw to become.
Instead, Saw is a mere gross-out film, which is to say it does not want to engender any feeling in the audience; it wants to make us giggle and go "ew!" and stand in amazement at the cleverness of the filmmakers. It's not scary at all; it's a classic teen horror film without the typical teen protagonist, a film for faux-scared girls to use an excuse to cling to their faux-tough boyfriends. Which is never excusable, but rendered all the worse for the cheerful amorality of the whole affair. Wan and Whannell are basically the same as the Jigsaw killer; they construct arcane death machines just to be attention-grabby, and they psychologically torture people, even if those people are just characters.
As if that weren't enough, they can't even make good torture porn.
Saw is crap. I already mentioned how screwy the structure is, and how it prevents the film from ever building up a good head of intensity, but what I did not speak of was the misguided twist ending. Twist endings are everywhere these days of course, not that they've ever been hugely rare, and most of the time they don't work. That said, I can think of almost no twist endings that are so completely nonsensical as the one in Saw. A twist should force us to re-evaluate what we've seen, so that it makes a totally different kind of success, right? In this film, the twist just makes things hopelessly confusing, and a killer whose MO has been fairly consistent goes screwball on us. It is a pure example of a twist for twisting's sake, just because twists are "cool," and the fan reaction seems to confirm, tragically, that it worked commercially, despite being, and I can't overstate this enough, completely and absolutely incoherent in every way.
Whannell is a deeply awful screenwriter. Not only does he epically screw the pooch at the end, but he cannot write good dialogue. There is such a storm of terrible dialogue in Saw as to legitimately draw comparisons to none less than Ed Wood. In this screenplay, every action is ventriloquised: characters do something, we see them do it, and they talk about doing it. It's like a medieval play without stage directions, sets or props. And that's the good dialogue; the bad dialogue is clunky and inhuman and literally unspeakable, and in one particularly startling case, it rips-off Annie Hall.
Perhaps because the dialogue is atrocious, or perhaps because Wan is an atrocious director, the cast is uniquely unable to "act" in this project, instead just kind of shuffling around and looking alarmed. Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell himself play the two victims, and while it's easy to ignore Whannell's shortcomings (by which I mean: he can do nothing besides recite dialogue in a high-pitched whine. Emotions? What are such things?), I am truly disgusted by Elwes. He's not a great actor but he's also not this bad, and his uneven American accent is perhaps the most entertaining part of the movie, if only because listening to it slip in and out would make for a fine drinking game.
The weakest link, though, is Danny Glover. He is kind of a great actor with a history of choosing loathsome scripts, but his character in this film tops them all: the lead detective on the Jigsaw case who goes a little insane and starts stalking Elwes or something along those lines. It makes the least sense of anything in the movie - his entire subplot is obviously just there to boost it to feature-length - and Glover doesn't even try. It's the worst performance of his career, and truly embarrassing to watch.
Meanwhile, in an effort to strip away the last remaining shreds of effectively creepy mise en scène, Wan relies extensively on garish fast-motion camera movements and ADHD editing that turn Saw into an extremely long and extremely grim heavy metal video.
But that's in keeping with the tone of the whole movie, which I fear was the intent: it's a high-energy, editorial-free exercise in depravity. We're not supposed to think it's creepy, we're supposed to think it's cool and clever. That's why all of the ludicrous death machines, that's why the idiotic twist. "Clever." Never mind that there are humans dying in agony - that's not fun. Even Hostel had the good taste to make us empathize with the victims.
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Because sequels are meant to be sure things at the box office, they are not often very innovative. The great majority of second films, even the good ones, are essentially just the notes of the first film played louder and bigger. In one key way, Saw II is actually a bit original, then: it clocks in at a lean 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor. If that sounded like a compliment, I guess it kind of was, but it's the only one I've got.
Almost everything Saw did badly, Saw II and new director Darren Lynn Bousman does worse. Loopy MTV-style cinematography? Yes indeed. Awful acting? Ye gods, this one depends on Donnie fucking Wahlberg as its "name." Dialogue? Um...
Here's an anecdote for you. One (male) character taunts another (female) character with the insult, "the only door you know how to open is between your legs!" This is a terrible line, and if you need me to explain why then you fundamentally don't understand dialogue, please quit reading my blog, in fact please quit reading the internet, because there are quite enough functionally illiterate people around, thank you.
Anyway, that's not the anecdote. The anecdote is that this line was ad-libbed, each variation more vulgar than the preceding, and the crew thought that the quoted version was the best & funniest & most clever. At least, so says the IMDb trivia page, for I assure you that I have a terrifically small interest in the Saw II audio commentary.
The point being, the makes of the film thought that was a good line, and if that doesn't illustrate their relationship to dialogue, I cannot imagine what else could. Also, it goes to show that some of the dialogue is improvised, and so I don't know who's responsible for the most egregious offenses against the language.
That said, this film lacks the "let's talk about what we're doing" characteristic of the first film, and that must be acknowledged. Dammit, that was another compliment.
Bigger! Better! Now there's not just two men in a single room, there's eight people in a locked house! And there's another whole storyline: Detective Eric Matthews (Wahlberg the Lesser) and his team have finally found Jigsaw's (Tobin Bell) lair, only to find that he's captured Matthews's son and put him in the house, and what twisted mind game will Matthews have to play to etc, etc. Overkill, and the two plots are not finessed together very well, with a rather arbitrary hopping from one to the other every now and then. Then comes the inevitable twist that makes a little bit more sense than the first one, and is much more fair to the audience, although given that every decent plot synopsis of Saw III gives the twist to this film away, I can't say that it's much of a surprise.
Beyond question, though, the great big horrible add-on that most typifies what Saw II is about, and what its successor will be about even more, is the film's putative moral viewpoint. Now, Saw, while excessively unpleasant, was a simple little film: psycho killer does arcane shit. Taa-daa! There are some dollops of flavor here and there to the effect that his particular MO is to punish people who aren't living life to the fullest, and this turns out to be related to Jigsaw's terminal medical condition, but that's not a part of the film. It's a gimmick, much in the way that (in the first film, at least) Hannibal Lecter's cannibalism was just a detail, not really important beyond a shorthand for "evil monster."
Tragically, Saw II takes that gimmick and runs with it and turns it into a Thing. Here, Jigsaw is a sort of dark avenging angel, exposing the weakness and folly of man, for almost all of his traps could be almost laughably overcome if the people caught in them weren't constantly at each other's throats, selfish and whinging and almost unbearably stupid. It's worth noting that Bousman had a script for a non-Saw project that was deemed "too Saw-ish" until Whannell came on board to punch it up; I think it's obvious that Bousman had the house scenario, and Whannell added the police framework and the conversations with Jigsaw that make this film not merely an explication of his theories, but a very sick and ugly endorsement of them. The men and women caught in Jigsaw's house are cartoon characters, behaving in every possible case in the most venal way, because in every possible case venality is what keeps the plot ticking along. If it were possible for these people to stop for five minutes and talk quietly, Saw II would be over in a quarter of the time, and the audience would not get to see the still ungory-gore.
I don't want to seem like a ghoul for harping on the gore in these films, but there's an important reason why I do: in a slasher or splatter film, the gore is held to be "cool." Your mileage may vary. But in a Saw-style torture porno, where there is not much gore and it is not very cool, the fetish object for the audience is not the elaborate make-up, but the torment of the characters. It's the difference between "alright, he got split down the middle!" and "alright, if he doesn't cut off his leg, his child will suffocate!" One is mostly harmless fun (although I am aware that some of the fans of the genre respond to it in ways that are not so fun, but that's true of many things), attentive to the technical side of filmmaking, one is quite hideous and morally unacceptable.
And with Saw II, the series officially begins to endorse the bent, immoral - I will not even say "amoral" now - view of Jigsaw that these are worthless people who get what's coming to them. That is a foul opinion to hold, even for thin and poorly-acted characters like these, and a quick spin through the IMDb user reviews for this film is a terrifically demoralising task, unless you like feeling hopeless.
* * *
Let nobody say that Saw III is goreless: I am in no conceivable way a lightweight about such things, but herein is a lengthy, lovingly detailed surgery scene that went pretty much as far as I could tolerate without looking away. I will admit immediately that this was the unrated edition, not the theatrical cut; but by this point in Saw history, it's clear that the franchise faithful see the film in both version and regard whatever unfettered version craps its way across a two-disc DVD set as the definitive text.
It's my habit to start out saying whatever I can that's nice about a movie, and I'll indulge that now: structurally, Saw III has a pretty decent screenplay. It tells two stories in parallel: in one, Jigsaw kidnaps Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), his old doctor, to keep him alive while he and his new assistant and former victim Amanda (Shawnee Smith) put yet another innocent through yet another arcane trial. Here we have Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), who has not gotten over his son's accidental death three years ago, and is given a chance to confront his ghosts while saving or not saving the men and woman he holds accountable for his lack of closure.
The stories have a little bit in common, much more than the twin stories in Saw II, and Bousman (returning to direct), Wan (returning to shape the story) and Whannell (returning to piss on the art of dialogue-writing and then set it on fire) do just fine at developing the two threads along each other. It's organic and even kind of interesting. And the twist at the end is, for once, not only fair but actually quite clever: it works entirely because the audience assumed things earlier that were never actually stated or shown. Hitchcock perfected that technique, which I mention only so that I can have compared the makers of Saw III to Hitchcock, thereby shocking all of you my readers & completely ruining my reputation, so that no-one will ever take my film writing seriously again. I don't know why I'm trying to do that, but there you have it.
Anyway, the structure is mostly good, and it's quite bad because of a false first act (those don't come by too often, I'll have you know), in which it takes 30 minutes of a 113 minute film to actually get to the plot, spending those first 30 minutes tying up the loose ends of the first two films. It is here that trouble begins a-brewing: Saw III is the grand operatic Saw film, the one in which all of the motifs and notes of its predecessors come to full bloom. You now know what I think of Saw and Saw II, and why that is therefore a terrible thing.
Where the last film offended and saddened me, this one digusted and angered me, because it replaces the foolish, venal strawpeople of that scenario with an unforgivably amoral protagonist in Jeff. Jeff's trial, which at no point involves his own physical danger, is to go through rooms of arcane death-trappery where the three people most responsible in his mind for the miscarriage of justice surrounding his son's death are being slowly tortured. Jeff can free them or not. He dithers a bit and let's just say that less than three people accompany him out of the maze.
The script makes some exceedingly weak gestures in the direction of "Jeff is as bad as Jigsaw," but they don't take, especially because of the end, and the meaning of Saw III is loud and fucking clear: any of us might do just the exact same. We might let the freezing death chamber, the drowning pig innards tub or the twisting rack machine kill off our most hated nemeses, while they screamed and begged us to help them. After all, we all (like Jigsaw) want revenge for something.
Well James Wan and Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman, you can take your goddamn "we" and roll it up in a tube and shove it up your respective assholes. I may not have a dead son, but I know about basic morality and decency, and if I'm watching someone die very slowly, and I can stop it with very little personal risk, I would stop it. And judging on the commercial response to this movie ($80+ million), mine is apparently not a unanimously-held opinion. Well, you and your fanboys can fuck off, and the idea that I'm supposed to regard Jeff as my "surrogate," my "POV," sickens me. You bastards.
That's before the last twist. The end of the movie keeps on twisting for I don't know how long., and its clear that the Sawsmen have done as George Lucas and the Wachowskis have done before them, which is buy into their own press and believe that theirs is a Grete Epick Storie that requires an almost Wagnerian scope to its ending instead of a neat little "Kill the killer, oh it's not over, musical sting" progression like a trashy horror film which is what these are knows as its birthright.
Um...yes, the last twist - the last beat of the trilogy - is nasty. Not brutal, not mean spirited. Vicious and cruel for no reason other than to make the audience feel really shitty at the end of a movie where we, and by "we" I might well just mean "I," felt shitty pretty much non-stop. It's not like the rest of the numerous endings led us to believe that sunshine and wingéd ponies and a field of puppy dogs waited beyond the last fade-out. Frankly, the end to that point is nihilistic in a way that would make David Fincher step back and say, "Whoa, y'all are are depressing motherfuckers," redeemed only because unlike e.g. Se7en, the characters are propped-up cardboard. But that last moment is needless. Maybe it's supposed to punish the people who enjoyed the rest of the films, in which case bravo, but I don't think so. I think it's just part of the same nihilistic, amoral, self-congratulatory wanking that has cycled through each and every one of these godforsaken movies. Lookit how fuckin' brave and edgy you gentlemen are. Not that many directors who want to make a stylistic choice of implying that an eight year old girl is going to suffocate to death. Aren't you trendily nihilistic, you filthy fucks.
* * *
Wow, that got away from me. Um...