With the sixth installment of the Saw franchise set to hit theaters this Halloween and news that Saw VII has already gotten the green light ...

The Rise and Fall of the SAW Films

With the sixth installment of the Saw franchise set to hit theaters this Halloween and news that Saw VII has already gotten the green light from Lionsgate, it seems only appropriate to take a long look back at the films that started it all. This five part series will look at each of the Saw films in detail and discuss what they’ve contributed to the evolution of the Saw phenomenon and twenty-first century horror.

Saw feels very much like a short film, which is what it was originally intended to be. Director, James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell met in film school. Whannell had always wanted to write and act while Wan was an aspiring director. Their combined talents met in the middle and Wan came up with the idea of Saw for a short film that the two would shoot on their own.

The original concept was simple. Two guys are chained to opposite ends of a decrepit bathroom, and between them is the body of a dead man with a tape recorder in one hand and a gun in the other. Both captives have mini tapes that lay out the rules of a life or death game engineered by a mysterious mastermind. The film would cutaway to the bad guy, but the twist ending reveals the apparently dead man on the floor is the true villain, as he gets up and walks out the door.

It was up to Whannell to flesh out the script, but once finished it proved to be much larger than a short film. The duo brought the script to America and to convince potential producers they weren’t just writers but filmmakers, they shot Amanda’s trap sequence with Whannell as the lead. The short film spoke to producers who guaranteed Wan the director’s slot and cast Whannell as Adam opposite Cary Elwes who plays Dr. Gordon.

The film’s origin as a short is evident in the use of minimalist sets like the bathroom, where most of the action takes place between two characters. With such close quarters, we really get to know Jigsaw’s victims, which make Dr, Gordon’s decision to hack off his own foot and Adam's final imprisonment that much harder to bear.

This type of closed action perfects a theme that runs through the rest of the films, as apparent strangers are thrown together without any knowledge of how they are connected and have to work together to survive the game.

Most of the traps in Saw are simple and directly related to the victim’s “crime.” The man who is forced to find a way out through the razor wire maze tried to cut his wrists and the scam artist is burned alive, in much the same way he burned other people with his lies.

The only trap that doesn’t reflect the victim’s transgression is Amanda’s. She wakes up with a reverse bear trap strapped to her face that will permanently rip her jaw open if she doesn’t retrieve the key to the device from the guts of her dead cell mate. Considering the fact that she’s a junkie, a more appropriate alternative might have been the needle pit that shows up in Saw II.

Because of the disconnect between Amanda’s test and her crime, the audience tends to focus more on the technicality of the trap. This is reflected in a poster for Saw that made the rounds at film festivals and shows Amanda in her death mask.

The focus on the traps, instead of the lessons they are supposed to teach runs throughout the rest of the Saw films. With ever increasing springs, timers, triggers and pulleys, most of the later traps look like they could have only been conceived and built by an aerospace engineer, not an aging cancer patient.

But the true beauty of Saw is the emotional traps Jigsaw uses to control people. He forces Zep to kidnap a mother and child with the threat of his own death, and he uses Dr. Gordon’s family to motivate the physician to kill Adam. He is able to assume complete control over their actions, so much so, that he can become a passive voyeur with the assurance that his game will be carried out without a hitch.

Jigsaw’s supreme mastery of the human condition is showcased in what could be the best twist ending of a horror film. Adam has bludgeoned Zep, the apparent villain, to death and rifles through the man’s pockets looking for the key to his chains. Instead he finds a tape player and as the music swells, it’s revealed that the audience has been played all along by a clever killer.

In a genre dominated by slashers and postmodern horror films, in the new millennium Saw carved a unique place for itself in the pantheon of fright cinema. And despite Jigsaw’s final words as he leaves Adam in darkness, fans of the film would ensure that the game was far from over.

Up Next: Saw II: Finding a Formula

Further Reading:
Passing the Torch: A Comparative Study of the Saw and Friday the 13th Franchises

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for your coverage of this series. For me the first film was something new, and a nice horror outing. But they went downhill after that. In my view the first film was similar to Seven in that the killer indulged in a bizarre ethical pattern that turned on the "sins" of the victum, but with the sequels it quickly turned into little more than a venue to highlight various scenarious and devices for torture. In this way it morphed quickly from interesting thriller horror to torture porn.

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  2. I got really excited about Saw when it first came out and managed to wrangle some tickets to a free early screening.

    After sitting through it I found my relationship with the rest of the horror "community" forever altered.

    Ugh. It was just awful, and yet here we are contemplating a sixth sequel. Yes the traps were clever (in that "which family member would you kill if..." sort of way) but I positively couldn't stand the way in which everything from the cinematography to the acting was calibrated for maximum impact on the audience rather than any sort of comprehensible internal logic. Even the way the police characters waved their guns around (Seven style no less) while searching the villain's hideout rang false.

    By the time the "car chase" (read: undercranked footage of Danny Glover looking crazy) rolled around, I completely checked out and started to have a hard time refraining from mean spirited laughter.

    All the pieces for a good movie were there (even if they were mostly on loan from the general horror zeitgeist), but the film suffers from one of the most severe cases of "music video syndrome" I've ever seen.

    One of these days I have to give one of the later films a try; perhaps the unconcealed mercenary sensibilities of the sequel will temper my expectations. After all, a simple slasher film with the addition of Rube Goldberg death traps would certainly be palatable in its own small way.

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  3. I completely agreee with you John. Saw I was good and III jumped the shark, but the rest was just blah as they focused more on the traps instead of the lessons they taught to Jigsaw's victims.

    Knarf,
    I would definitely suggest the third film, it's the diamond in the rough of the rest of the SAW movies. Boussman was comfortable enough after doing Saw II to do some really great things.

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  4. I'm glad to hear some intelligent discussion of the Saw series, which I think gets unfairly shafted by the horror community. None of the films are great, but I personally think each one is miles better than the empty formulaic F13 entries (not that I don't love me some Jason Takes Manhattan, of course).

    The original film is both the best and worst of the series: most shocking and innovative in its premise, but truly messy in its execution. I've seen all and I always leave each screening thinking that the film did some new things but usually fell back on itself. My favorite is part IV because it's the only entry that features a likable protagonist to actually root for. At the same time, my problem gets deepest there: the whole "teaching a lesson to someone who has sinned" is a fine serial killer motif, but the 'crimes' become more and more miniscule. Detectives who care too much about their work? Really? That deserves getting your guts torn apart?

    Still, I give the films my support. I'd rather have Saw VII, which will undoubtedly continue the convoluted but somewhat intelligent plot development than something like F13 the remake (or part 12), which brought nothing new or interesting to horror.

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  5. you know, im not the type to enjoy horror films, cuz(dont call me a pussy) they give me nightmares, and i hate nightmares....but i REALLY REALLY enjoyed saw aside from all the gore, just the plot of the story was outstandingly amazing! =) thanks for the coverage btw! =D

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  6. movies today, horror included, are tired imitations of each other to the nth degree. They are so disgustingly predictable that they are a waste of time. "Saw" isn't any different.

    A preacher once said nothing is new under the sun and I think that makes a whole lot of sense. The last movie I watched that was supposed to be in the horror genre was "Cold Creek Manor" and it was truly the most hilarious and ridiculous melange of dreck I ever saw. So I stopped going to movies years ago and I may watch one if someone rents a DVD or downloads it and I happen to be with them at their place. I won't waste my time on "horror" any more.

    Except "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" and it's poorer sequel. Now THAT stuff scared you snotless and MADE you laugh too in a pacing that the young lions of cinema today can't begin to appreciate since their film school bags of tricks rotate around minimalism, surreal CGI and lots of gory sexual violence.

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  7. I'm really enjoying reading your analysis of the Saw franchise. Love your blog

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