Girl Meets Context: We kick off Horror Franchise Month with the first film in the top-grossing horror franchise of all time. Like many horror movie success stories, Saw was made for a song – a mere 1.2 million – and proved to be insanely profitable when it grossed over a hundred million dollars. Kicking off a long-running series of films – six sequels by 2010 - Saw became synonymous with the “new” horror of the 21st century. Along with Hostel, the Saw films were also demonized by critics for ushering in an era of “torture porn,” that is, movies whose claim to fame was to subject their characters to protracted sequences of intense physical anguish and terror. Kristine and I sat down to try to figure out why the heck this movie was so successful. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Sean: So, dude. Saw is wicked popular.
Sean: Our raison d’être this month is to perform some cultural psychoanalysis and figure out why these movies have been huge hits with the general public. All four of the movies we’re watching this month have kicked off very lucrative franchises. So the question is, Why the hell is Saw the highest-grossing horror franchise of all time?
Kristine: I think I may have failed at trying to understand why that is. I thought the movie was solidly middle ground. It was just okay. In some of our previous discussions we’ve asked, “Is this a horror movie?” Especially for some of the less conventional choices we’ve made about movies to include on the site. When we watched Inland Empire, Hour of the Wolf, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! it seemed plausible that some viewers might not consider those films to really fit in the “horror” genre category. But despite that, we have always found ways to justify their inclusion. Even if the dominant definition of horror might not include them, our definition of horror did. But in the case of Saw, I’m not sure it IS a horror movie or even belongs on our site at all!
Sean: For reals?
Kristine: For reals!
Sean: Well, I’m fine with you making that claim. And I’m just going to come right out and say that I hate this movie and think it sucks dog dick.
Sean: I am not adverse to mainstream/popcorn horror movies. I have really enjoyed some movies that are considered to be execrable by the general population. I love the films of Stephen Sommers, for Chrissakes! I love Van Helsing and think it’s fun! But… Saw is just a real piece of shit all around.
Kristine: Do you want to hear my brief take on why it might not even be a horror movie?
Sean: Yes please!
Kristine: I actually think the opening premise is pretty good: two guys in a room, their alliances and theories about what is happening to them shifting as the clock runs down, the lengths they will go to in order to survive, etc. That is all good. But what SUCKS is the procedural drama stuff. First of all, cutting away from the plight of Adam and Lawrence massively sucks the tension out of the movie. What is so amazing about a movie like Martyrs is how it NEVER lets up. You’re stuck there in the dungeon right beside Anna. Saw gives us a million distractions, so you never come close to feeling the real horror of their predicament. The only time I really felt any sympathy for the victims was the very end scene when you realize Adam is going to be left there forever. But back to the procedural drama part – it made me feel like I was watching a lesser episode of Law & Order, NOT one of the most notorious horror flicks of all time! And speaking of that, where was the gore? Where were the SCARES? The only part that made me flinch was the lady with the headtrap thing on… The rest was totally tame. I also hated all the psychological exploration of the killer. I mean, didn’t we already do this with Se7en? Who cares? Lastly, I hated, hate, hated the family parts. I do not care about that child, and I loathe Monica Potter – who turns out to be some kind of action movie star? WTF?
Sean: OMG. That’s a lot to respond to! You stole the words right out of my mouth by calling this movie Law & Order-y, because YES! It plays like a bad episode of a bad TV show. Though I actually think it’s much more CSI than Law & Order. I HATE all the frenetic jump-cutting and dramatic sound effects that this movie employs, just like CSI: Miami or some shit. It is so fucking slick and overproduced.
Kristine: I have never watched CSI so I didn’t make that connection, but yes, all the speed-ups and jump-cuts seemed very mid-to-low tier TV show, and just cheap ways to dazzle the audience and distract us from the fact there is no real, intense, unflinching storytelling happening in this movie.
Sean: Yeah. And your point about the police procedural elements being a distraction… I TOTALLY agree. I have a pet theory that this movie is inspired by the classic Italian giallo films, which are of course are known for their weird tawdriness. Giallos always have some weird police story woven into them. In fact, when we watched a bunch of giallos and slashers we came to the conclusion that giallos are more rooted in classic crime story conventions – there’s always an investigating policeman or detective who is trying to solve the crimes, the murders unfold over a longer span of time in order to allow the investigator(s) to build their case, etc. A slasher film is much more isolated and compressed. The murders usually happen in a very short span of time – one evening or weekend. And there is very seldom any authority figure or investigator that plays any large part in the story (the classic exception to this being Dr. Loomis from the Halloween films). So in some ways, I feel like the makers of Saw are modeling their movie more on a giallo formula (whether they’re aware of that or not). However, this movie is a very bad interpretation of those tropes. Saw doesn’t have any idea what it’s doing, and the layers and layers of dumb “twists” just feel like a bunch of silly “Gotcha!” moments. This is bad trash, and there’s nothing worse than that. If this was Argento-level operatic batshit insanity, I’d be all for it. But it’s not.
Kristine: I agree that it’s bad trash, because it’s trash without any wit or humor. Do you agree with me that the original premise, the two guys in a room, has some promise?
Sean: Sure it does. But THOSE TWO ACTORS. They are abominations!
Kristine: Ha ha! One of them is one of the writers, right?
Sean: Yes, the actor who plays Adam is responsible for this screenplay. The writing would have to be razor sharp for that “2 guys alone in a room” premise to work, but the writing in this movie is truly awful. And I liked Insidious a lot, which was also penned by Leigh Whannel and directed by James Wan, so maybe it’s just that they’ve gotten better at what they do, or that I’m just impervious to this kind of needlessly-ornate high-concept bullshit.
Kristine: A-dumb and Dr. Ugly is what these characters should be called.
Sean: Dr. Ugly is the Abominable Snowman. He is also the former star of The Princess Bride, a movie I’ve always hated. He is so gross.
Kristine: He is SOOOOOO ugly.
Sean: Pudgy porridge. He looks like he smells like a diaper.
Kristine: He looks like he enjoy masturbating whilst torturing small mammals. When he was having his tantrum (I mean, his big dramatic moment) and he was ugly-crying all over the place and sawing off his own foot, I was watching the whole thing coldly, from a harsh distance. Then I uttered a single word of judgement: “Ick.” And Sean! It wasn’t scary!
Sean: It didn’t scare you one bit?
Kristine: Okay, there was actually one very, very scary part that haunted me and freaked me out for like, 24 hours.
Sean: What? Was it the moment is when Jigsaw grabs the little girl with the blanket over his head?
Kristine: No, I thought that was dumb.
Sean: I thought THAT was the only scary part!
Kristine: Well, you’re wrong and a dummy. The only scary scene is when Jigsaw (ugh, I can’t with that name) belly-crawls/slinks around Dr. Ugly’s car wearing that crazy cat/pig mask. That visual REALLY scared me, but mostly because it reminded me of Bob at the end of Laura’s bed in Twin Peaks. But I kept seeing the slithering thing all over my house afterwards.
Sean: You are afraid of slithery slugs who leave SNAILTRAILS.
Sean: God, you mentioning Twin Peaks is just a reminder of how that show was genuinely scary all the time and this movie is dumb.
Kristine: Oh, hell yes.
Sean: So you found the headtrap scene to be good?
Kristine: I thought it was the best of any of the scenarios. And it worked the best with all the jump-cut, frenetic camera work. What did you think?
Sean: Um… I think I just hated it! I think I just hate this movie and everything about it!
Kristine: Do you agree that this movie is the polar opposite of Martyrs?
Sean: Sure yes. I mean, this movie isn’t REALLY interested in psychology or in any larger themes at all.
Kristine: Oh no, not AT ALL.
Sean: I mean even totally tawdry giallos like Don’t Torture a Duckling have some larger systemic critiques they are making or moments of pure pathos, like when the Hill Witch is lynched by those horrible men, or the whole batshit reveal about the killer priest at the end. Saw can’t even bring that!
Kristine: Agreed. Did you hate the inclusion of Dr. Ugly’s family, and his marital problems with his frigid, bitchy wife, as much as I did?
Sean: I mean, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. The thing that most annoyed me about this movie watching it this time was how it’s all about patriarchal figures and masculine psychology and the women in the film are just props in all of that. Like Dr. Ugly’s wife. It seemed very 1950s and very dumb. I think this movie is made for a male spectator.
Sean: I think that the movie always has a male psychology/gaze on its mind. The wife is just a prop in this elaborate “what would you do if?” scenario that feels like it was concocted by some 17-year-old boys getting high in their dorm room at 2 a.m.. Possibly after one or more of them has just committed date rape. And there they are, just guffawing and passing around a joint and listening to Nickelback and they come up with the premise for this movie. Also, just fyi, Monica Potter has had a shitty film career, but she’s on one of my FAVORITE TV shows (Parenthood) and she is just incredible on it. Her part in this movie is a thankless fucking chore. It is just wife-as-harridan.
Kristine: Yes. And what about this movie being a total rip-off of Se7en? With the pretense that the killer has these moral reasons for his acts? And that he is just fucking with the police? And that he stages these elaborate and thematic kill sites? Surely numerous people have called out Saw on this point? And speaking of, what DO people love about Saw? Explain!!
Sean: Ok, yes. At the time, reviewers and critics pointed out the similarities to Se7en. Just fyi, I also think Se7en is a shitty movie and have never gotten what people like about it (and I like some of Fincher’s other stuff – The Game and Zodiac in particular).
Kristine: I don’t like Se7en, either, but it did do the exact same thing first.
Sean: Back to your earlier point, this whole idea of the serial killer as moral authority just feels like a lazy reinterpretation of the (very clichéd) observation that the killers in vintage ‘70s and ‘80s slashers were conservative figures “doing away” with the enemies of Reagan-era Right Wing politics. Se7en and Saw both are like, so fucking pleased with themselves that they figured that out and turned that subtext into text. But I actually hate Se7en a bit MORE because it uses Catholicism as a framework, which I find just especially lazy and egregious.
Kristine: Ha, right! Se7en sucks and is offensive for totally different reasons than it thinks it is. But Morgan Freeman is a lot better than Danny Glover, so it’s got one leg up on Saw as far as I’m concenred. God, talking about it now, I can’t get over how Danny Glover’s story is just thrown in there, with no real attempts at integration or cohesive emotional storytelling! It’s so lazy!! Arg!!!!
Sean: He’s the movie’s “black herring.”
Kristine: Ha ha!!!! Please tell me what people who like Saw like about it… and why it was such a monster hit.
Sean: That’s what I need your help figuring out! Because I honestly have been puzzling over it for the last 10 years. There are many other sleeper hits that I may not personally love – The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity – but I can at least understand why they became so zeitgeisty. But with Saw… I just don’t get it. I have developed a couple of theories. Do you have any gut instincts here?
Kristine: The only theory I have relates to the TV shows that we both noticed it copies from – Law & Order and CSI, which are both HUGE and enduring hits. I can really only speak to Law & Order, but I’m sure all this applies to CSI as well – no one in the history of forever has claimed that Law & Order is remotely high brow, but tons of smart, media savvy consumers absolutely love it (including me). So maybe if we can crack the Law & Order/CSI puzzle, we will have a clue about Saw… Except that Law & Order almost always had top-notch acting (not present in Saw) and also had a reassuring moral authority (not present in Saw). So I just don’t know, Sean!
Sean: I would say Law & Order is a solid B to B+ show for what it is. And I would say CSI is a solid D to D+ show. So I would put Saw in the CSI camp and not sully the good name of the Law & Order franchise by comparing them. But I think you’re right – there is some connection between the contemporary appetite for these kinds of grisly procedurals and the success of the Saw movies. I’m not quite sure how to puzzle it out.
Kristine: I can see a certain kind of schlubby “nerd” boy archetype being into “figuring it out” or thinking that Jigsaw is in some way this cool anti-hero. Except the movie doesn’t really give us a chance to figure it out because it explains everything. I really loathed the ending with all the flashbacks ‘explaining’ everything that we already knew. And to try to play the big “reveal” (that the mastermind has been in the room with them the whole time) as some kind of Keyser Söze mastermove was so infuriating and stupid. It reminded me of those stupid riddles people use to tell – like, “There’s a dead man in a locked cabin but he didn’t kill himself and no one else is there – what happened????” And the answer is like, “The killer used an icicle and it melted. The end.” You know what I mean? That shit is weak, but people love it!
Sean: Yeah I agree, even though I resent your Kevin Spacey reference. I have another theory to add on to this one, and I am going to sound very snobby and elitist when I say it. But here goes… The last 20 years have really seen mainstream pop culture give in to the tastes of 13-year-olds. Twilight, The Hunger Games, Transformers, the Harry Potter thing, etc. The hugest franchises and cultural phenomena of the past 20 years have come from kid culture. The 13-year-old’s sensibility is now at the center of popular culture to an unprecedented degree… And I kind of see Saw as a reflection of that. The lack of intelligence and sophistication in the script, and the “Gotcha!” twists and puzzle-like elements of the “plot” all seem very much in the wheelhouse of 13-year-old boys to me… I am certain that if Saw had been a thing when I was 13, I would have loved it.
Kristine: Oh, I agree! Which brings us full circle back to schlubby nerd-boys and their ilk…
Sean: The only real place to go for adult entertainment right now is television! Which is hilarious. I mean, even the entertainment geared at schlubby nerd-boys on TV is highly intelligent (A Game of Thrones, Fringe, etc.) But I also really do think (and here come my feminist conspiracy theories) that the appeal of Saw has to do with the gender politics of the movie, and that the widespread love of the Saw franchise reveals some deep wellspring of conservative, anti-feminist sentiment. Saw is a presented as a patriarch’s “worst nightmare,” and that echoes with some fundamentally stunted male sensibility at the heart of a lot of mainstream horror culture. It throws the patriarch into false jeopardy without overturning anything. I would argue that Jigsaw himself his just a dark Daddy.
Kristine: Not to muddy the waters further, but I noticed some weird, fruitless attempts at some kind of class consciousness. 1. Dr. Ugly’s dismissive treatment of Zep Hindle (THAT NAME) leading the viewer to believe that is why Hindle is tormenting the doctor and his family. 2. Some vague tensions between Dr. Ugly and Adam that seem class related (Adam saying stuff like, ‘Well since YOU’RE the brilliant DOCTOR…), and that bizarre scene after Monica Potter and her daughter are safe and are in their obscene McMansion being tended to by….an entire family of Indians??? What, did Wes Anderson help cast this movie? What did you make of all/any of that shizzle?
Sean: Hahahaha! I totally agree. There are class politics being messed with, but it’s so messy and contradictory. I actually bemoan the absolute absence of ANY camp sensibility in this movie. And the biggest misstep or missed opportunity in that department is the fact that Adam is like, some deranged papparazzi!?! I thought that was totally ridic! But aren’t we supposed to kind of hate Dr. Ugly? That could be where the class angle comes from, even though he appears to be “victorious” at the end and Adam, the working class stiff, is trapped forever. I mean, the movie has a lot of contempt for ALL its characters…. Except Jigsaw, which is hugely problematic.
Kristine: Yes, but then Dr. Ugly is supposed to undergo some kind of change or evolution, right? As expressed when he finally does what he knew Jigsaw planned on him doing all along, cutting off his own foot? Ugh, this movie is so sloppy. All that crap about Dr. Ugly maybe having an affair or whatever – who cares? Were you moved by Dr. Ugly and Adam’s bromance moment near the end? Adam: “Don’t leeeeeeave me!” Dr. Ugly: “I could never lie to yooooooou!”
Sean: It was so dumb. But exactly – that kind of homosocial male bonding moment cements that this is a movie about male psychology and a movie made with ONLY a white straight male perspective on the world. I mean, I think that this movie is deeply misanthropic and cynical. It is sad to say that that is also a huge part of its appeal. Jigsaw as some kind of dark moral authority is like, appealing to the masses. He’s like a frail ginger-headed Batman who watched too many Hellraiser sequels.
Kristine: Ha ha!! Definitely. You said the masses and horror-heads alike flocked to this film – what do the horror buffs say about it? I am just so befuddled.
Sean: Um… horror superfans tend to love these movies, has been my experience. I don’t get it. If nothing else, I tend to find this movie and its sequels to be ponderously BORING. The Human Centipede seems like an Indiana Jones adventure compared to this movie.
Kristine: Ha ha ha!!! That was going to be my next question – tell me about the sequels.
Sean: Well, I have another theory to share. But the sequels are related to it. First let me ask: Did you find this movie gory?
Kristine: No, I already asked, “Where was the gore?” Not at all!
Sean: So one thing the sequels do is really up the ante on the gore and the extended sequences of torture.
Sean: The only gross thing in this movie, for me, was Fatty McBoo cutting his foot off. But I also was happy he was in pain, so it was confusing.
Kristine: HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!! I am LOLing and scaring the cats!
Sean: Run away, pussies!
Kristine: So far, we have come up with nothing except that 13-year-old boys rule Hollywood. I am so depressed now.
Sean: Well, here’s my other dumb and unoriginal theory. A lot of the larger cultural conversation about the Saw and Hostel movies has been that there is some connection between their huge popularity and the post-9/11 torture debates. And the Abu Ghraib scandal and such things. Obviously the tv show 24 was a big lightning rod for this conversation. But theories have been floated, that I am sympathetic too, that some of the popular embracing of Saw and Hostel has to do with our collective trauma from 9/11 and confronting the idea of torture because of the political contexts brought about after 9/11.
Kristine: Hmmm. I get the theory…but I don’t see how Saw is an answer to that trauma. For one thing, as you pointed out, the movie only pretends, and glancingly at that, to care about the psychology of the perpetrator (Jigsaw), the victims, or the “seeker” (Danny Glover). It never gets into any of the real reasons people torture, or how torture affects people. The only real way I see it relating to Abu Ghraib or any of that is in the aesthetics – these barren, hopeless, unknown rooms where evil is taking place. That “things” are happening to people everywhere, all the time, and we don’t know about it…
Sean: Yes. I mean this is really a conversation to pick up and expound upon once we’ve watched Hostel, because I am more certain that Hostel is about processing the idea of torture than Saw is. But there is something about Saw where we are collectively imagining ourselves into these hopeless situations, where all of our power had been taken away by unseen and unknown figures, and we are being tortured and brutalized. It seems like a bizarre psychological displacement, where we both get to inhabit the headspace of terror suspects who are being tortured, and also distance ourselves from that and occupy a privileged position of witness who can also (pruriently) enjoy the torture.
Kristine: But I didn’t have that reaction at all when I watched it. I didn’t picture myself in their situation, or try to puzzle my way out of it.
Sean: Kristine, we are trying to psychoanalyze the mass cultural phenomena! This is not just about YOU!
Sean: Don’t you agree that you are not the “audience’ for this movie?
Kristine: Clearly not. I couldn’t identify with the characters, nor did I want to. I really want a smart fan of this movie to break it down and lay it out for us.
Sean: I mean, this goes back to a larger psychological theory about horror movies, that they are spaces in which mass cultural anxieties get confronted and purged… That’s the context for my earlier comments. Is there such a thing as a smart person who likes this movie?
Kristine: Well, that is a good question. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Sean: I am being a snob and a jerk.
Kristine: I think you are being sincere in how you view this movie. My question is this: I feel like it’s a given that there is this collective trauma that you spoke of, regarding 9/11 and the mysterious unknown masterminds of destruction and secret prisons and torture, etc. But do you think there really is? For the 13-year-old boys out there (literally and figuratively) to whom this movie is meant for? I have my doubts…
Sean: Well, let me clarify. I think Saw taps into some deep psychological need to confront torture. And also to seek symbolic revenge upon the “terrorists” out there who we imagine are being/have been tortured, even as we also flirt with identifying with them… But yes I think that there is a deep bloodlust in culture and in the minds of 13-year-old boys especially!
Kristine: Bloodlust, yes. Though again, this movie really comes up short in that regard. Going in a different direction – I think there’s something also about the idea that someone IS in control, it’s NOT all random. Maybe Jigsaw is weirdly comforting to some people? This God-like being who is always 100 steps ahead and has it all figured out? Maybe people prefer that vision to the idea that bad, evil shit just happens sometimes?
Sean: Right, an evil mastermind. We always want there to be one of those.
Kristine: Or just a mastermind!
Sean: But this movie reflects conservative ideology right? Punishing people for being junkies, for having affairs with Asians, etc.
Kristine: Yes, and in that Dr. Ugly can save himself if he does the right thing and prioritizes his wife and child above all others. Which he finally “sees the light” and does.
Sean: Well, this is the biggest horror franchise of all time. And it is about bloodlust and men reforming themselves and women being props.
Kristine: Well, I am depressed about that. Especially after classic crazed women month, which was so delightful! What would you have done if Jigsaw took off his cloak and he was….Middle-Aged Woman from Onibaba?
Sean: Rejoice! The last thing I want to say is that I became an unwitting defender of the Saw movies when a New York media podcast that shall remain nameless said, “Anyone who owns more than one Saw movie on DVD needs to seek help.” And I then got in a Facebook fight with one of the hosts of that podcast and it DEEPLY traumatized me!
Kristine: !!!!!!!! WHAT?
Sean: I explained all this to you on the phone when it happened.
Kristine: They don’t need to seek help, they just need to watch better movies.
Sean: So, I want to be clear that I don’t hate the Saw movies because of the violence or brutality, I hate them because of the stupidity and lack of camp and lack of glorious madness in the gore.
Kristine: Exactly, I want to make it very clear that is my view as well.
Sean: And for being a glorified episode of CSI: Abu Ghraib.
Kristine: Ha!!! Law & Order: Dr. Ugly Unit.
Sean: What do you rate this?
Kristine: Isn’t it obvs? This is a horror movie classic because…why, exactly? You?
Sean: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete. And also: Busted! Also, I just want you to know that there are SIX sequels to this movie. Kristine there are SEVEN SAW MOVIES. And they all made BANK at the box office.
Kristine: Good God. That is so frustrating. If I was a filmmaker I would be either slicing my wrists or planning a torture box session on everyone involved with Saw.
Sean: Why is it named Saw? Was there a saw?
Sean: Oh the foot thing? Duh I just got that.
Kristine: Yes, it’s the saw that Dr. Ugly uses to remove his foot when he sees the light and decides to put family first.
Sean: A dull dummy saw wouldn’t cut through bone would it? His flesh must be like tapioca pudding.
Kristine: Ewww, sick!
The Girl’s Rating: This is a horror movie classic because…why, exactly?
The Freak’s Rating: This is horror movie homework – essential to know but not fun to complete AND Busted!