Saw – A cut above the rest?

23 March 2011

After Saw 3D’s recent DVD release, Robin McConnell takes an incisive look at the franchise

Ah, the Saw films. The most successful horror franchise in history is also the most divisive. Torture porn or provocative horror? In fairness, it was 2005’s Hostel that gave birth to the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre, and 2004’s Saw was readily classified alongside it. As Saw VII hit he DVD shelves, I watched the first six to see if they deserved their reputation.

 The clever premise of the Saw films is that its iconic killer does not commit murder directly: he puts is victims in situations where their choices result in either their freedom or their own deaths. Naturally, most of his victims die because the traps usually involve self-mutilation and they are not willing to harm themselves. The catch is that all his victims are people who don’t value the goodness of their lives (rich adulterous doctors, reckless loan sharks, neglecting parents); the Jigsaw killer has terminal cancer, see, and wants other people to experience his life-changing near-death experience. How considerate.

Saw is a very tense little film that’s more disturbing than it is scary. It is unusual in its focus on the victims rather than the killer. A neat twist wraps up the Usual Suspects-style structure where flashbacks open out a story which is essentially two men in a room talking. While there is blood, most of the gore is implied and the worst violence takes place off-screen; quite watchable unless you’re a complete wimp. Saw II is a fiendish little sequel that ups the scale and boasts a clever twist. Unfortunately, its tight plot is almost undermined by new director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed Saws II to IV and lacks control over, well, nearly everything.

Saw III marks the point when the franchise became for fans only. Its main purpose is to fill in Jigsaw’s apprentice’s background via flashbacks. No amount of OTT deaths can keep you entertained through two hours of complex storytelling that’s still left open-ended for the sequel. It also marks the point when good casting left the series. Apart from protagonist Angus Macfayden, none of the new actors can really act, although this can certainly be partly blamed on increasingly thin characterisation. Saw IV is a definite improvement (it thankfully cuts the running time down to 91 minutes) but if you thought Saw III’s twist overwrought and convoluted, then Saw IV’s is a veritable mindfuck. Still, sometimes it’s fun to be mindfucked.

For some, Saw V is the nadir of the franchise, but I think that prize goes to the overlong, over-plotted and over-stylised Saw III. Still, Saw V is easily the least worthwhile: first-time director David Hackl is better than Bousman (you won’t feel like your eyes have been gouged out) but has the worst, most inane story to tell. Honestly, I was still waiting for the film to begin when it suddenly ended. All the important events of Saw V are recapped via a minute of flashbacks in Saw VI, which says something about the plot.

Saw VI is arguably the best sequel. It’s full of plot holes and overly cruel deaths, but editor-turned-director Kevin Greutert injects tension and pathos back into the series. With its almost-sympathetic protagonist, Saw VI was topical in 2009 by focusing on health insurance workers and their literally life-or-death policy decisions. It also tied up many of the loose ends left since Saw III and feels complete rather than just a set-up for a sequel (though that’s here too). Greutert, the best director after Saw’s James Wan, returned for this final chapter. Bring on Saw VII!

With the films increasingly inaccessible, the best thing about the franchise is Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. He lives up to the story’s – the series is effectively one long story – claims to Jigsaw’s compassion, quiet anger and intelligence that allows him to plot even after he dies in the third film. He also elicits our sympathy, which is the most disturbing aspect of the entire franchise. By feeling the killer’s justification, are we accomplices to the horrific deaths? Maybe, but that is probably a far more profound question than the filmmakers ever intended to ask.

Robin McConnell

Photo: Saw III – Image.net