Seeing Saw


 I’d imagine that Halloween used to be Lionsgate’s favorite holiday. Instead of handing out free candy, the movie studio would give revelers the gift of Saw—a new movie every year—at, naturally, a steep price.

And while none of the Saw movies were ever blockbusters (Saw II was the highest, ahem, grossing installment, earning $87 million), they were so cheap to make that each one must’ve felt like a grotesque cash machine.

The franchise officially petered out in 2010 with Saw 3D: The Final Chapter. But, just like Jigsaw, these things are hard to kill. And today, Lionsgate has re-released the original Saw movie to mark its 10th anniversary.

The original was instrumental in introducing the phrase “torture porn” to the masses. Some critics found the movie pretty vile, and even those who appreciated its bloody creativity had to admit it was one of the most sadistic flicks to ever land on the big screen. And, of course, we had very little use for the movie here at Plugged In. Of the original Saw in 2004, PI reviewer Marcus Yoars wrote:

The graphic movie Se7en is the closest cinematic comparison point we can come up with here. And like that film, Saw has a few clever moments of tension (using a camera’s flash as the only light source during an intense hunt for an intruder, for instance). But its shock factor is strictly based on the glorification of a psychopath’s inhumane mind games. So touting torture as a treat becomes its beating heart—something that should automatically send most morally minded moviegoers running for the exits. And yet, sadly, it won’t.

Over the years, I think every reviewer at Plugged In has seen a Saw movie. And as the premise wore thin, its makers ratcheted up the violence. My own introduction to the franchise was through Saw IV. I wrote that the movie’s “reason for being is to depict torture and mutilation as graphically, grossly and realistically as possible—nothing more.” A fair assessment, I think, looking back over the intervening six years. Honestly, I can appreciate a good onscreen scare. But Saw IV wasn’t even particularly scary. Just gross. Gross and pointless. I was indeed horrified by this horror flick—that it was ever made at all.

And the movies really did get progressively worse. Saw 3D was, in terms of story and content, the absolute worst. Almost universally panned, the movie was severely restricted in Australia, with only moviegoers over the age of 18 allowed to see it. Germany banned it altogether. Here in the United States, Saw 3D was edited down six times before it qualified for an R rating. PI’s Meredith Whitmore, naturally, hated it, writing that “any so-called lessons dealt by these serial murderers are themselves evil at best, devised by human beings—if they can be called that—with no more moral authority than a jackal.” She suggested those who see such films aren’t interested in morality, but rather “vigilante ‘justice’ and how many ways body parts can be severed, ripped, sliced and mashed.”

Saw 3D marked the end of the franchise (for now), and at least a pause in the whole torture-porn horror movie genre. It and Hostel were the two main purveyors of such bloody chills, and with their passing, fright-flicks moved elsewhere: the hand-held cameras and jump scenes of the Paranormal Activity flicks, the atmospheric terror of The Conjuring and others. Oh, there’s still plenty of blood to be found. The Final Destination films, with their squirm-inducing scenes and creative deaths are perhaps the movies most like Saw. But few films now emphasize disembowelments for disembowelments’ sake quite like the Saw movies did.

No, it seems the real inheritors of Saw’s bloody scepter reside on TV—in the Hannibals and the American Horror Storys and, to some extent, The Walking Deads of the small screen. Television is as bloody as it has ever been. And sometimes it seems as though the blood doesn’t so much serve the story as be the story.

So if you’re walking through the mall this weekend and see a poster for Saw, consider the blood it has spilled and the legacy it has spawned. And then walk on by. Quickly.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Erik Hitechew More than 1 year ago

--mattr61: Thank ya!

I've heard that explanation before, and frankly I can see truth in it -- that the real underlying issue might not be so much the presence of questionable or disturbing content but the reason for it being there.  (At the same time, I have questions about some people condemning [X] simply because it is violent, for this very reason.  Or when some people say, "No R ratings, no graphic violence, and no profanity."  What does one do with The Passion, which had all of these things and if I recall was criticized by some for the extent of its violence anyway--and, amusingly yet from a movie-making standpoint understandably enough, got an Academy Award nomination for makeup?  On another note, fun fact--Narnia: Lion, Witch, Wardrobe won said award the following year.)

I've long felt that the things that ratings boards for games, movies, and other media tend to cover -- sex, violence, etc. -- are important for consumers to know about, but they're not the only thing.  I would rather see a discussion of the in-universe purpose  behind these things.  Let's say a work is sexually explicit.  Is it somehow seeking to honor God and Godly morality, such as a straightforward, adult-aimed acting out of the Song of Solomon, or is it promoting lust or libertinism (e.g., an outright rejection of moral responsibility -- not quite the same thing as liberalism) or something else altogether?  I'm not saying that the ratings boards should treat a work differently based on that work's motivations for portraying something that might not be appropriate for children, but what I am saying is that a work can display something without necessarily trying to treat it as moral or even entertaining.

George R. R. Martin once defended the portrayal of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire (TRIGGER WARNING, never mind "young/sensitive readers, please exercise discretion" caution).

Basically, it's a really unsubtle way of reminding us that "the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves."  (This is true, but if I needed to be reminded of that, I could probably just watch the news--which is a large part of why I often don't.  And yet at the same time, I need to be concerned in Christ about those things so I don't isolate myself from them.)

I think a work can put a lot of attention on things its own internal moral compass doesn't necessarily agree with, but after a point, I think this can become hypocritical or problematic if the work tries to condemn something it essentially runs on.  Imagine an exploitation film, whose graphic violence was meant to be enjoyed by the audience, that eventually tries to preach a message of pacifism.  Or imagine if a work openly glamorized adultery and then tried to push a monogamy message at the end.

I think one of the most interesting approaches I've seen a game take toward introspection has been in the recently released Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game whose marketing makes no apologies for its strong anti-Orc violence.  There is a random throwaway line where one character says something about how bloodlust and similar behaviors ultimately serve the Dark Lord Sauron's ends.  The game runs on combat from start to finish (though it also takes on some unorthodox management aspects, since many of your enemies can be made to serve you) and never tries to make the player feel like a jerk for enjoying the well done play mechanics.  At the same time, it invites the player to ask him/herself about the motives behind his or her own actions, such that since the game doesn't really respond one way or the other, it becomes the player's own responsibility for remembering that main character Talion kills and dominates not for the simple sake of doing so but for the purpose of ultimately defeating Sauron and destroying his works through Middle-earth.

Matt R More than 1 year ago

--Great question, Seraph. I think it all boils down to the idea of entertainment. The Old Testament is history. Moreover, it's an honest history of mankind after the Fall. The recorded violence is a recorded illustration of that fallen state. I'm not sure it's necessarily meant to be consumed for entertainment. Hollywood on the other hand most definitely presents blood and carnage as entertainment. To the critics, I'd say we are talking about two different things: the history of the Bible and the fantasy of film. If they wanted to broach the subject of violence in the Bible, then that's totally fine, as long as we're clear the subject has changed from the fiction of entertainment to the fact of reality.

Erik Hitechew More than 1 year ago

--While I think reasonable questions can be asked about the necessity of graphic violence for its own sake, let us not forget that there are many who criticize the Bible for the very same reasons (blood; carnage; punishment including execution that they sometimes see as disproportionate, inappropriate, or genocidal, and so on).  Ergo, what are or should be our counter-arguments for the people who turn criticisms like these against us?

Kendra Ware More than 1 year ago

--I do agree that television has become exponentially more violent in recent years.  I watched the first two seasons of The Walking Dead and felt like I couldn't stomach it anymore.  I watch Game of Thrones and American Horror Story, but that I could not handle.

Matt R More than 1 year ago

--Completely agree, Paul. And I think it says something quite disturbing about the entertainment culture: that glorification of extreme evil on the big screen. It says something about the people who make the films and their lack of moral regard for the sake of money (a good modern-day Mammon example). It says something about those who pay that money to see the films. Just another huge neon sign of the clear and present separation of mankind in rebellion and God, Our Creator. I have not seen the movies, but I have read synopses of the movies to get a feel for the hype. I've done the same with the Walking Dead. And the resounding theme is always hopelessness. It has to be because Hollywood's hope is the good of mankind, which we know is an inherent paradox:

"There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:11-18).