Baddie – James Wan.
Lesson – Not all Australian horror is good.
Readers, you don’t know this about me yet – but I am not a James Wan fan. It would be foolish to say he didn’t understand the genre, but I feel that ultimately his films are a collection of successful horror gimmicks that do not make a good movie. Think of it like a sandwich full of delicious things that do not go together. James Wan makes weird sandwiches. Worse, James Wan is Australian (this goes against my unabashed love of Aussie horror) so all of those sandwiches involve vegimite.
That being said, Saw is one of the most popular horror franchises ever, which was intended to span over thirteen films. Thirteen. Fortunately, we end at Saw 3D, which is essentially Saw 7. I’m going to spare you all the misery of seven separate reviews, mostly because I’m pretty positive I can only write, “Inventive-ish ways to torture people,” about three times before you notice.
I’ve personally had to come a long way around to so-called ‘torture-porn’, or what I prefer to call ‘predicament horror’. I don’t like it. I prefer a creature flick 9/10 times – but I’ve had a slight change of heart. This happened sometime around my viewing of The Collector and The Collector, both of which I consider extremely good, and underrated, examples of the genre. It would be facetious to suggest that the Saw franchise is intended to be completely serious – because if it was, well, they failed. Obviously, spoilers ahead. Here we go.
#1) Saw (2004)
Let’s begin at the beginning. Saw is a franchise about a serial killer whom selected his own moniker – Jigsaw (he removes a puzzle-shaped piece of flesh from his victims), who captures people and puts them in life-or-death situations. He does this because he believes in poetic justice, and he wants his victims to understand how precious life is by making them struggle to stay alive. It’s an interesting premise, I’ll grant you, and I do love Cary Elwes. There is a significant twist, and it’s a pretty good one. I was surprised on my first viewing, even if it is a smidgen of deus ex machina.
We are treated to what should be a Se7en-esque crime drama romp through the mind of a killer but is instead a somewhat sloppy thriller with awkward flashbacks and cheap editing effects. Jigsaw has quite a few kills up his sleeve before he gets to Adam and Lawrence – our main characters chained to pipes – and, of course, he uses the iconic puppet. The puppet is, in my mind, silly looking and does nothing for the gravitas of the situation (see my notes on why I liked the Collector costuming so much).
Adam and Lawrence would appear to be the first escalation to a double kill attempt. Lawrence, despite Elwes’ charm, is a tired cliche of an overworked father with infidelity secrets. He actually stands accused of the first series of murders, because his pen was found at one of the murder scenes. The police officers are an older black man who takes his job too seriously and a younger asian kid who jokes too much. It’s honestly so boring.
It’s easy to trash on Saw because it’s been out for so long and has been riffed nine ways to Sunday – but that’s because Saw is a haunted house. Just enough to keep you a little tense and a little grossed out, but ultimately you know it’s other teenagers under all the makeup. The phrase, ‘despite Elwes’ charm’ is pretty frequently relevant, although Michael Emerson makes a strong case for overtly-creepy. The first film ends with the sort of bang that you might picture a-typical frat brothers punching each other in the arm and shouting, “Oh, oh my god! OHHHHH” at.
#2) Saw 2 (2005)
James Wan is succeeded by Darren Lynn Bousman for the sequel – you may know that name from Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival. He brings with him swooping camera motions and rapid half-circles of cinematography. There are stretches of this movie where I feel nauseated – I’m pretty confident this was a goal.
The second film finds eight people trapped in a room, trying to find an antidote for the nerve agent they’re breathing in. One of those people is the son of a detective. The sequel does something kind of interesting, which is, while upping the physical stakes (more people, more traps), it is much more of an ensemble character film. There is a lot more character development, more interactions. Less dumb things( still dumb characters though), although the overarching premise is still kinda flimsy.
Personally, more enjoyable than the first, if only for the more accurate film pacing. This Saw knows it’s identity and doesn’t do much to hide it, and is therefore a more fun movie. It still has some fun twists and turns, although I frankly found the murder devices a little lackluster.
#3) Saw 3 (2006)
The third installment is also directed by Bousman, and opens exactly where we left off in the second film. I would like to take this opportunity to note that the characters in the Saw franchise are almost all stupid. They make idiotic decisions. I get it, they’re under duress, blah blah blah. By now we’ve learned that Jigsaw is grooming his ex-victim current-protege Amanda to take over for him when the cancer kills him, and I’m pretty into the idea. Partially because there simply aren’t many female-bodied serial killer/slashers in horror (see Sleepaway Camp, where there’s still a penis involved) but also because it’s interesting to see where some weird combo of Stockholm Syndrome/PTSD might take Amanda as a character.
Saw 3 has escalation via Amanda – her kills are not like Jigsaw’s. He offered opportunity for escape. Amanda wants her victims to suffer and still die. However, this film is still not quite about Amanda. It’s still about Jigsaw. To the franchise’s credit, at least through the third movie, despite Jigsaw’s subjects being motivated by a desire to not live, they manage to skirt mental illness pretty narrowly. No one is depression-shamed, nor is mental illness made light of. Well, almost. We almost had a strong female serial killer too, but nope. Why must you toy with my emotions, Saw franchise!?
The end of Saw 3 is boring. I zoned out a few dozen times and really just did not care about anyone living or dying, Jigsaw included. It seems like there may have been a solid effort to reign in the scope once more and create a more ‘intimate’ feeling film, but I don’t think that effort paid off.
We end the first three Saw films with some lackluster murders and the demise of Jigsaw – What do the next four (ohgod) have in store?