Six Weeks of Halloween 2013: Week 2 - Saw Sequels

In 2006, while grappling with the film Hostel, NY Magazine critic David Edelstein coined the phrase "Torture Porn" to describe the emerging focus on explicit scenes of torture and mutilation, as presented in not only Hostel but in films like "The Devil's Rejects, Saw, Wolf Creek, and even (dare I blaspheme?) The Passion of the Christ." Since then, the debates have never really stopped. On the one hand, "Torture Porn" is a poor descriptor because it is applied to widely and it implies a pejorative that isn't even really present in Edelstein's original article (He describes Hostel as "actually not a bad little thriller" and gives it a lot of credit for things like "the mixture of innocence and entitlement in young American males abroad", even while poo pooing the torture). That being said, the sub-genre went on to be almost universally reviled (at least, critically) for most of the aughts. In that way, I feel Torture Porn shares a certain kinship with the (also almost universally reviled at the time) slashers of the early 1980s. This immediately endears me to the sub-genre (and makes me think it a fertile ground for analysis in the future, what with the very real torture being debated out here in the real world, etc...), but it's still a tough sell.

In general, this revulsion isn't that controversial, even amongst folks who seek this stuff out. Movies agreed to be in the sub-genre are unpleasant affairs (to put it mildly), and will frequently prompt me to wonder why on earth I'm actually watching something like this. This isn't a new thing for me, I've often wondered why I'm attracted to the lurid sadism of horror films, but when I look closely, I find it's not about "horror" at all. Unless you consider various bits of culture, ranging from frustratingly difficult video games to Shakespearean tragedy, to be "horror" as well... Why is it that we, as humans, seek out and engage with pieces of culture that steep us in failure, tragedy, and/or pain? In attempting to explain paradoxical popularity of Greek tragedy, Aristotle argued that while we experience negative emotions in the course of our normal life, empathizing with fictional tragedy helps to purge those emotions from us in a cathartic way. That may be true of works like Oedipus and Antigone (or Shakespeare's work), it may even be true of a lot of horror films, but something about torture porn makes me question that thesis. I feel no real catharsis when watching Martyrs, I just feel dirty and, well, bad. Man, that movie is a downer, and I have a lot of respect for it, but I can never recommend it, nor do I ever want to watch it again. Perhaps the other philosophical approach would apply here - one cannot know happiness without experiencing sadness. Or something. What am I, Plato?

There were plenty of movies before Saw that could be considered Torture Porn (like Audition, which is fantastic, and Ichi the Killer, which is not), but Saw seems to be the real flashpoint of the sub-genre, not to mention its most (surprisingly) successful franchise. I actually think it's a pretty good movie. Clearly low budget and a bit sloppy, that kinda works in its favor, and while its influences are clear (notably Se7en and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, amongst others), it carved out an identity of its own. I have seen the second movie before, and while I was impressed with the continuity (a theme that will continue below), I found it to be less approachable (i.e. more "why am I watching this?" than catharsis). From there, I sorta opted out of the franchise. I've somehow seen the first few minutes of Saw III a few times, but never really followed through. Well, that ended this weekend:
  • Sawed by the Bell (Robot Chicken)
  • Saw (trailer)
  • Saw II (trailer)
  • Saw III - Picking up right where Saw II leaves off, this film proceeds to fill in some backstory from the previous films while moving ahead with its own tale. I like the effort they make to maintain continuity in all these movies (something franchises of the 80s rarely did), though I'm not entirely sure if this is just a good retcon job or if they really did plan this stuff out. Given the franchise's obsession with well laid plans, that might not be that far fetched. On the other hand, I'm not sure if this is really something to be that proud of in the first place. The frequent flashbacks and byzantine narrative of this movie work well enough, provided you're actually interested in that sort of thing. Personally, I like puzzle movies, so while the resolutions to these movies tend to be faintly ridiculous, I enjoy that part of it well enough. And they do try to change things up a bit here, putting one man named Jeff through a series of trials meant to help him deal with his son, who died in a tragic car accident (rather than groups of people, like in previous movies). Various other people who played a role in his son's death are put into traps, and he has to make the decision to save them or let them die. I like the approach, and there are some effective bits here (I felt for the dude when he had to incinerate his son's toys and whatnot in order to progress to the next phase of Jigsaw's test), but on the other hand, he wrings his hands and emotes in exactly the same way for every victim, which is too repetitive (not to mention annoying). The traps and gore are mildly creative, and while one twisty trap is pretty crazy, it never quite hit the ick factor of the needle pit in part II.
    Saw III
    Visually, this isn't exactly breaking new ground and pretty much all of the movies have that same aesthetic; it looks dirty and grimy, as it should. I was a little surprised at the ending, even though I was pretty sure I'd heard about this before. Spoiler alert: Jeff kills Jigsaw. And Jigsaw Jr., Amanda, dies as well. Given that there are 4 movies left in the series, this seems like an interesting approach, no? On the other hand, given Jigsaw's superhuman ability to plan for every eventuality, that's maybe not so surprising. Heck, even as he's getting his throat cut, he whips out a tape recorder and plays the appropriate message. I'm sure he has a few other mini-me Jigsaw Jr's hanging around. All in all, it's an entertaining enough film, even if the varied plotlines and flashbacks are getting a bit unwieldy.
  • Se7en (trailer)
  • How Saw Should Have Ended (Parody)
  • Hostel (trailer)
  • Saw IV - So Jigsaw really is dead, and yet, we see as much of him in this movie as we ever have, thanks to the power of flashbacks! Lots and lots of flashbacks! We get more backstory here than we have in the previous three films, actually, seeing the events leading up to Jigsaw's eventual obsession. But back in the present, we've got various detectives and FBI agents trying to pick up the pieces from part III, and Sgt. Rigg comes to be the main victim that Jigsaw is targeting here.
    Jigsaw
    The puzzle here works better than I thought, though I'm not sure if I really got the ending. The pieces fit, but maybe the concept is just getting a bit old. And we do find out that there is indeed another Jigsaw Jr. out there, though he seems to be following through on Jigsaw's plans. It's surprising that these movies are still working and fitting together, even if this isn't exactly awesome.
  • The Abominable Dr Phibes (trailer)
  • The Muppets: Saw (Parody)
  • Paranormal Saw (Funny or Die)
  • Saw V - And here's where the series finally derails (you could make arguments for earlier, but this seems indisputable). Jigsaw Jr. is continuing his ways and covering his tracks, and there's yet more flashbacks, and obsessed detectives, and there's a bunch of people in a series of Jigsaw traps, and blah blah blah. The folks in the traps don't seem to be related to all the wrangling outside the story, even if they are all related internally. For what its worth, the very end of this does tie some things together in a way I found mildly clever, but that's just the same puzzle structure as all the other movies. And Jigsaw Jr. doesn't quite have the anti-hero charm of the original Jigsaw. When Jigsaw wins in the end, you can kinda see the logic and even ethics behind it. When Jigsaw Jr. wins? Not so much. He's just a dick, and I'm actively rooting against him. Which is odd, because, you know, he's the "villain" and I should be rooting against him. So this movie is inverting the inversion of the series? Maybe, maybe not. It is repetitive, and the flashbacks are just getting annoying, and it's also repetitive. In the end, the series is getting a bit long in the tooth at this point, and the entries are starting to blur together in my head (even having watched them in relative proximity). It's just not holding together very well in this movie. My understanding is that VI and VII are actually better, so I guess we'll have to check them out sometime. But not right now.
So I don't love these movies, but I can see why they are popular (and I do like the byzantine, puzzle-like nature of the plots) and I like the notion of having a sorta Slasher movie equivalent in aughts. In 20 years, some dork will be marathoning these movies in much the same way I marathoned Friday the 13th movies or Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and I think that's pretty cool.

And if you're worried about what the popularity of these Torture Porn movies means, fear not, as the movement is largely over, having been displaced, oddly enough, by the relatively bloodless Paranormal Activity style ghost story (at least, in my mind). These are definitely more my style, to be sure, and we'll see some in the coming weeks. I hope!