If you told me a year ago that I'd be sitting in a movie theater waiting to watch all five movies in the Saw franchise back-to-back, I'd have chained you to a pipe and left you for dead. Torture-porn turns my stomach, and even the Final Destination movies left me feeling queasy. I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a demented masterpiece, but there's something disturbing and even depraved about movies whose only suspense derives from wondering which defenseless person will die next, and in what horrible fashion.
The arrival of a new Saw movie doesn't seem like cause for celebration, but on the day before Saw V's opening, AMC Theaters offered lucky fans in about four dozen venues nationwide the chance to watch a marathon of all four previous installments, followed by the just post-midnight première of the new arrival. Which is how I found myself sitting in a mall in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, waiting for the torture to start.
Why was I there? Maybe I'm just a belated rubbernecker, giving in to the urge to peek after driving past the same accident again and again. Maybe I was compelled to find out just how bad, how sick, how vile the Saw movies really are. Maybe I just thought it would make a good article.
Going in, I knew almost zero about the movies. I gathered there was some guy named Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell, who concocts elaborate scenarios in which his captives must mutilate themselves in order to survive. I think Danny Glover's in the first one. And that's about it. I was a Saw virgin, preparing to have my eyeballs raped with a rusty screwdriver for the better part of 10 hours. Here's how it went, in hour-by-hour (and sometimes minute-by-minute) detail:
The setup: Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell are chained to pipes at opposite ends of a dank, white-tiled room; a dead man with his brains blown out is lying on the floor between them. They have been imprisoned by the Jigsaw Killer, who places his victims in elaborate traps which require them to mutilate themselves (or others) to escape. Elwes' task is to kill his fellow prisoner and saw off his foot with a hacksaw before the killer who has taken his wife and child hostage ends their lives.
4:00 p.m. It begins. Apart from me, the theater is entirely empty.
4:02 p.m. Is it supposed to be this dark? I can't see anything.
4:04 p.m. Whannell's character yells, "Turn on the lights!"
4:12 p.m. Where are Cary Elwes' eyebrows?
4:13 p.m. A woman walks into the theater. I've got company. She moves into my row, which is a little odd. Okay, now she's walking right up to me. "Are you here for the whole thing?" she asks. "Uh, yes," I stammer, more unnerved by her presence than anything onscreen. It turns out her teenage son and a group of his friends are in the lobby, but the staff won't admit them without an adult guardian. Will I come up front and vouch for them so a bunch of 16-year-olds can sit through 10 hours of sadism and gore? Sure, why not?
4:17 p.m. Where did those hacksaws come from? The teenagers enter and loudly thank me by name.
4:20 p.m. Cut away to the cops investigating one of Jigsaw's other killings. Technically, one of them points out, Jigsaw is "not actually a murderer," since he only arranges the circumstances of their deaths. This sounds not entirely right. I make a note to check this with my wife, who is a lawyer. It turns out to be bunkum.
4:21 p.m. Hey, it's that Asian dude from Lost!
4:23 p.m. Hey, it's Ben from Lost!
4:25 p.m. Is that a puppet?
4:26 p.m. For a maniac, Jigsaw has a pretty highly developed aesthetic, which loosely resembles the video for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," the one with the pig's head.
4:31 p.m. Okay, now the puppet is riding a tricycle. Somebody had a messed-up childhood.
4:32 p.m. Amanda (Shawnee Smith) describes being locked in an iron mask and forced to tunnel into her cellmate's stomach for the key before the mask rips her jaw open. Well, she doesn't actually speak. She just quivers while the movie cuts away to strobing flashbacks that culminate with her sifting through a pile of gooey guts. Show, don't tell.
4:33 p.m. Amanda, a former junkie, credits Jigsaw with helping her find meaning in life. "He helped me," she says. So he's like a life coach, but with razor wire.
4:45 p.m. The police follow a clue to Stygian St. Badabing!
4:50 p.m. And there's that pig's head.
5:05 p.m. Whannell tries to trick Jigsaw by pretending he's been poisoned. Even for fake dying, it's pretty lousy.
5:31 p.m. Elwes makes with the sawing. Mmmm.
5:33 p.m. Elwes is so pale, he looks like Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran, and Whannell keeps reminding me of Jimmy Fallon, which is distracting, even if I would like to see Fallon chained up in a basement somewhere.
5:43 p.m. One down. I thought I'd be more disturbed at this point, but James Wan's direction is so inept, it's hard to feel much of anything. Bring on the gore.
Saw II (2005)
The setup: Six people, including the son of detective Donnie Wahlberg, must find their way out of a booby-trapped house before the doors shut forever. And they've been dosed with a slow-acting nerve agent to boot.
6:01 p.m. "It's 6:01," one of the teenagers yells out, in watch-tapping tone of voice. The movie starts. There are now about a dozen people in the theater, most of them too young to vote.
6:08 p.m. Hey, it's Kerry, that cute detective from the first movie!
6:11 p.m. The cops are tracking down Jigsaw. This is like a lousy episode of Criminal Minds.
6:15 p.m. The cops creep into Jigsaw's warehouse. The tricycle of doom approaches.
6:18 p.m. So far, we're following the rule of sequels: When in doubt, double everything.
6:20 p.m. Jigsaw coos, "Oh yes, there will be blood." Did Paul Thomas Anderson know he was stealing the tagline from a second-rate horror movie?
6:21 p.m. Six people wake up in a room. Suddenly this feels like a bad Off-Broadway play.
6:23 p.m. Hey, is Amanda one of the six? She is. That hardly seems fair.
6:24 p.m. Gee, I wonder if that guy in the hooded sweatshirt who keeps skulking around in the back of the frame will turn out to be important. Probably not.
6:27 p.m. "He's testing us," Amanda yells. "He wants us to survive this."
6:31 p.m. There's Skulky again.
6:36 p.m. They should have called this Saw II: Still Skulkin'.
6:38 p.m. Turns out Skulky's name is Obi. I like mine better.
6:49 p.m. "Those who do not appreciate life do not deserve life," Jigsaw says. I'm going to get that crocheted on something.
6:55 p.m. Amanda gets chucked into a pit full of hypodermic needles. Ouch.
6:59 p.m. A cop yells, "We need to start thinking outside the box, or his son is going to end up in one." Zing!
7:00 p.m. Jigsaw seems to know everything about everybody. The fantasy of the omniscient serial killer strikes again.
7:07 p.m. Now that's how you fake being poisoned.
7:09 p.m. Amanda and the kid are being chased around the house by a crazy Latino dude with a knife. I feel a flicker of involvement. The kid I can do without, but putting Amanda through this twice is just mean.
7:16 p.m. Jigsaw directs Wahlberg to the location of his son. "It's the last house on the left." Pow!
7:30 p.m. Turns out Amanda was working with Jigsaw all along.
7:34 p.m. Two down. II is a big improvement; it's basically hackwork, but it's competent hackwork. It actually manages to engender sympathy for its characters, which is more than you can say for anything else in the franchise. One of those characters turns out to be a serial killer's assistant, but still. Jigsaw's philosophy of self-definition through violence is a tad crypto-fascist, but it isn't put forth with enough conviction to be genuinely troubling.
Saw III (2006)
The setup: Amanda kidnaps a doctor to operate on Jigsaw's brain tumor. A man whose son was killed by a drunk driver must "learn to forgive" by freeing a series of people from Jigsaw's traps.
8:05 p.m. Hey, it's Kerry!
8:15 p.m. Kerry closes her medicine cabinet and sees a figure standing behind her. If we're resorting to mirror scares this early in the game, we're in trouble.
8:19 p.m. Oh my God! They killed Kerry!
8:23 p.m. Another mirror scare? The well is really running dry.
8:24 p.m. The doctor calls out, "Hello, is anybody here?" We are in full-on grade-C slasher-movie territory.
8:25 p.m. Amanda whips out her knife and gives her shoulders a little flex. She's enjoying this.
8:28 p.m. More words of wisdom from Jigsaw. "Death is a surprise party." A really, really lousy surprise party.
8:38 p.m. I really don't like Amanda's hair this time.
8:40 p.m. So Jigsaw needs an operation to "decompress his brain." What's the technical term for that?
8:48 p.m. At long last, the Saw series has its first pair of naked boobies.
9:07 p.m. Jigsaw has a seizure, and we see flashes of a blonde-haired woman. Mrs. Jigsaw?
9:10 p.m. Even "I love you" sounds creepy when Tobin Bell says it.
9:53 p.m. Amanda gets shot, and Jigsaw's throat is sliced open with a circular saw. This is going to be tough to get out of.
9:55 p.m. Three down. Signs of wear are definitely starting to show. Jigsaw's death traps have become so baroque they're kind of ridiculous, like the one that threatens to drown its victim in churned-up pig carcasses. Watching the movies back-to-back definitely has a numbing effect. The sight of a man having his limbs twisted until the bones pop through his skin might have actually seemed disturbing a few hours ago. I eat a cheeseburger.
Saw IV (2007)
The setup: Could Jigsaw have yet another helper? One obsessed cop has to know. The fate of two colleagues—including Donnie Wahlberg, who has been chained up since the end of II—hangs in the balance.
10:11 p.m. The autopsy. Hello, Jigsaw's willie.
10:14 p.m. Jigsaw's head is opened up with a bone saw, his brain removed, and his chest cut open. So he seems to be pretty darn dead.
10:34 p.m. After three movies, it must be getting harder to think up novel ways to kill people, but here's one: a woman strapped to a chair, with her hair wound around a slowly turning crank. Death by ponytail.
11:00 p.m. A fleeting glimpse of a tricycle hanging from a basement rafter. Is that all we get?
11:18 p.m. Flashback to Jigsaw's first killing, which conveniently takes place in the year of the pig.
11:22 p.m. Hey, it's the bereaved dad from III. Will this mean anything to anyone who hasn't just watched it?
11:38 p.m. Four down. My vision is starting to blur, but I have to admit I'm kind of fascinated by the contortions the writers have gone through to keep Bell onscreen. In this case, it involves jumping backward in time after the first scene, and staging a plot that runs parallel with the events of III until the two movies meet at the end. The acting keeps getting worse: Costas Mandylor, the homicide detective who is revealed as Jigsaw's protégé, is so wooden that he makes Michael Paré look like Laurence Olivier.
Saw V (2008)
The setup: Having been revealed as Jigsaw's protégé, detective Costas Mandylor sets a trap for the FBI man on his tail. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, five people progress through a series of tests which knock them off one by one.
12:01 a.m. The main event. The dozen or so people in the theater has now swelled to upward of 60, not counting one infant.
12:06 a.m. Like III, V begins right where the previous movie left off. I wonder if they'll do some Godfather-type special edition where they knit all the scenes together in chronological order.
12:08 a.m. Apparently we're going to watch Mandylor and the equally lifeless Scott Patterson chase after each other for a good chunk of the movie. Oh joy.
12:22 a.m. A thought. Has anyone actually escaped one of Jigsaw's traps? He keeps falling back on the rationale that he gives people "a chance," but so far, Amanda is the only one to get a passing grade, and she flunks out at the end of III. I guess there's not much percentage in building these elaborate death machines if you aren't going to see them at work.
12:24 a.m. Patterson wakes up with his head inside a box which rapidly begins to fill with water. This would be scarier were it not issuing from water-cooler jugs.
12:37 a.m. Once again, Jigsaw is lecturing his victims about squandering their "advantages." I wonder if the franchise will get around to explaining his anti-elitist bent. Maybe the rich kids were mean to him at school?
12:48 a.m. Even with the larger crowd, there's a conspicuous lack of noise from the crowd. Even the baby is quiet. No one's yelling out for people to duck, or not open that door. No one cares if they live or die.
12:59 a.m. "Killing is distasteful to me," Jigsaw says. He has a funny way of showing it.
1:09 a.m. Hey! Obi!
1:20 a.m. Some guy is getting his arm cut in half lengthwise by a table saw. At this point, it doesn't faze me at all.
1:40 a.m. [Spoiler!] Mandylor outwits Patterson by throwing himself into a box filled with broken glass, which provides protection as the walls of the room subsequently close in and crush Patterson to paste (the splintering ulna is a nice touch). Unfortunate, they couldn't both be smooshed, but half a loaf is better than none.
1:42 a.m. I live!
Closing thoughts: After watching the Saw franchise in toto, I no longer see its success as a sign of the impending apocalypse. I wouldn't say I'm a convert, but the movies are at least marginally more thoughtful than some of their counterparts, and there's definitely been an effort made (not always successfully) to make sure the sequels aren't just rehashed versions of their predecessors. I don't see myself showing up just past midnight next year to see Saw VI, but stranger things have happened.
Rather than putting the viewer in the implicit position of identifying with the torturer, the Saw movies are, as their title indicates, voyeuristic. They aren't on anybody's side; they just want to put on a good show. While later installments veer toward more conventional vigilantism, the early movies are deliberately vague about the "crimes" Jigsaw's victims have committed, which often amount to no more than failing to sufficiently appreciate their lives. This may not be an entirely healthy twist, but it's a relief from the usual if-you-fuck, you-die logic of slasher movies.
While the movies are knee-deep in gore, the Rube Goldberg nature of Jigsaw's contraptions prevents them from being too disturbing. The only one that made me wince was one of the simplest, from Saw II: a Plexiglas box with razor-sharp arm-holes which trap the victim's wrists and slice them to ribbons. (Sort of a malignant twist on the hand in the cookie jar.) There's nothing to rival the woman having her spine severed with a hunting knife in Wolf Creek, to name one grotesque example.
Basically, as their dingy production design and grinding scores indicate, the Saw movies are gothics, luridly exaggerated quasi-morality plays whose initial shocks dissipate with each further installment. After five movies, Jigsaw and his methods have become familiar, almost comforting. He's a serial killer, but at least he's reliable.