Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Look At The "Saw" Franchise

The original Saw is one of my favorite horror films, and I’m not talking about the short film that started it all, I mean the actual full length feature. Leigh Whannell and James Wan had an idea, they were told to make that idea into a short film so they could shop it around to possible financers…Whannell wrote it, Wan directed it. The plan worked. The short film stars Whannell as a survivor of one of Jigsaws “traps” (the same reverse bear trap that Amanda (Shawnee Smith) has in Saw) telling his story to a detective. While the short film isn’t that great, particularly the acting of Whannell (he played Adam in Saw), they were able to find the financial backing to make Saw. Made with an estimated budget of $1.2 million the film would gross almost $103 million worldwide. You can see why they made it into a franchise…and I think that’s the problem. They should have kept it small, and the plot the way it was, rather than transforming it into what Saw VI with its estimated budget of $11 million became. Think of it like this The Blair Witch Project was made with $60,000 and earned almost $249 million worldwide. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, $15 million budget and grossed close to $48 million. I should also note that I thought both of those films were pieces of shit. So why do I love Saw?

First and foremost I don’t consider it to belong in the “torture porn” category that everyone seems to like to sling around. For fucksakes everything with a little gore is not torture porn. Deadgirl is not The Girl Next Door which is also not like Hostel which is…you get the idea. Not only do I consider Saw to be a good psychological thriller, but I actually understand the overall message it is trying to present. Look at films that are considered psychological thrillers, why are they good? They are good because you are able to get into the protagonists head, to understand what they are going through, to realize the actual horror that is being inflicted unto them. What is Saw? Exactly what I just described. Except for a few cut scenes involving detectives looking for Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), we are forced to watch two men, in a mentally impossible scenario, through the entirety of the film. I think one of the reasons audiences might not want to attach themselves to the characters of Adam and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) is because they are not perfect, they are flawed. These flaws that we see in them are exactly the flaws that Jigsaw saw in them. They are not Ashley Judd in Kiss the Girls with a perfect job, in a perfect house, who keeps herself in perfect shape, and minds her own perfect business. Adam lives in a rundown apartment and spies on people, Gordon doesn’t give two shits about his patients and is cheating on his wife. What does that make them? Human. So what was the message? Live your life to the fullest and don’t take for granted the things you have. He felt that Adam was living vicariously through other people rather than living his own life…if he didn’t want to live his life then he was taking it for granted. With Gordon it was as I stated. There he is in a profession where he can do so much good and instead he is neglecting his family and the people he swore to help. Think of it like the scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden grabs the store clerk...only jacked up to include actual death. It’s simple, it’s neat, and like Highlander, money got the best of them and they decided to fuck it up.

Saw II was an apparent attempt at taking that psychological film and making into a sociological movie. If you really want to look at it (even though I know several people who felt the second film was better) this was the beginning of the end for the Saw franchise. Where the first movie was about two men being put to the test, the second one follows a group of people. However, does it really? One can certainly argue that the “game” in Saw II is not really being played by the people trapped in the building so much as Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). Here again is where the franchise gets fucked. They have started moving away from the point of the first one and are trying to set it up for a potential series. Focusing more on Jigsaw…who was a minor character really in the first one…and less on that personal struggle of the protagonist. In fact, who is the protagonist in Saw II? We can’t say that it is Jigsaw, or Detective Matthews…it certainly isn’t really any of the people in the building. So who? Daniel Matthews (Erik Knudsen)? The son? Even he is not really a likeable fixture. The formula of the first one, because the message is being convoluted, has failed. I’m going to bounce around a little here so bear with me. This movie gets regurgitated into two others. Saw IV and Saw V. In both II and IV the main character is given a task. Leave everything alone and all will be well. In II if Matthews leaves Jigsaw alone his son would be delivered to him safely. In IV if Officer Rigg (Lyriq Bent) went against his nature and did not rush headfirst into things those that he wanted to live…would. The other aspect is that of the sociological standpoint. Where in Saw a person had to survive “their” task in order to prevail, with II and V a group has to work together to live. Suddenly the decisions are taken out of the individuals hands and thrown into someone else’s. Case in point, when Amanda is thrown into the pit of used needles by Xavier (Franky G). In V rather than work together they quickly kill each other off. The mental anguish the audience goes through with a character is gone…now we are merely watching pawns on a chess board.

Saw III changes the story once again. In this one the main focus of the film isn’t even the person playing the game…not really…the ending may make you believe that but I think it’s really just full of shit. III would lead you to believe that you are watching two games being played, one with Amanda (rising as Jigsaws apprentice) , the other with Jeff (Angus Macfayden), an alcoholic father who dreams of revenge over the death of his son while destroying the relationship he has with his daughter and wife. The real purpose of this one, in my opinion, is to try to further the story along. The main goal here is to continue the franchise by creating a new Jigsaw, someone to take over the reins. They fuck it up though. One, they take the story on a completely different path. Now, the person playing the game controls other peoples lives, now the player is allowed to chose who lives or dies. This theme is played on again in VI. In VI (which is really just a shot at healthcare…not to mention Jigsaws turn at revenge like he puts Jeff through) Jigsaws healthcare guy is forced to choose who lives or dies, the purpose is to use his formula (the one he uses to deny clients coverage), the overall effect is that he will realize his formula is wrong. Two, they stepped away from the horror aspect of the film and are simply trying to come up with a new storyline for us to follow, that of the “real” apprentice. It is no secret…and neither of the apprentices are up to par with Jigsaw himself. Both Amanda and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) put people in un-winnable situations. I suppose I should mention that the “solo” game is no longer in the forefront. These true tests that the original Saw upheld are now regulated to glimmers. Tiny little flashes of trials that people had to go through. In other words…the Saw films have abandoned the story and purpose and are simply going for the cash cow.

I own them all…in case you were wondering. In fact, I just acquired V and VI. I honestly don’t know why I keep subjecting myself to them. Part of it is because I like to see the new ways they kill people (of particular note, The Rack, from III and the Shotgun Merry-Go-Round from VI), while another part is because I hope, deep down in side, that they find the proper voice again. Find that message of what it means to be human and live your life to the fullest. I’m sure part of this has to do with the fact that Whannell passed the writing privileges of his baby to Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (they’ve done IV, V and VI) the lovely duo behind such films as Feast and The Collector. Another may be the directing. Wan left after the first one, which likely tells you something. He was replaced by Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera) for II, III and IV who was himself replaced by David Hackl (who did the production designs for II, III and IV), who was then pushed aside for Kevin Greutert who is also directing VII(and was the editor on III, IV and V). One thing’s for sure…they like to keep it in the family. I love the original Saw, I really do. I believe it has changed the face of horror, what directors are willing to try to do on screen, what they are trying to get away with showing. The levels of gore are now being pushed higher, the levels of decency, the levels of what they feel we can take. While some of you may consider this a bad thing I view it as sort of a revolution. I personally like to be shocked. I think Saw is the forefather of this revolution.

NOTE: Many people like to point out that Jigsaw is not a serial killer. That he never actually kills anyone, they kill themselves. Once the franchise got going they even made sure to relay this theory into the films and dialogue. True. If this only involved the people in his game. Tell that to Detective Steven Sing in Saw who was merely trying to chase a criminal when his head disappeared from a shotgun blast.

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