Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Saw the Saw Movies

Horror movies. The phrase brings to mind bad make-up and effects, ridiculous plots, and shock-factor that falls short. Sure, they may have made you jump once in awhile, but it used to be that "horror" was just a code word for "comedy with blood." Not anymore. Movies such as The Ring and Saw have redefined the genre.

I recently finished watching all seven (yes, seven) of these movies. There are a few misses in there (like #2 and, unfortunately, the final chapter), but overall the filmmakers have done an excellent job. The Saw franchise does two things well: Tell a story from movie to movie with extremely tight continuity and give you the creeps.

The surprising thing about the Saw movies is how well written the storyline is. What starts as a very simple concept really is revealed to be a multi-layered storyline with many twists and turns. Just when you think you have everything figured out, they do something like, oh, kill off the major antagonist, Jigsaw, AND his apprentice in the third film. How do you carry on a franchise once you've killed the villain? I won't spoil it for you but it's the gift that keeps on giving. One movie takes place simultaneously with an earlier movie but you aren't aware of it until the end when there's this amazing, "Wait? What's happening?" moment. Every character has a motivation and backstory that is explored with flashbacks in each film. Simply fantastic.

The second thing the Saw movie does well is make you feel empathy for the people in the traps. It's not just some high school kids being murdered. It is good (or bad) people having to do things WAY out of their comfort zone. This causes you as the viewer to empathize and feel what the characters are feeling. How would you feel if you had to cut off your own foot with a hacksaw? Or how about rip a key and a fishhook out of somebody's stomach that's tied to the end of a string hanging out of their mouth? As I watched the series I found myself cringing with uneasiness and I would look away from the screen multiple times during each movie.

These movies might not be for everyone, but I would tell fans of the horror genre to check them out and to stick with the series through the lackluster chapters. But peeling this onion really may make you cry.


  1. Personally, I stopped watching thew SAW series after 4. After Daddy (errr...uhhh Jigsaw) died, I kind of fell out-of-love with it. But I agree that SAW did breath new life into the horror genre. However, I think it's short-sighted to label the genre as a whole, "comedy with blood."

    Having watched far more horror than you, allow me to share my insight. Despite the obvious sub genres like Monster, Slasher, Ghost, Psychological, etc., I find Horror films fall into 4 basic categories.

    1. For children - Seriously, children reap the full benefit of horror movies. As adults, we've matured, and become cynical and jaded. We know there's no such thing as the boogeyman. But tell that to an 8 year old. They live in a world where monsters are real, urban myths are true, and something is indeed under the bed. They sleep with the lights on long after the film is over. No other film genre, be it romance, comedy, drama, etc can impact someone's emotions for more than an hour or so. Sure, you left the theater feeling good after seeing 40-year old virgin, but were you still grinning ear to ear the next day?

    The problem however is in the films rating and content. Most are filmed with a low budget, and therefor generous amounts of T&A are used. The violence and blood are amped up, as well as coarse language. In a catch 22, these movies alienate their best-bet audience, and go for the adult's pockets. However, there are plenty of horror movies that do not contain objectionable content that kids will still find scary. The classic Universal monster movies: Dracula, Frankenstien, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon are prime examples. Also, films that amp up the cheese like The Gate, Gargoyles,and the original Fright Night can be scary, yet safe. Adults will find them to be more tongue-in-cheek, but still enjoyable, even if it's just for laughs.

  2. 2. The Campy Horror - The bulk of familiar titles falls into this category, yet I feel are unjustly criticized. Often low-budget, and shot by amateur film makers. A low budget will, by its very nature, yield sub par directing, acting, special effects, editing, and writing. But a few gems have arisen out of this field.

    What is to be admired about these films are their innovation in accentuating the positive. Tom Savini's work alone in props and effects have won him numerous awards. The Evil Dead was shot on a shoe-string, yet unique camera shots, a simple, straight forward plot, and clever gory effects made this film a classic. Night of the Living Dead cemented Romero as the Godfather of the zombie franchise. With the same budget as a modern day YouTube contributor, George A. Romero created a franchise that resonates over 40 years later.

    Another aspect of this genre is how it establishes many franchises by saturating there films with sex, nudity, and gore. This is often seen as compensation for lack of plot or story, but again, I say that's a short-sighted opinion. These film maker's understand that at the end of the day, movies are pure escapism fun. Not every film has to be a cerebral challenge. Not every movie must contend with Citizen Kane for the throne.

    Slasher films are a prime example. Freddy, Jason, Michael have become horror icons, but why? The plots are always the same. The stories are often simple to follow. There's plenty of continuity and timing errors. So why do they get such a following? Simple, these films cater to the fantasies and wishes of its target audience.

    Consider who went to see these films. 13-19 year old boys. They made up the largest demograph. Think back to high school. Where did you fit in? Where you the popular kid? Or were you one of the 90%? We all wanted to be the popular kid, and why not? They had the hotest girlfriends. They had sex. They got invited to all the cool parties. Maybe they came from a wealthy family and drove their own BMW to school while you took the bus. Maybe they've earned an athletic scholarship, while you work at Burger King to help save for community college. Maybe it's because they tormented you with spitballs and wedgies, and you were too weak to fend for yourself.

    Enter Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. These men, often supernatural in method, stalked and killed these kinds of people. In the animal kingdom, the alpha male gets the right to mate, the others must saunter off alone. In the human world, here are brutal killers eliminating the alpha douche-bags one by one. Not only did they kill of the competition, but they also killed off those girls who laughed at us, made us feel insecure, and simply would only take those pot-smoking football douche-bags as their lover.

    Years later, the film franchise Scream both identified and spoofed this notion. What were the rules to surviving a horror film? Don't have sex, don't drink and do drugs, and only the innocent virgin can defeat the evil. Hence, the message is clear, it's ok to be a nerd, geek, loser. Your justified in the end.

    Some argue that this kind of fantasy fullfillment can lead into real life serial killing. Hey, the world has all kinds of sickos. But I point to the early 90's when this type of genre was on the decline. Suddenly, stories like Columbine began popping up. Story after story, we here about one disenfranchised kid after another going on a shooting rampage. Some kid that's endured bullying, embarrassment, and ridicule. Where were their films? Where did they turn to live vicariously and vent some steam stored in their alligator brain?

  3. 3. The decline of western civilization - These films are very much for mature audiences, and more so, stable, mature audiences. History has proven time and again, that what points to the downfall of any society is its decadence. When the envelope has to be pushed time and again because the old methods no longer thrill us. Movies like Hostel, No Vacency, the Human Centipede seem to want to test the boundaries, then surpass the boundaries, of our sensabilities.

    Often labelled "torture porn" these films look to assault audiences with brutality. Again, this type of genre suffers from a catch 22. Unlike kids horror, adults do not believe in the boogeyman. So how do you make a film that will have adult audiences scared to fall asleep? How do you leave a lasting impression on them after the film is over. These films explore that very concept by pushing the envelope.

    The problem lies in the idea of "where do we go from here?" Horror films built a white-knuckled tension that lasted a few seconds, then BOO! A good scare, a jump out of your seat moment, then back to the plot. But now, those white-knuckled moments last several continual minutes, with unrelenting visceral agony. Movies like Saw balance this out with a solid plot, good performances, and a multi-layered story. Others are tour de forces of fetishism meets death that often tote an "Unrated" rating as the new industry rating. beyond R, but not quite NC-17.

    4. The smart horror - These are films that got it right, and helped propel the horror genre into a legitimate genre. Perhaps borrowing from the other 3 types I mentioned, these films stand out because they were done smartly. Either good writing or directing, a show of faith from producers willing to invest a respectable budget, or the film makers having a passion for the genre, treating it with the same respect that Christopher Nolan treats a comic book franchise. These films include Psycho, the Shining, Night of the Living Dead, Let The Right One In, the Exorcist, Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Ring, Halloween, and more. Films that have either won academy recognition, or a cult following despite the academy's neglect. These films cross all sub genres because they resonate with audiences, and warrant multiple viewings.