“The Horror Film”—that was the name of a university class I took in my second year that allowed me to watch a scary movie every week, talk about them, and still earn a degree! And just to quickly clear this up, no, we didn’t watch and then discuss Saw. But I wish we had.
In my first discussion session for this class, I remember introducing myself along with mentioning that I had a “soft spot’ for the Saw franchise. This very tender statement about a film often correlated with overwhelming violence can be read as quite striking, and it definitely was surprising in my class.
I think this is because a lot of people my age remember the Saw franchise as quickly growing, and also just kind of gross. It was a prime example of the “Hollywood Machine,” pumping out a new film every year, each of which became excessively gory and seemed like a studio cash grab. In more ways than one, Saw = yucky. This was my opinion too, but that was before I watched the film.
And once I did watch it, I then went on to watch the entire franchise. Once the eighth film came out in 2017, I watched the entire franchise in one sitting again. Next year, they will release the ninth film in the franchise, so you can probably guess what I’m going to do in preparation. I know the idea of unnecessary sequels doesn’t really rally too much excitement, especially in the context of a horror franchise that so many people already think went on for too long. But I love Saw and am honored to continue to support the work that all started with such humble beginnings: Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes locked in a gas station bathroom.
Joking about how Saw had such a low budget that it looks like it was filmed in a disgusting public restroom may be a played out joke, but now that I’ve made it, I can continue to gush about a film that defies expectations, continues to make me think, and is also just a lot of fun.
Not to sound like a broken record, but Saw is not what you think it’s going to be! All I knew about the film before watching it was that, one, there was a creepy puppet/doll in it, and two, someone was going to lose a foot. It’s quite possible that the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had was while watching Saw and realizing what the film was actually about. Spoiler: it’s about finding a serial killer. Half the movie you are watching the “game” of two people currently being victimized by this serial killer coined as “Jigsaw”, (played by Tobin Bell) and the other half you are there with the cops trying to figure out who the killer is. Much like your favorite episode of a crime procedural, you don’t spend as much time as you think looking at the crime scene itself. You are watching the detective(s) trying to solve a murder.
Since this film focuses mainly on the mind and understanding the psychology of “Jigsaw,” or why he does what he does, the violence of this film is also mainly implied instead of explicit. Whenever there are scenes of gore, they are contained within frantic montages that keep you from looking at anything for too long. Almost as if the creators know this scene is gross and are trying to move you along in the story as smoothly (and quickly) as possible. (Note: this technique is almost immediately traded for long, lingering shots of the human body being cut open in the sequels, some of which continue to haunt me today.)
The serial killer himself is also very fascinating as he functions out of a strange vigilantism. Basically, Jigsaw puts people in deadly situations and calls them games, testing individuals with the goal of reformation. He takes people with troubled pasts (of addiction, crime, or adultery) and teaches them that when it comes down to it, survival is all that matters. And if they have the strength to survive, they have the strength to turn their lives around. Jigsaw pushed several people to their own deaths, but to those who survived, he is their savior. And who is this evil mastermind killer, you ask? Just some random old guy dying of a brain tumor.
As the franchise continues the tale of Jigsaw, they also provide more context by connecting the dots for the viewers, filling in the gaps about who Jigsaw is and how he is orchestrating everything. The franchise is very interesting and in depth, often refusing to leave a single stone unturned, so to speak. I read online that it is best to then view Saw as a television series, with long episodes rather than a movie with several sequels, and I absolutely agree.
But going back to the original Saw from 2004, there is a sort of magic in the mystery. It is so fascinating how the creators continue the story of Jigsaw, but it is also amazing how the first movie can interpreted in so many different ways. You are given the tale of a twisted vigilante serial killer, introduced to some victims, but that’s it. The rest is up to you and your imagination. You decide who this killer is, why he is doing it, and how. And this is why this movie keeps me thinking. I’m still making up and laughing about my random Saw conspiracies.
An example of this is the tale of Billy—you know who I’m talking about. His creepy puppet face has become quite iconic despite having very little screen time. If you watch the whole franchise, you get a peek into why this serial killer utilizes a creepy puppet in all his intricate games, but the first movie gives you no explanation. Therefore, by rejecting the lore provided by the sequels and solely going off the information that the first movie gives, I like to think of Billy as rather whimsical. That in the midst of Jigsaw’s intensive planning, where he thinks of every contingency that could possibly occur, he takes the time to quickly make (and hand paint) a creepy puppet who will not only provide company for Jigsaw, but also help make light of this murderous ordeal. I know all of this isn’t true, but wouldn’t it be funny if it was?
Overall, Saw tells quite a dark tale about a man so mad at the world that he decides to take out his anger in an unusual way. Jigsaw is not as nefarious as you would think because he often expresses how he wants people to survive his games and live, but yet is still twisted enough to put people those brutal positions in the first place. I’m in no way trying to sympathize with a man who has committed, and continues to commit murder with the belief that what he is doing is right, but this movie does interestingly portray a serial killer in today’s age, where the viewers ourselves are very familiar with media painting murderers in a compassionate light. And within this very heavy topic, we are also provided with some great opportunities for levity and love.
I absolutely adore all the heartfelt moments this film has given me. Whether it be the hilarity of the character Adam (played by Leigh Whannell, who is also the writer of the film), the strange casting connection to my favorite TV show Lost, the splendor of watching Wesley (Cary Elwes’ character in The Princess Bride) become absolutely unhinged, or the twists and turns that made me fall in love with this movie and want to do nothing else but watch more. Saw was a personal game changer—it taught me to not be too opinionated about films I haven’t seen, and to allow myself to fall in love with a film despite what other people may say about it. I was a 17-year-old wannabe film critic when I first watched Saw, and this was such an important lesson to learn.
Additionally, being one of the highest grossing horror film franchises to date, Saw changed the game for the entire horror genre whether you like it or not. But I sincerely hope you do. Or at the very least, give it a chance. You might be surprised.