(CW: casual discussions of suicidality, suicide attempts, drug addictions, rape, domestic violence, loss of a child, cancer, gruesome deaths, gore, anti-black violence, and police violence)
As they were being released at a breakneck pace, I didn’t understand the appeal of the Saw movies. A friend of mine at the time was sharing how excited she was to take a day off and go see Saw 3 with her dad. Being the arrogant and ignorant jerk I was, I laughed.
“Why would anyone ever want to watch a Saw movie?
(Note: This is a bad way to be a supportive friend.)
What I understood of them at the time was that people get hooked into terrible machines and must mutilate themselves to avoid a grisly death. And, of course, the iconic shot of Cary Elwes realizing that he needed to cut off his own leg with a hacksaw.
Later, procrastinating several college assignments, I would go to the wiki pages of each Saw movie that had been released at the time (then 7), and I would read through the plot page, which would also include a passionless description of each trap and how the person survived it (or not).
This was a kind of thought exercise for me that also piqued my curiosity as someone who had always wanted to do production design for movies. I couldn’t help but think, “How would they decide what Hell to put a character through?” And, with my young literature-studying mind, I of course reached the groundbreaking conclusion: Symbolism.
The movies aren’t subtle about it, either. The first fully-revealed trap in the very first Saw movie (dir. James Wan, 2004) has the main character, the serial killer Jigsaw, explain that he placed a man in a timed maze of razor wire to see if he would cut himself to live instead of cutting himself as an attempt at suicide.
The symbolism on display is blatant, direct, and oftentimes playing on harmful stereotypes about marginalized or disabled people. The victims are most often people that the writers believe would be acceptable losses or deserving of righteous punishment. They’re most often addicts, drug dealers, arsonists, callous doctors, sex workers, and rapists.
The most common of Jigsaw’s victims are the kind of person that society believes should be punished, and that they would do so, if given the chance. This is how most folks understand the Saw movies. A criminal evades capture; Jigsaw finds them; Jigsaw tortures and/or kills them. Justice served.
In the framing of these movies, though, the traps are never glorious. The victims’ suffering is front and center, not their damaged bodies. The camera shakes and speeds up as they struggle or cry in pain. It cuts back and forth as they make a difficult cut. The camera often shows you the brutality and the gore, but it just as quickly cuts away to the person screaming.
This is most likely a budget choice as much as it is a stylistic one. They can spend less on effects if they show you less, but the impact is often not “Good. They got what was coming to them.” and is instead “That was awful that they had to go through that.”
At least for me, as a prison abolitionist, the Saw movies are an interesting exploration into what punishment is enough, and how best can you rehabilitate someone?
The answer within the fiction is, quite explicitly, to make someone face their own death and “appreciate their life.” Obviously, this has a whole host of issues inside and outside the movies, but, like all horror movies, it communicates this through blunt force and grotesque images.
What stands out to me in actually watching these movies through in 2021 in preparation for the upcoming Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson movie (!?) Spiral: From the Book of Saw (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman 2021) is this aspect of criminality, and especially through the lens of policing.
Obviously, cops are trying to stop Jigsaw, and the fight between them is put more in the forefront of the plot starting as early as Saw 2 (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman 2005) when the lead detective on the case Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) corners and interrogates John Kramer (Tobin Bell) aka the Jigsaw killer, who is dying of cancer. The wrinkle is that Jigsaw has trapped Eric’s son in a house with six convicts who the detective had framed for various crimes.
And later, the series starts to move closer to stances on law enforcement when a detective of over 20 years is revealed to be the protege of the Jigsaw killer, and he sees it as his duty to punish various people for their crimes. We see him roughly roll an unconscious black man out of a wheelbarrow to get him into position for a device that the audience knows will ultimately kill him.
“Be careful. That’s a human being,” John scolds him.
“What’s it matter? He’s going to die anyway,” the protege responds.
The detective and several others like him clearly see the world as people who should be punished and a world that is unable to or refuses to punish them. The series constantly plays in various grey spaces of morality that it pretends are black and white, and it makes the viewer uncomfortable at every step of the way. I don’t know whether all of this is intentional, but I find it incredibly enthralling.
After the firm stance of “Health insurance companies are evil and irredeemable” from Saw 6, I’m certainly excited to see where Spiral will take the plot of a cop killer who heavily plays with the series’s pig imagery, and what conclusions the movie will draw.
One of the nice things to me about horror, though, is that even when I wholly disagree with the philosophy of the creators, I can sometimes find a way to firm up my own beliefs.
Or maybe even just sometimes ignore the creators entirely and use their metaphors to suit my own needs.
By Casey Crook.