Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.
Oh, my. I had no idea how much work it was going to be to step back in and review the newest film in the long-running "Saw" series.
I didn't intentionally sit the series out, but I also didn't make any big effort to catch up with them at any point, either. The last "Saw" film that I know for sure I saw was the second one. I think maybe I saw "Saw III" at some point, but I couldn't swear to it in court. I definitely didn't see the fourth or fifth one. I just felt like I got the point already, and I didn't find the films to be fun or interesting. I could see why you might enjoy them if you buy into Jigsaw as a character and the underlying mythology of what his big plan is and why he's doing it, but I wasn't convinced that there was a righteous anger to the character, no matter how hard the series tried to convince me there was.
So when I was sent the invite for "Saw VI," I almost didn't go. And then my sister-in-law, who lives with us, found out I had an invite to the new "Saw" film and went, to put it politely, berserk. She's a big fan of the series, and she basically informed me that I had no choice but to go with her to see the film, and if I tried to get out if, she knows where I sleep.
I sent a Tweet to Scott Weinberg, horror nerd supreme, because I know he's a fan of the films, and I asked him if he could give me a short primer on what I'd missed so I wouldn't be too lost, and I was promptly hit with a ton of replies from people telling me that I'd never be able to figure it out because of how complicated and continuity-heavy the films have become. I was worried, too, based on how many of those responses I got. I figured if I needed help, my sister-in-law knows the movies well enough that she could explain things to me.
Now that I've seen it, allow me to respond to everyone's concern: calm down. You had me thinking I was going to see something like "Last Year In Marienbad" or "Inland Empire," with the dense and tortured mythology of late-season "X-Files" to contend with. Nope. Sure, I've missed some character introductions in the last few films, and it appears some of those newly-introduced characters have already been killed off, dropped again. The director of this film, Kevin Greutert, has been the editor on every previous film in the series, so as much as anyone can be said to have a signature on the whole franchise, it's him. And the movie works as its own wall-to-wall primer on everything that's happened so far, enough that I never felt like I had a question as to how the film's basic relationships worked. And seriously... the day I can't follow a "Saw" movie is the day I retire from writing about film.
The series still revolves around the story of John Kramer, known by the media as "Jigsaw," and his ongoing mission to teach moral lessons about the value of life by dropping people into brutal, physically punishing "games." More than any other films, even more than Eli Roth's "Hostel" movies, the "Saw" films are the ones that are targeted when people discuss the idea of "torture porn." I hate that phrase. I find it lazy and hyperreactive. The moment someone starts blathering on about "torture porn," I know that they're talking about a vague media-created notion that they dislike rather than anything specific about any films. I'm not a fan of brutality for its own sake in any films, whether they're horror movies or dramas or period war films or whatever. I also don't have any particular fear of the rough stuff when it's used for the right effect or purpose. It's all about context for me. But whatever your feelings on onscreen violence, I think using "porn" in any conversation of anything except actual pornography is an easy way to dismiss someone else's opinion, dismiss entire genres, and just plain dismiss conversation completely. Instead of using catch-all terms, isn't it possible to discuss films like "Saw" individually on their own merits or flaws?
Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, writers of part IV, V, and VI, have got to be secretly pleased with the way the mainstream has embraced the conversation on health care reform. The main subject of the game in the film this time around is played by Peter Outerbridge, and he's a perfectly loathsome protagonist, a guy whose job is to figure out reasons to deny people their insurance claims. There are few professions as ready made for onscreen villainy right now, and Outerbridge does solid work as a guy whose pleasure in a job well done leads to his own torment. He doesn't play it as an easy monster, either. If there's one thing the "Saw" films do well, it's navigate tricky definitions of morality. I think overall, the films don't quite land every punch they throw, but I respect the attempt. One of the things that horror films can do that a lot of genres can't is play out morality fables in bloody metaphor, but so often, filmmakers aim low and don't even bother trying to use the genre to its full potential. In a way, I think the ongoing success of the "Saw" films highlights the way people wish horror films offered them both extreme imagery and an excuse for it. Watching this film with a crowd tonight, people seemed most engaged by the traps and the threats that were the most directly related to the situations. The more the punishment fit the crime, so to speak.
There is obviously a lot of continuity at play in the films by this point. Costas Mandylor plays Hoffman, a police detective who was previously involved in hunting Jigsaw. Now, presumably after getting gamed, he has become one of the Jigsaw's posthumous assistants, playing out games that have been left behind. At the same time, he's part of the investigation into Jigsaw, giving him a chance to tamper with evidence at will. He's not the only one doing Jigsaw's work. John Kramer's wife, Jill (Betsy Russell), is also in play, and she's the one who seems to be doing John's most personal work. It's nice to see Russell working. She was so profoundly crushworthy in the '80s, and she's a striking woman these days. She seems to be moving centerstage in this film, as if she's going to take over the franchise, but there are a ton of peripheral characters both in flashback and in the present who will continue to be players in however many more films there are in this series. I think one of the things that helped with me understanding the dynamics here is that this seems to be a film about paying off questions and situations that have been playing out for the last few films. Tobin Bell also does nice work again as Jigsaw, playing him as a guy with a highly attuned radar for the unjust or the vile, always looking for someone he can educate. Bell's one of those guys who got lucky late, and he obviously takes this role seriously. He knows this is the gravy train. I like that he hasn't let anyone turn Jigsaw into a wise-cracking threat, a Freddy Kruger, a murderous stand-up comic rather than a real figure of menace.
It's funny, but the thing that the series seems to have lost track of amidst all the soap opera and moralizing is the idea that these are horror films. There was an elegance and a savage simplicity to the idea in the first film: you want out of this room? Cut off your goddamn foot. You want to live? You kill this man who did you wrong. These are blunt ideas, but they carry an immediate charge that makes them compelling to any viewer. By now, the traps and games in these movies are very elaborate, and they're not scary so much as they are complicated. There are certainly some graphic payoffs, including a money shot near the end of the film that is red meat heaven, but it's certainly not wall to wall. This film demonstrates something almost akin to restraint, which surprised me more than any single narrative twist in the script.
I'm still not what you would call a "Saw" fan. I certainly appreciate the box of assorted "Saw" items that Lionsgate publicity sent over this week, and my sister-in-law seems happy with her posters and her blood-filled pen and her soundtrack and the PS3 game. I'm happy she's happy, and I certainly didn't think there was anything glaringly wrong with the film tonight. I think it works so hard to be clever at the end that it turns a previously sympathetic character into a vicious scumbag, and that's a shame, but for the most part, it's engaging and gets the job done. Fans of the series will no doubt be thrilled.
"Saw VI" opens everywhere today.
HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009. Except when it doesn't.
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