Saw Came and Conquered

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Tobin Bell plays the notorious killer Jigsaw in Saw III.

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But money was just the half of the Saw story. Word soon began percolating from kids to their elders that this was no ordinary horror movie. It was, in fact, an old-fashioned mystery, an exercise in ratiocination, a locked-room puzzle — except that instead of deducing where the secret door is, you have to saw off your foot to get out. That first film borrowed elements from Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (hide a clue in plain sight) and Alice in Wonderland (an audio tape bears the message "Play me"). I'm tempted to compare the two men's existential dilemma to that of a Samuel Beckett play. There are differences, though. Instead of being buried to the neck in sand, or stranded on the road to nowhere, Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannel, who also wrote the script) are chained on opposite sides of a Stygian bathroom, with a lifeless body between them.

Saw was especially indebted to Anthony Shaffer's play and film Sleuth, in which the wily perpetrator revels in elaborate gamesmanship, with a soupcon of sadism and a killer of a kicker. The talking doll in Saw is a direct descendant of a toy that the Sleuth perp uses for malevolent effect. In a 2001 interview, Shaffer said he was inspired to write his mystery after taking part in one of Stephen Sondheim's maniacally elaborate treasure hunts. One clue directed players to a nearly deserted town near a lake. When they found the pertinent clue, a hand jutted out of the lake with instructions for the next leg of the game.

In Saw, the leg is the game. Will Lawrence hack through it in order to save his family? And kill another man in the process? "If you do not kill Adam by six o'clock," the torturer, Jigsaw, says on a tape recording, "then Alison and Diana [Lawrence's wife and child] will die, and I will leave you in this room to rot. Let the game begin." It's Jigsaw's favorite, and only, game: confining his victim in some medieval-looking device made of old found objects (the movie takes its anachronistic notion of production design from Terry Gilliam's Brazil), then telling the prisoner that in a few minutes the device will be activated, resulting in death or its jaw-breaking equivalent, unless the victim can find a key hidden in, say, the stomach of a wounded man in the same room.

The movie seesaws between the twin poles of masochism and sadism. It's a cunning variation on a behavioral test given to college students: they're instructed to push a button that will administer an electric shock to someone in the next room and, often as not, they do as they're told. There the point is to see if the subjects will take orders against their best instincts. Here, Jigsaw has two rationales for his eccentric behavior. One is to punish people he believes are moral transgressors, though his judgments tend to be hasty and draconian. The other is more personal: Jigsaw, eventually revealed as John Kramer (Tobin Bell), is suffering from a fatal brain tumor, and he wants to prove that only having faced death can a man truly savor life. Or, as he puts it a bit more proscriptively in Saw II, "Those who don't appreciate life do not deserve life."

Why see Saw? Because it's as ingenious, and remorseless, as its twisted villain. The brilliant, devious psycho-shadow, dreaming up ways for his victims to kill themselves, is a sepulchral stand-in for the writer (Whannel on all three films) and the director (James Wan on the first, Darren Lynn Bousman on the next two). They are playing the same murderous mind games on the audience — which is trapped, not in a urinal dungeon or a booby-trapped house, but in the darkness of a movie theater or rec room.


Saw accomplished all this on an 18-day shoot, six of which were devoted to the bathroom scenes, shot in chronological order. (The rest of the picture, about Police Detective Danny Glover's attempt to find Jigsaw, is pretty ordinary.) It was your basic, low-budget, get-it-done movie. Whannel recalls that "James would ask for a third take, and the A.D. [assistant director] would be like, 'What do you think you are — Kubrick?'" Somehow, though, these two kids from an Australian film school, working on their first feature, got it done, and matched the ingenuity of the plot with a slick, sick visual style. (The film's green pallor suggests that Wan, an ethnic Chinese born in Malaysia, had been watching a few of the Hong Kong dramas shot by Christopher Doyle.)

Not that Saw, let alone either of its sequels, is within hailing distance of a masterpiece. A mind game like this requires good actors to give it heft and plausibility. I'm not asking for today's equivalents of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, the stars of the Sleuth movie, but there's more to acting, even horror movie acting, than screaming in agony and shouting in rage. Whannel (who is charm personified when chatting about the film on the DVD featurette) and Elwes can't manage the crucial middle range of emotions the two men have to feel in the moments when they're not trying to kill each other or save themselves.

Saw II ransacks another horror subgenre, the old-dark-house movie, in which eight or ten people are trapped somewhere and one by one they're killed off. Agatha Christie made this plot famous in her novel Ten Little Niggers, known as Ten Little Indians in the U.S. and filmed in 1944 as And Then There Were None. The second Saw repeats characters and torture implements (the reverse bear trap) from the first one. How many variations on body-piercing and self-puncturing can there be before the audience tires of the repetition, or gets exasperated and shouts, "You've been punk'd"? It also has a much larger cast, all of them seemingly graduates of the Off-Hollywood School of Bad Acting. Only Bell, hoarse and recriminating in fine Old Testament God fashion, can summon the depraved grandeur his character requires.

A curious omission in all three films is ... sex. Horror movies love to tantalize their (mostly male) viewers with images of lust, the better to punish it. It's a weirdly anti-life streak that runs through most vampire movies, where one dies, or becomes undead, with a single love bite; death those movies say, is a sexually transmitted disease. Even the non-supernatural horror films, from Psycho to Halloween to Hostel, tend to begin with young people having sex-play, then kill them off. Hostel, whose first 40 mins. are a-groan with luscious young women, eventually turns to more esoteric issues. Like, what to do with a dangling eyeball that's been yanked from its socket? You might guess: push it back in. But Hostel says: snip it off. (The wound bleeds bisque.) A TIME movie critic in the '70s coined the word "carnography" to describe splatter films that were the violent equivalent of pornography. In Hostel or Saw, the big body-piercing torture scenes are the come shots. Hope the kids like 'em.

On the priapic level, the Saw movies are more mature; their characters are marked by their devotion or lack of it, not their horniness. (The writers and directors seem to be saying: No sex, please, we're skittish.) But both kinds of films are puritanical in their take on sex. They're either reluctant to show it, or bound to exact mortal payment for it.

Morose devotion is the theme of Saw III, though I doubt the folks at the Regal dwelled overmuch on this aspect. Jigsaw's main victim is Jeff (Angus McFayden), who has been consumed with bilious revenge since his beloved son was killed by a driver who received a light prison sentence. Now in Jigsaw's lair, Jeff must go through several torture tests to prove he can forgive those who wronged him. In an apparently unrelated "B" story, Jigsaw has kidnaped Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), a doctor, to see if she can relieve the pain of his brain tumor. For those who think horror movies aren't brain surgery, they're wrong. This one is. The goriest of the film's ewww scenes has Lynn power-drilling into Jigsaw's cranium and removing the top of it.

A little E.R., a little Fear Factor: Whannel may be running out of genres to imitate or subvert. The series is dissipating; the sequels should be called Saw -2 and Saw -3. But that may be a minority opinion. The Regal audience loved the movie, applauding vigorously at the end and chattering happily on the escalators that led them out of the theater and onto the city street at 2 a.m. New York used to scare people; once it was its own horror movie. Now it's just a playground, where the coolest, most scariest rides are in the plexes. People go inside to have a game played on them.

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