Torture Porn Populism: Why We Need SAW 3D

Really? They're using a mousetrap for the SAW 3D poster? Not some kind of pointy thingamabob jumping out at us? Kind of seems like a missed opportunity.

By MATT HOFFMAN

First of all, this is not a review. Sure, I could’ve spent last night at a midnight screening of Saw 3D and reported back to this blog with a critical analysis and handy star rating, but let’s be honest: No one cares what real critics think of Saw 3D, much less what my opinion of it is. After all, Saw IV got an astonishing 0% “Top Critics” rating on RottenTomatoes.com, and it earned back over three times its budget by the end of its opening weekend. So instead of wasting my time writing a review that would have no influence on anyone’s ticket-buying decision, I’m going to make a confession: I love the Saw series.

Which is not to say that I think the movies themselves are any good.

I’ll vouch for the effectiveness of the first one as a creepy, engaging mystery-thriller, and with a few drinks in me I might even admit to enjoying the suprisingly decent sixth entry, but I fully recognize that these are, for the most part, terrible movies. They’re unoriginal, illogical, overstuffed with needlessly complex plot contrivances, nearly void of multidimensional characters, and burdened with a perversely misguided moral worldview. Until recently, I never bothered to pay much attention to them; in fact, I still haven’t seen one in theaters.

But as the sequels marched on, something happened that forced me to reconsider my previous disinterest: The Saw films began to look more and more like the Friday the 13th franchise of the 1980s. An obvious analogy, maybe, but one that I think says a lot about the appeal of both series.

Jason Voorhees, 1982 edition.

Like the Saws, the F13 saga at its peak produced new movies on an annual basis. And just as Saw is often criticized for setting off a wave of “torture porn,” F13 sequels were lambasted by critics like Roger Ebert, who not only gave a thumbs-down to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (the third sequel, for all you noobs out there) but even went so far as to call it “an immoral and reprehensible piece of trash” that would inure teenagers to nihilism and hopelessness.

But as violent and anti-social as these two series may seem, their appeal eventually came to rely on the comfort of familiarity. Both were derivative from the get-go (Friday the 13th is a clear imitation of 1978’s Halloween, while Saw owes a hefty debt to 1995’s Se7en), and both remained fastidiously formulaic in their adherence to their respective structures: Young people get murdered one by one at or around Camp Crystal Lake until one of them takes down the killer; repeat. Morally flawed urbanites get torn up in ornate trap-machines until the nature of the villain or overall situation is revealed to be different from how it appeared; repeat.

This unvarying repetition may be evidence of creative bankruptcy, as many critics would argue, but from an audience perspective, there’s nothing unnatural about deriving genuine satisfaction from hearing the same story told over and over. Think of a child who begs his parents to read from the same book every night before bed, or a theater buff who eagerly picks up tickets to yet another re-staging of Macbeth.

Much cooler than the SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE T-shirt.

Of course, Friday the 13th ain’t Shakespeare, and its sequels eventually became as hollow and uninteresting as the worst Saw chapters. Nevertheless, horror fans today (myself included) celebrate the series with midnight screenings, homemade videos, and merchandise–much of which is adorned with Jason Voorhees’s trademark hockey mask, an item which didn’t appear until Friday the 13th Part 3, at which point the series had already started to go to seed. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the fans who worship the F13 films are the same people who decry the Saw series for not being “real” horror.

If Jason’s influence was limited to the geeked-out horror circuit, it might not be worth discussing here. That’s not the case, though. I’ve written about this before, but it suffices to say that the F13 films have seeped into pretty much every aspect of American and international pop culture, from Mother Goose and Grimm to Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. This cultural omnipresence is, to me, what makes them important.

Movies are important to people–bad movies as well as good ones. They help to shape our worldviews. They provide us with a visual or conceptual shorthand that can stand in for more complex ideas. They can become a part of how we think about our lives simply by being around while those lives progress, just as a few bars of music can take us back to a time or place or person we thought we had forgotten.

In short, movies provide us with a common language, and the more widely recognized a film is, the more people there are for whom it can serve as a means of reference. In an age of niche marketing, it’s more important than ever to give credit to movies that can serve as universal cultural touchstones, regardless of whether or not one likes them or takes them seriously. That’s why, even though I wasn’t a big fan of Avatar, I do feel some affection towards it for adding to the populist cinematic lexicon. At the most, it gave us a starting point for discussions of colonialism and white guilt; at the least it gave us a common subject for ridicule. The F13 series fulfilled the same purpose, and the Saw films, now the most successful horror movie series in history, have taken on that mantle.

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), AARP poster boy for staying active after retirement.

One might be tempted to ask, why Saw now? How do killer Rube Goldberg machines reflect the zeitgeist of early 21st-century America? Some argue that they represent anxiety over the use of torture in the War on Terror, but to me that explanation seems a little too obvious and tidy–not archetypal enough. In fact, I’m not convinced that the Saw movies would have been any less successful had they started off in 1994 or 1984 rather than six years ago. Nonetheless, I still think it’s important that, in a decade dominated by horror remakes that cannibalized the ’70s and ’80s, Jigsaw gave a new generation a boogeyman to truly call their own.

Now that boogeyman may be departing. While I have no faith in the official claims that Saw 3D will be the series’ final chapter, the fact that the franchise has been around long enough to be analyzed in this article probably indicates that its days are numbered. (Until it gets “rebooted,” of course.) Not to worry, though; undoubtedly a new monster will rise up to take the old one’s place. As Jason Voorhees taught us many years ago, evil never dies.

And the Circle of Life continues.

Advertisements

One response to “Torture Porn Populism: Why We Need SAW 3D

  1. Speaking of torture, it’s funny that you mentioned Avatar in this context when…

    http://www.fandango.com/movieblog/its-official-james-cameron-will-direct-avatar-2-and-avatar-3-next-646491.html

    Need I say more?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s