What's a tagline from your childhood that makes you nostalgic and feel old at the same time? How about "Follow your nose, wherever it goes?" If cereal boxes wanted to make a lasting impact in the 90's they certainly succeeded. As horror movie taglines go, I could think of the famous "Do you like scary movies?" from the Scream franchise, another staple of the 90's. As far as that decade of nostalgia and pop culture history goes, the trends that came from it are often looked back upon fondly, sometimes revisited in remakes or returns to familiar characters and franchises. If I wanted to explore into Hollywood's recent fascination of returning to old SNL characters and 80-90's comedy, I'd be (re)writing another article entirely (coworker discouraged me from giving that dead horse another beating). So while certain words or sayings take us back before the Audi's what feeling does the quote "If it's Halloween, it must be Saw". This takes me back to every TV "spot" (who remembers those?) that existed around October. The full-length trailers that showcased this film series opened almost every R-Rated production I remember seeing in the theatres as a teenager. And when I was a teenager, this list heavily included the Saw movies.
R-Rated horror films have always been appealing, to larger audiences, while also risking the limitation of getting the same sized audiences as a PG-13 flick. This has always been true, but something different happened in 2004 with the release of Saw, a movie by James Wan with a budget just shy of a million dollars and a peculiarly non-descript advertising campaign. The film opened at Sundance Film Festival after a long debacle in funding the film and Lionsgate Films was eager to jump on it. The film, while featuring a recognizable cast including Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, is considered an independent success, with a huge profit of over 55 million dollars gross sales in the U.S. alone. In the continued success of the film's box office career multiple sequels were made, annually and succeeded one after another. The advertising for these films coined the term "if it's Halloween it must be Saw" because there simply wasn't any year between 2004-2010 that didn't have a Saw film. Each film one after another broke R-Rated and horror box office records, so they kept releasing them. This is crazy to think of, but was actually not unheard of in decades before trends of horror franchises succeeding in all their gory glory. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th are two example of this. There were six films in the Friday the 13th franchise between the years 1980-86, and yet they are distinguished to this day for their creativity and uniqueness among themselves. Between 2004-2010 we have 7 Saw movies. Are these films as distinguishable from each other as our 80's slasher flicks are?
No, they're not. But we'll get to that later.
So what's the appeal? Well I was a teenager at one point, and the fanbase of the franchise existed to appeal to the barely-legal audience of the Audi's who were just old enough to get mom and dad's signed permission to see them. That's not even mentioning the larger audience of PG-13 audiences who managed to sneak past ushers and hide in the back seats of these screenings. Teenagers love horror films! They crave the violence and the screams and the peril!! There is and always will be a shared love for horror films by young audiences, but the genre is not usually taken too seriously by critics, and this franchise is no exception. There certainly can't be argued that this series was not popular by critical acclaim. The highest rated film in the series (the original) is sitting pretty at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. The other films exist in the realm of the 20% range today (although I swear Saw V was under 10% went it was first released). I would say these movies might have existed at a time when less people took critics as seriously. Today Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are popularly used and each film listed can be summed up as a percentage of positive vs. negative reviews. In the late 90's to early Audi's people like myself relied on the local Journal Sentinel review or which direction Ebert's thumbs were pointed. I would also say that certain films, even today, appeal to audiences in a way that will always go beyond reviews, and that was something the Saw franchise pulled off. So inflammatory were these reviews that a general consensus was arrived at giving these films the term "torture porn." (Don't look that up.)
This term which is synonymous to the term "splatter films" is broken down from a trend that existed long before this franchise, one that stepped away from shadowy boogeymen and focused more on the grimness and gore of their victims. These films have existed for many decades including Cannibal Holocaust most notoriously and the Dead trilogy by George A. Romero, each with their own intentions. Some say splatter films existed less as a thriller diversion working off our nightmares and anxieties like most movies of the time did and spent more time shining a light on atrocities as political allegories. Films like these were constantly threatened by controversy, court cases and censorship, and therefore, they started to go away. Then there were more.
In the 2000s – particularly 2003–2009 – a body of films was produced that combined elements of the splatter and slasher film genres. The films were dubbed "torture porn" by critics and detractors, most notably by David Edelstein, who is thought to have coined the term...the extent to which torture porn lives up to its sensational reputation has been disputed." - Wikipedia
Almost as if these films were the enfant terrible cousins of splatter films, torture porn movies don't necessarily send the same message as their predecessors. Romero's film Day of the Dead focuses on issues in the military and controversial scientific studies done on human subjects throughout history. Does this justify watching a man screaming until his vocal chords are ripped out by a zombie? Well that's been up for debate, but it is saying something and in some ways can be a case of violence earned by its focused narrative. Where torture porn comes into play is the idea that the films in the Saw or Hostel series are less concerned with saying something or focusing on a broader narrative and more satisfied to gross us out. It's shock appeal as backed up by the success of its predecessors and the appeal to the younger audiences who craved the idea of watching something scary and rated R. The films built up attention for better or worse by high-profile salacious advertising campaigns. Billboards and posters used in the marketing of Hostel: Part II and Captivity drew criticism for their graphic imagery, causing them to be taken down in many locations. These types of advertisements include the Saw movies, which would place body parts in shapes of the number of films they were on, or to other gruesome effect. (OK look that up).
With controversy, negative reviews and the R-Rated embargo on these films, their success came mostly from the morbid curiosity of its fanbase and that fanbase was significant. However, the trend of the genre of torture porn came and went with lowering interest as more films became creative in scaring audiences without buckets of blood. As this trend ended, so did the Saw franchise, which did have a minor comeback in 2017 with essentially a sequel: Jigsaw. This movie however had even less traction or appeal than the original series, and was mostly forgotten about, until Darryn Lynn Bousman took the reigns of Spiral a spiritual film tied canonically to the series, starring Chris Rock. This film partly due to its auspicious trailer and also the appeal of a different direction for the old series is gaining steam. And in this 9th entry the director Bousman has been quoted saying "gore and violen(ce) is no longer the gimmick," which gives an idea of a more creative and practical set of trap-induced suspense, than the 8 indistinguishable entries that preceeded it.
Will this be a new entry to revive a dead franchise? Or just a twist on the tale to exist as its own project? Whatever may come of the 9th film, there's definitely a sense of fatigue on the genre and a need for a new approach. But whether or not Spiral is a success, will audiences, new or old, return to watch the franchise? In my opinion, not so much. The franchise existed as somewhat of a phenomenon that can never truly be re-imagined. Like the lack of slasher movies past the 90s, torture porn seems like a flash in the pan for its audiences, and while there are still die-hard slasher junkies, most of the appeal for the genre remains in nostalgia for the time era that produced them. The problem with Saw films, is not just that there are so many of them, and so few that left a good critical impact, but the maximum effort put out in them was in the wicked creativity of the kills or torture via their traps. We don't get any Sidney Prescott's to root for, or any Freddy Krueger's to be afraid of. The most notable villain of the franchise is Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell), and his character is essentially killed off in the second film. This also leads into the argument for the coherency of the films, and the confusing timeline that it sets up for itself.
The movies work so poorly on their own past the third entry that each movie becomes more flashback than narrative as they progress. There are tons of great videos and articles that attempt to piece together the events of the franchise in chronological order, so I won't go into that. The Saw movies aren't there to make sense, but even without a campy plot they don't rely on any significant characterizations or enjoyable moments of humor to break up the grimness. The most memorable scenes are of people escaping or dying in Jigsaw's traps. These traps are very hard to place to their accompanying film. So as I write this article I find myself exploring the 2nd and 4th entry, and reminding myself of traps that I remembered vaguely if only for their gore. You could argue that the films in the Friday the 13th canon get loose with their consistency, but 1. their characters are fun and memorable and 2. the stories aren't remixed with the use of flashbacks.
The other thing to be said is whether audiences have fun watching the Saw movies. Did I? Maybe as a kid, but now they've definitely lost that shock factor. I can't say I've completely forgotten the kills in this series, but I certainly don't remember any satisfaction in watching any deaths or even feeling the tension or anxiety the movies tried to instill. Slasher films tend to have fun with the creativity of their kills as the series gets looser and more popular, but Saw seemed particularly set on keeping an all-too-serious tone and unawareness in its plotting. In fact the only film I can really remember outside of the first one is Saw VI, which very surprisingly does use film metaphor to cover America's sick control of their healthcare system as if they were playing a larger version of one of Jigsaw's game. This is one movie out of 7 in which the filmmakers decided to say something and play with the audience's expectations over flipping their stomachs. But 6 movies into a franchise is a really weird time to establish a new concept in a film series, and who cares? The audiences who were fueled by the violence and sadism of the series aren't necessarily there to appreciate a good social commentary.
There won't ever be another series like Saw. And that's okay. The horror craze commonly criticized as "torture porn" was a flash in the pan, and the movies that came from it exist more as a time capsule to look back on with curiosity rather than to re-enjoy. The fact that audiences of the largest degree were going to see these films, and selling out multiple seats for their many sequels is astounding. The dark depravity of this Lionsgate franchise will probably age over time, its violence outdone and its shock tamed in comparison to later films. However, the success of these films is an example of audience favor outweighing critical response in a staggering way. These movies unfortunately show their age, and as I re-watched the 2nd and 4th films in the series in preparation for this essay, I didn't find any particular sense of nostalgia for my childhood, and I often found myself distracted or distant from the narrative. The confusing plot, unmemorable characterization and overall unawareness truly leaves no surprise to the fact that you can find Blu-rays of the series in full sets for less than $10 dollars in most Target and Wal-Mart bargain baskets. Some gore-hounds might look back on these films and even return to them for nostalgia sake, but will new audiences find the appeal to explore this series? And after reading this article do you think you'll ever revisit the series, or explore it as a newcomer?
The choice is yours.