I Saw the Writing on the Walls

by Jordan Thoennes

With the release of Spiral: From the Book of Saw last weekend, an interesting thought came to my mind. How many people will write this off as another sequel that shouldn’t have been made? People have rarely been kind to the Saw franchise, with most people thinking this franchise should have stopped after Saw III. I can see the merit in their argument, but I’m a horror fanatic, so any time a franchise attempts a reboot I give the film the benefit of the doubt until it gives me reason otherwise. Trust me, it’s a flawed system that has burned me time and time again. With the Saw franchise, I found it best to temper my expectations and just enjoy the experience, but the same cannot be said of the general public. The franchise has been a polarizing point for almost two decades now, but let’s talk a little about why.

The most prominent issue that comes with the Saw franchise is that the critics want one thing from these films, while the viewers want an entirely different thing. Viewers want the gore and galore that the franchise has consistently brought for the last decade and a half, but the critics want the emphasis on a profound storyline that involves dialing the gore back. The general public must realize that you cannot have your reverse bear trap cake and eat it too.

But how did we get to this immense schism and disconnect between the viewers and the critics, and who is to blame?

Cary Elwes in the original Saw (2004).

When Saw was released, people were stunned at the prospect of a film that was based around the “torturing” of two individuals locked in an industrial bathroom. Roger Ebert gave it two stars and said it didn’t “cut it as a thriller”. The horror community however welcomed the film and praised its twist ending. Fast forward to the following year when both Saw II and Eli Roth’s Hostel were released in theaters. Critics enjoyed Roth’s film, but the same can’t be said about Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II. After the respective releases of Saw and Hostel, the critics began labelling their subsequent sequels as “torture porn”. The sequels raised the stakes and the body count, as any good horror sequel does, but the Saw franchise fell victim to this damning label. No matter how intricate of a storyline that the sequels helped further, the movies couldn’t shake the demeaning label of “torture porn”. After the harsh label was applied by critics, the subsequent sequels ended up sacrificing the storyline and instead put their efforts into more convoluted traps with more unnerving stakes. There were shining moments of intricate plotlines, but unfortunately they were overshadowed by the blood and guts. The viewers were pleased with the gore, but ended up criticizing the lack of storyline, finally joining the groups of critics who wanted the same thing for years. The trade off never seemed to pay off with the franchise seemingly ending at Saw 3D. We won’t even acknowledge 2017’s Jigsaw because that was as much of a Saw film as Scary Movie 4 was.

That being said...

The question that has yet to be answered is was it entirely the writers’ fault for the lack of focus on the storyline. I can’t help but wonder how the franchise would have turned out if the films had escaped the dreaded “torture porn” label from critics. Would the writers have felt pressured to sacrifice the storyline for gruesome gore? Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, and Spiral has talked about how people would appreciate the storyline if they could look past the gore. Saw fanaticism aside, I agree with him wholeheartedly. The franchise has spun an extremely intricate storyline over the span of now 9 films, and plans on releasing a TV series and another greenlit sequel in 2022. You don’t usually achieve these things if you haven’t established a certain amount of lore with your franchise. A small part of me thinks that the writers knew what they were getting themselves into. Aside from Bousman’s plea for the people to appreciate the story, the traps have always been the focus of the film. Writers rarely tried dialing back the gore in the later entries, but then again which horror franchises ever pumped the brakes on carnage?

Saw 3D (2010)

After watching Spiral last week, I found myself less concerned about the direction of the franchise and more so enjoying the experience. The film was a refreshing entry in the franchise, with Chris Rock at the helm. The film didn’t lean too heavily on previous Saw entries, instead trying something new in the same realm with a familiar tone. Chris Rock tries to stop a Jigsaw copycat killer who is targeting cops. Rock didn’t lean too hard on his comedic background, but he couldn’t help but throw a few jokes in. I won’t spoil anything, but I called the ending ten minutes into the film. To the credit of the movie, I’m a film fanatic and I do it frequently. Ultimately, the film’s ending is where it shines. It gives the franchise a whole new direction and room to grow.

Was the film the frontrunner for Best Picture? No.

Was it a film for the whole family to enjoy? Also no.

Was it a fun film that tried something new and allowed for the franchise to grow and branch out? Absolutely.

It is my hope that the Saw franchise gets the praise it deserves for its storyline. I’m aware it’s a tough ask of viewers and critics alike, but it’s low risk and high reward. As our friend Jigsaw says,

“The choice is yours.”

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