In a way, this is Chris Cabin’s game. He and the rest of the We Hate Movies Crew flayed the original Saw movie in an episode this October. He also published an excellent critique of the entire series, which I greatly appreciated despite simultaneously enjoying the same series of movies for at least the second time.
Cabin’s article, entitled “Why the Saw Franchise Should Have Stayed Buried,” is a thorough analysis of the franchise as films and as cultural artifacts. Cabin summarizes his points perfectly when he writes:
“The Saw franchise’s overt and unearned cynicism is insufferable but beyond all the sadism, misogyny, and self-righteousness, what’s most troubling is just how lazy and thoughtless these movies are. Anything that doesn’t involve a corpse or one of Jigsaw’s games is often quite literally sped through to get to the “good stuff.'”
Dead-on. Cabin’s critique is particularly adept at seeing beyond the narrative’s claims the victims of the Saw franchise are villainous (most of them are far from evildoers, and women get it worse than anyone, etc). He reminds us Jigsaw himself is presented as a machine-shop Hannibal Lecter, not a senseless madman.
I watched all of these movies this Halloween season, and I agree with Cabin’s points. But I still love the damn movies, even though I do consider myself a man pure of heart who says his prayers at night, to quote the old film. I wince at the misogyny and I tire of the lazy film-making (I defy even the most die-hard Saw fan to find anything interesting about Costas Mandylor in any of the three films he features in). But when the trap arms and the tape-recorded voice plays, I appreciate without irony.
Questioning my own motivations, I must confess my experience is aptly described by Cabin when he writes:
“As far as content goes, that’s just about what it is: extended, fragmented bouts of wails and pleas for mercy deployed for tension and some disquieting pleasure. The scenes are also meant to extoll guilt on the viewer for inviting such narrative indulgences. But the movie also makes clear theater out of each death, tracing over every gear, motor, and sharpened edge that go into Jigsaw’s perfect machines. “
I do love the look of these traps, made in the aesthetic of the gothic/industrial culture (the soundtracks for the films, featuring bands like Frontline Assembly and Nitzer Ebb, reflect this). It’s telling that a viewer on the Imdb noted the series didn’t switch to digital timers on the traps until later in the series. This is death in the style of the Industrial Revolution, but as imagined at the end of the last century. Maybe part of the appeal of Saw is its reflection of an era already past by when it was released, borrowing that nihilism without ever connecting it to a tangible emotion to justify its existence in another century.
Further examining my motivations, I find I do not want the victims to die, even if I also don’t feel overly concerned with their survival. Rather, I watch these traps as cautionary tales. I imagine my body in these machines. I understand this as a way of connecting with my own body as an object whose pain thresholds and survival is separated from my conscious will.
In this way, Saw is perfectly placed in history. The series may have sputtered and died with the release of Jigsaw (which I have not yet seen). However, the need for experiencing the body as an object grew beyond its tiled walls. Consider extreme marathons or pub crawls. Yoga in all its iterations. All of these have at least an element of physical sensation, and many add their own torture traps (heat, mud, drunken staggering) to entice us to play the game.
Why do I like the reprehensible Saw? Maybe now, a month and a half away from forty, I can’t stop watching. It takes years of training to push this body through an actual marathon, but only a few days and snacks to suffer through these movies (to see this idea of horror-as-pathway to Nirvana fully fleshed out, read the excellent Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty by Will H. Rockett). Maybe marathoning the movies is easier than an actual marathon, when it comes to experiencing suffering and surviving.