I was fairly young when I first saw James Wan’s and Leigh Whannell’s iconic torture porn, Saw. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before; no creatures, nothing supernatural, and though I hadn’t yet seen many slasher films, even those would come to seem tame compared to the human killers I found in torture porn. There was neither a final girl nor teens behaving promiscuously, no demonic possession or ghosts; just a creepy puppet bearing bad news— you were chosen because you didn’t appreciate your life, so now you must prove your will to live by doing horrible, brutal things to avoid death. The philosophy was fascinating and disturbing to me even then. Tenyears later, and me being a bit wiser, I’m even more fascinated by the impact Saw has had, and the complexity of it as a singular film, forgetting the tedious franchise that followed which only served to obscure the original’s brilliance.
How and why this film is such a modern day classic? After all, it did usher in the short-lived and oft undervalued subgenre of torture porn. Also, how might we read this film— and torture porn at large— as a culturally valid and socially important movement within horror cinema? And what exactly is the legacy of this film, now that its ensuing franchise has turned the first Saw’s innovations into gimmicks, and since torture porn isn’t as prominent or, arguably, necessary anymore?
By now, we’ve seen it all—if not from Jigsaw, then from some knock-off villain created in Jigsaw’s image when finding inventive ways of killing people was the go-to approach to horror directors in the mid-2000’s. The goal was to be as creatively brutal and brutally visceral as possible. And in our Post-9/11 world (which I’ll come back to later), that was what it took to scare us— anything that could top what we were seeing on the nightly news. So, maybe there’s a weird sense of nostalgia to be had when watching the first Saw 10 years later. But even now, its twisty storytelling remains suspenseful, even if a little overdramatic. The film takes itself almost too seriously at times, but that’s part of the fun of it, and Jigsaw is as foreboding as he ever would be, both in his weakened but ominous bodily form of John Kramer (played by Tobin Bell) and in his tricycle-riding avatar. The film, for better or worse, was inventive in its treatment of violence as both a game and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its narrative– two men wake up chained to a decrepit bathroom with what seems to be a dead body between them, forced to follow clues in order to survive– contained plenty of shocking moments that weren’t necessarily driven by violence or gore.
Unfortunately though, the violence and gore are the elements that prevailed most from one film to the next, and the franchise became less concerned with twisty storytelling and more concerned with twisted stunts and tangled subplots. Admittedly, the fourth film is the last one I even bothered seeing; it wasn’t even the empty, meaningless brutality that disgusted me most, but rather the convoluted exposition that clouded and complicated the original film’s relative simplicity. All we ever needed to know was: Jigsaw/John Kramer wants people to be grateful for their lives because he is going to die of cancer. The more we found out in subsequent installments, the less scared I was and the less I cared about any of it. I especially didn’t care that Jigsaw’s survivor turned prodigy, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) continued his grotesque work in later films, but with no regard for his original intention or philosophy. I only cared that the films seemed to have veered off track in a very similar fashion– over-the-top killing-contraptions and even more over-the-top backstories that did nothing to justify or help ground those now-familiar scenarios.
But, before devolving into wildly imaginative ways of killing people that only grew duller as they grew more inventive, Saw was, again, an innovative and important film— even if many people view it as the scum of an already scummy genre. Because whether people consciously realized it at the time or not, Saw (and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) as well) reflected apprehensions and cultural anxieties surrounding masculinity, foreign policy, and terror.
Like any other horror subgenre, torture porn blossomed out of a specific time and place; Saw was an answer to Guantanamo Bay and the Bush administration’s use of violence as a means of reestablishing a kind of status quo. It didn’t work, of course, and that’s partly where the magic of horror cinema comes in— allowing viewers to vent their apprehensions in a safe, contained space in highly visceral ways. Jigsaw/John Kramer serves as both domestic terrorist and an embodiment of this foreign policy, his attempts to violently force the will to live honestly and with integrity onto spoiled and ungrateful men failing in almost all cases, too. Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) also tries to regain his patriarchal position as good husband and good father, but he literally has to cut his own leg off to do so, and even though he is free from the chains that bind him to his grimy, threatening surroundings, he will most likely bleed out before ever redeeming himself. And besides, his family is shown safe with cops and neighbors, clearly not needing him as much as he believes they do.
But, that wave of torture porn, seemingly massive at the time (according to how much we as a country needed it without cognitively knowing we needed it), crested and fell relatively quickly. By the time the third Saw film came out, I’d say the craze was on its down-glide. And, Hostel is in many ways seen as the better film, with more overt ties to Post-9/11 imagery and themes—from Abu Ghraib to the mere idea of xenophobia. Yet, Saw’s legacy is far more impressive and pervasive. As silly as the franchise as a whole might seem, it is the image of Jigsaw and his horrifically distorted voice spewing unimaginable instructions that has remained an everlasting fixture of modern horror cinema. Whether because of its hidden-in-plain-sight symbols that potentially helped a generation cope with 9/11 and the global events that followed, or simply because it in itself symbolized an entire subgenre that truly shook, dismayed and defined that generation– Saw remains a classic, albeit imperfect, horror film that matters more than any of us could have predicted it would a whole decade later.