Welcome to the first entry in The Vault where I will select milestone films in the horror genre to explore in more detail. These reviews will focus on the socio-cultural context of the time period in which the film was released and how the film reflected broader fears and anxieties prevalent in the era as well as how the film has influenced the genre. For my first entry in The Vault, I examine the role of the original Saw (2004) and its influence on the subsequent “torture porn” subgenre that dominated the horror film cycle in the 2000s.
Released on October 29th, 2004, the original Saw (2004), a low-budget offering with little to no expectations, would become a box office hit, grossing just north of $55 million and launching the most financially lucrative horror franchise in history (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). To date, this little horror film that began with two strangers chained inside a dingy warehouse bathroom has gone on to produce seven sequels over 13 years and a running total of over $450 million in box office receipts (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). Written by Leigh Whannell (Insidious) and directed by James Wan (The Conjuring), the original Saw introduced audiences to John Kramer, the serial killer known as Jigsaw, a man dying from cancer who abducts and forces moral transgressors to confront their sins in his intricately designed Rube Goldberg-esque deathtraps. Jigsaw has since joined Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, as a horror heavyweight. For a short time, it was a Halloween tradition for a new Saw film to open in theatres with new versions of Jigsaw’s sadistic and sickly inventive torture devices.
Today Saw is considered among the best horror films of the 2000s but, at the time of its release, it proved divisive among critics, receiving generally unfavourable reviews. Not surprisingly, much of the criticism focused on the extended sequences of extremely graphic violence that were the centerpiece of the film. In the early 2000s Saw represented a significant departure from the cycle of self-aware, meta-horror films that followed the success of Scream (1996) and it sequels (Ndalianis, 2012). While Scream reveled in its hip humour and largely bloodless, quickly choreographed scenes of violence, Saw was ‘dirty’, its violence extended in graphic, realistic detail. It marked a return to the low-budget, extreme violence of 1970s splatter films.
Along with Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) Saw is largely credited with kick-starting the cycle of horror films derided as “torture porn” or “gorno.” Film critic David Edelstein (2006) in his article, Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex, first coined the term “torture porn”, where he ostensibly wagged his finger at the sadistic violence and the audiences who embraced it. The term conjures up a number of negative connotations. On one hand, it explicitly draws links between the controversial juxtaposition of graphic violence and sexual imagery that characterize several films in the subgenre. Conversely, the term “torture porn” alludes to these films’ invitation to audiences to revel in the obscene, perverse images of torture and mayhem. As a whole, the subgenre was largely dismissed by film critics as exploitative and in poor taste and, for some films, the criticism wasn’t always without merit. Captivity, a film released in 2007, managed to garner negative buzz even before its release with billboard advertisements in New York and Los Angeles that featured a series of photos of a woman being progressively victimized with the captions “Abduction”, “Confinement”, “Torture”, and “Termination” (Lopex, 2007, March 18).
Horror scholars have been more generous in their interpretations of torture porn. To date, a growing body of literature has examined the “torture porn” trend in the broader sociocultural context of a post-9/11 world (Briefel & Miller, 2011; Hantke, 2010; Wetmore, 2012). Jon Towlson (2014) and Scott Poole (2011) have both written about the role of horror in exploring cultural anxieties and fears during times of what Towlson (2014) describes as “ideological crisis and national trauma” (p. 6). ‘Serious’ films that dealt directly with 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” failed to connect with audiences still grappling with divisive questions around the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal, use of torture in interrogations, and government surveillance. Yet the torture porn genre, a diverse range of films connected by their use of torture as entertainment, were performing extremely well at the box office.
Thematically, Saw (2004) has more in common with David Fincher’s Se7en (1996) or Vincent Price’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1972) than it does with torture porn films like Hostel (2005) and Turistas (2007), films that explicitly deal with xenophobic fears of the “other” in a post-9/11 world. Many film scholars have pointed out that the extreme violence in the Saw and Hostel films that was drawing the ire of critics was merely a return to the violence of the splatter film subgenre from 1970s grindhouse cinemas and the Grand Guignol tradition of Italian horror. Even shortly before the release of Saw, American filmmakers Eli Roth and heavy metal frontman turned director, Rob Zombie, were already experimenting and re-visiting 1970s splatter film aesthetics. Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, released in 2003 but filmed in 2000, was a clear homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its grainy screen violence that accentuated extended scenes of confinement and torture. Roth’s first film effort, Cabin Fever (2002), was reminiscent of the body horror found in David Cronenberg films from the 1970s and 1980s.
Saw then did not uniquely create “torture” porn as a subgenre and, from a thematic perspective, it does not address public anxieties with government use of torture and the xenophobic rhetoric often employed to rationalize its use in the same way that Eli Roth does with Hostel (2005). Yet Saw arguably paved the way for films like Hostel (2005) by bringing together many of the subgenre’s tropes – its central placement of torture, the role surveillance, and Jigsaw’s retributivist “eye-for-an-eye” justification for torture. While film audiences were not interested in meditative pieces that directly confronted torture and human rights violations emergent from the “War on Terror”, the success of Saw illustrated the potential for the horror genre to explore these social and political implications at a subconscious level.
Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Saw franchise box office. Retrieved January 29th, 2018, from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=saw.htm.
Briefel, A., & Miller, S. J. (2011). Horror After 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.
Hantke, S. (Ed.). (2010). American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
Edelstein, D. (2006). Now playing at your local multiplex: Torture porn. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/moviesfeatures/15622/
Lopex, S. (2007, March 18). Billboard’s “Captivity” audience disgusted. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 30th, 2018, from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/18/local/me-lopez18.
Ndalianis, A. (2012). The Horror sensorium: Media and the senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Poole, W.S. (2011). Monsters in America: Our cultural obsession with the hideous and the haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Towlson, J. (2014). Subversive horror cinema: Countercultural messages of films from Frankenstein to the present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.