Saw: The Horror Movie That Kick-started a Uniquely 2000’s Horror Subgenre

Fourteen years ago, Lionsgate Films released a small independent horror film by two unknown filmmakers. The filmmakers were James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Yes, the same James Wan responsible for The Conjuring and Insidious franchises. He’s also directing a little movie called Aquaman. And Leigh Whannell just directed one of 2018’s better genre films, Upgrade. As for the movie itself, it was a little picture called Saw. For much of the early 2000’s, Saw was the undisputed king of Halloween and critical boogeyman of ‘Torture Porn’. The franchise is still producing sequels (i.e., Jigsaw). In this edition of The Vault, I will be looking at the role of the original Saw and its influence on the “torture porn” subgenre that dominated the horror film cycle in the 2000s.

Jigsaw – The First Horror Icon of the 2000’s

Lionsgate Films released Saw on October 29th, 2004. It was low-budget offering with little to no expectations. Yet somehow Saw became 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, the little horror film that began with two strangers chained inside a dingy warehouse bathroom has  produced seven sequels over 13 years. The Saw franchise has a running total of over $450 million in box office receipts (Box Office Mojo, n.d.).

Written by Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Upgrade) and directed by James Wan (The Conjuring), the original Saw introduced audiences to the first horror icon of the 2000’s. Serial killer John Kramer, known as Jigsaw, is dying of cancer. Of course, Kramer isn’t technically a serial killer. That is, Jigsaw doesn’t actually murder anyone. Instead, Jigsaw abducts moral transgressors. Subsequently, Jigsaw forces the sinners to confront their sins in his intricately designed Rube Goldberg-esque deathtraps. In the years following Saw’s debut, Jigsaw has joined Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, as a horror heavyweight. For a short time, Lionsgate Films released  a new Saw every Halloween.

Saw 1

Saw and the ‘Torture Porn’ Cycle

Today Saw is considered among the best horror films of the 2000’s. But tt the time of its release, critics didn’t have much nice to say about it. Not surprisingly, much of the criticism focused on the extremely graphic violence set-pieces. In the early 2000’s, 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 humor and largely bloodless choreographed violence, Saw was ‘dirty’. Quite contrary to Scream, its violence was protracted, graphic, and rendered in realistic detail.

Quite contrary to Scream, its violence was protracted, graphic, and rendered in realistic detail.

Along with Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) Saw is credited with kick-starting the ‘torture porn’ or ‘gorno’ cycle of horror films. Film critic David Edelstein (2006) in his article, Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex, first coined the term “torture porn”. Edelstein’s article ostensibly wagged a 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. Conversely, the term “torture porn” alludes to these films’ invitation to audiences to revel in the obscene, perverse images of torture.

As a whole, film critics largely dismissed the sub-genre exploitative. Of course, for some films, the criticism had some merit. Captivity, a film released in 2007, managed to garner negative buzz even before its release. Billboard advertisements in New York and Los Angeles featured a series of photos of a woman being progressively victimized with the captions “Abduction”, “Confinement”, “Torture”, and “Termination” (Lopex, 2007, March 18). Not surprisingly, the advertising campaign sparked a massive backlash.

Saw 2

Torture Porn and Post-9/11 Horror

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).

On one hand, ‘serious’ films that dealt directly with 9/11 and the “War on Terror” failed to connect with audiences. Film-goes still grappling with the Abu Ghraib scandal, use of torture in interrogations, and government surveillance weren’t ready to see thse issues played out in theatres. Yet the torture porn genre was performing extremely well at the box office.

Even shortly before the release of Saw, American filmmakers Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, were already experimenting and re-visiting 1970’s splatter film aesthetics

A Return to the Splatter Violence of ’70’s Grindhouse

Thematically, Saw has more in common with David Fincher’s Se7en or Vincent Price’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes than it does with torture porn films like Hostel and TuristasThose latter films deal with xenophobic fears of the “other” in a post-9/11 world. Other film scholars have pointed out that the extreme violence in the Saw and Hostel films that was drawing the scorn of critics was merely a return to the violence of the splatter film sub-genre. In other words, a new generation of filmmakers raised on 1970’s grindhouse cinemas and the Grand Guignol tradition of Italian horror were injecting these influences into their movies.

Even shortly before the release of Saw, American filmmakers like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, were already experimenting and re-visiting 1970s splatter film aesthetics. Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses 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 1970’s and 1980’s.

Saw 3

Saw Served as an Important Precursor to the Torture Porn Subgenre

Saw then did not uniquely create “torture” porn as a subgenre. It neither addresses public anxieties with government use of torture nor the xenophobic rhetoric often employed to rationalize its use in the same way that Eli Roth does with Hostel. Nevertheless, Saw arguably paved the way for films like Hostel. That is, Whannell and Wan brought together many of the subgenre’s tropes. More specifically, Saw includes the central placement of torture, the role surveillance, and an “eye-for-an-eye” justification for torture. Clearly, film audiences were not interested in more meditative pieces about torture and human rights violations emergent from the “War on Terror”. Saw illustrated the potential for the horror genre to explore these social and political implications at a subconscious level.

References

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.

 

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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