1 November 2009

I Fought The Saw


It's little more than a coincidence that the supposedly unlucky number coincides with this latest instalment of my thoughts on cinema, brought out on Halloween weekend and focusing on horror. I'm prophetic only in the Howard Beale sense of things, so the only trepidation you should approach this post with is the usual weariness at having to read my articulated rantings. I've spent a great deal of time lately catching up with the Saw franchise awaiting the release of Saw VI, so as with the Harry Potter review earlier in the year, I'll give you a potted look at my thoughts on the earlier instalments. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion on here- others are available, and spoilers for I-V may follow throughout the review.

Saw is really nothing short of excellent. A brilliant extension of a short film from James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the film hits all the right notes- it's innovative, chilling and it's one of the best thrillers of the decade. I don't particularly classify the franchise as horror just because of the copious amounts of gore, and so I always thought the films were at their best when they were discomforting the audience in other ways. Best of all, it stars Cary Elwes, who gets an automatic pass in most films because he was so awesome in The Princess Bride. Look at the picture, he's still not left-handed. To say that the first of six is the best doesn't suggest that I liked the rest very much, but on the contrary, I found Saw II to be nearly as good as its predecessor, and certainly just as clever, and though Saw III is a definite step-down in quality, it wrapped up most of the loose ends and provided what would've been a rather satisfying conclusion with franchise baddy Jigsaw's death.

At that point, I felt the creative strain was already starting to show, and if only they'd spun off from there into a TV series about the cops who are after Jigsaw, the series' continuation might have been a bit better. As it is, Saw IV is execrable. Just an utter waste of time that descends into soap opera with gore. By this point, it almost seems like the writers are more interested in formulating new traps and building some kind of grand plan with the narrative than in maintaining the cold hard logic behind their victims' circumstances. Even III had one victim who was put into the torture device simply because she's "already dead on the inside". That's not necessarily a misdeed that needs punishing now, is it? Not really akin to the barbed wire room for the self-harm guy in the first film, or the "needle in a haystack" for the drug dealer in the second film.

I found the fourth film was only really notable for its inclusion of the only violent act that made me cringe since the early films, and that's the accident that causes Jill's miscarriage. From that you can probably guess I take no pleasure in the desensitising clusterfuck of gore that the films spray everywhere, and that if they're explaining Jigsaw's wife having a miscarriage is what made Jigsaw do his thing, they may be in trouble. That's the sign of a franchise that's a little too wrapped up in its own mythology- it's episodic rather than cinematic, hence my suggestion that it might've made a better TV series. And Tobin Bell probably has a contract stipulation that means he has to play the guy in flashbacks ad infinitum, even though his character died three films ago. Saw V recovers a little, and although it's widely slated as the worst, I still think IV is the worst so far. And now, at the film-a-year rate that Twisted Pictures have been pumping out since 2004, we find Saw VI arriving in multiplexes this Halloween.

At this stage in affairs, every one of the original detectives investigating Jigsaw has died except Detective Hoffman, who became Jigsaw's new apprentice two films ago. The FBI are getting closer to exposing the truth, so Hoffman one of Jigsaw's final games in motion, tackling insurance companies who have power over life and death. Spoilers for I-V may persist, but you need not fear any spoilers for Saw VI in reading on.

For those who aren't aware, America's healthcare system is a little bit crap. Anyone looking for an appraisal of that system is probably better served by the slightly self-aggrandizing Sicko- this is a film for those who take it as a given that medical insurance people are penny-pinching scumbags and cheats, and who want to see them using each other's vital organs as jaunty hats in order to try and save themselves. As a result of this, all of our de facto protagonists in Saw VI are thoroughly unlikable, and you feel they deserve to die. Not in the typical horror fashion, whereby characters are so one-dimensional you don't care if they explode, melt, drown or spaff themselves to death- these guys are really hateful, and for the first time since the second instalment, we have a set of characters who do deserve to be in this game, as opposed to being audience friendly. Peter Outerbridge's slimy executive, William, is the focus of Jigsaw's game from beyond the grave and he's put through hell in order to save his family, like a kind of twatty Harrison Ford. Jigsaw's logic makes a welcome return in the treatment of characters like these, and writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton vastly improve on their last efforts.

Also owing to the marked increase in quality is director Kevin Greutert, who edited the first five films and really brings some discomfort back to the proceedings. The shaky and fast-cut shots were annoying in the first two films, but once they disappeared, I realised why they were there. They disorientate the audience precisely so they don't become desensitised to or comfortable with the amount of gore on-screen, and now that this style of editing has returned, the gore has regained a little of its horror value. I say this not as a sick and twisted human being who watches these films for the joy of simulated torture, but someone who ended up really bloody bored watching it being constantly repeated in Saw III through Saw V with little of the innovation of their predecessors. And don't get me wrong, this one does have its faults. Indeed, for such a positive review, it's a fairly average film.


So the flashbacks haven't gone away, the gore still comes gushing, and I still haven't been really properly horrified since Jill's miscarriage in Saw IV. If you've found my mentions of the first five films to be incomprehensible, Saw VI is not the film for you, because it still has great reverence for the series' continuity. On the other hand, if you want a film that largely acquits itself of the rather crappy legacy the most recent instalments have accrued, you could do a lot worse. For the first time in the series, I actually want to see the next film to find out where it goes from the ending of VI. Dunstan and Melton's episodic business is actually taking a little bit of shape now, and they claim that the storyline will finally wrap up with an eighth instalment in 2011. Much like Harry Potter then, only with headfucking retcons and more gore than the 2000 presidential campaign. For now, they've restored enough of the innovation and tension-building that made the first film to make this a more competent "part six" than any horror fan could really hope to expect.

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Yeah, I made an Al Gore joke. I'm current! Next time, I'll be getting through the films I'm planning to see this week, which include Jennifer's Body and Michael Jackson's This Is It. I've already seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, so that'll definitely be in there. If you've been reading this long though, I'll assume you're quite the Saw fan, so if you've seen Saw VI, why not share your thoughts in the comments?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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