Horror: Re-defining the Genre in the Modern Era – Saw

Saw Franchise

Saw (James Wan, 2004)
Saw 2 (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005)
Saw 3 (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2006)
Saw 4 (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2007)
Saw 5 (David Hackl, 2008)
Saw 6 (Kevin Greutert, 2009)
Saw 3D (Kevin Greutert, 2010)

By Kat Lawson

I want to play a game

It would be difficult to take a look at modern horror films without mentioning Saw, in one way or anotherand as its difficult to pin down just one film from the Saw franchise this week I’m looking at the series as a whole rather than just one individual film.

Since the Saw franchise began 10 years ago it has spawned 7 feature length films, a short film, a comic book series, video games, theme park rides and countless costumes and collector’s items. It has also had perhaps one of the most mixed receptions any film series has seen for a long time. Every film was panned by critics with positive reviews seemingly few and far between. Not one of the films holds anything other than a rotten rating on review website Rotten Tomatoes, the highest score being 48% for the first film. Metacritic tells the same story, although the highest rated is Saw III with 48/100.

Yet at the same time as it was being criticised and written off by critics for almost every aspect of the series, it became the highest grossing film series in the world, having collectively grossed over $873 million. Back on home soil (USA & Canada) it is the fifth highest grossing horror series of all time behind Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, the Hannibal Lecter series and Halloween. At the time of its release in 2004 Saw became the most profitable horror film since Scream in 1996, and was distribution company Lionsgate’s second biggest opening weekend after Michael Moore’s political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

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Saw follows the story of John Kramer and what he perceives to be his life’s work. Kramer was once a once happy and successful civil engineer who is dying from an inoperable brain tumour. Following a failed suicide attempt Kramer finds a new appreciation for life and decides to dedicate the rest of his life to inspiring the same appreciation in others who he thinks take their lives for granted. He does this by creating a series of traps or games designed to test each person’s survival instinct and will to live, typically the traps are meant to be symbolic of whatever Kramer perceived to be that person’s moral or character flaw and involved inflicting physical and/or psychological torture upon themselves and other people in order to survive. Kramer has been dubbed Jigsaw or The Jigsaw Killer by the media due to his removal of a puzzle shaped piece of skin from each of his victims who do not survive their tests, symbolising that they were missing their survival instincts.
Following Kramer’s death in Saw III, a number of apprentices he has recruited throughout the earlier films carry on his work, desiring that humanity should continue to be tested and deciding that the way to achieve immortality is through his protégés carrying on his legacy.  Though he clashes with one of his apprentices who does not believe in giving the victims a chance to survive, and she begins to design traps that are inescapable, admitting that she no longer agrees with Kramer’s M.O.

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What sets the Saw franchise apart from other horror films or series is whilst Kramer leaves a trail of death and destruction behind him he is not the typical serial killer with a tragic back story driving him to kill as is seen in many serial killer narratives. Whilst he is dubbed The Jigsaw Killer by the media in the films Kramer himself rejects this title, seeing himself not as some cold blooded killer but rather as someone who is teaching people to appreciate their lives. All of the traps that he creates are designed so that the victims can escape, it is up to them how much they want to live, how much they are willing to suffer in order to survive.

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While Kramer does have a tragic back story that fits with the serial killer narrative: wife’s miscarriage, divorce, cancer and terminal brain tumour, it does not drive him to blindly kill anyone who crosses his path without any real reason or motive. Instead he focuses his work on rehabilitation, on saving people from squandering their lives and not being thankful for what they have. There is a method behind the madness so to speak.

Kramer’s back story is explored throughout the series suggesting that although none of the films following his death were received as well as the earlier films, both in terms of box office takings and reviews, they were not just made for the sake of continuing the franchise and attempting to make more money, there was a story there to be told.

Like so many modern horror films the Saw films could quite easily fit into the category of torture porn (with the emphasis being on torture) or gorno films, for its sadistic traps, disfigured bodies and gallon upon gallon of fake blood. However rather than just putting image after image of bloody and mangled bodies on screen for the sake of cheap scares and modern horror’s obsession with using as much fake blood as possible, Saw forces the audience to examine Kramer’s modus operandi. The viewer is forced to look at their own lives and whether or not they are aware and fully appreciative of what they have.

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Cherish Your Life