Stevi Costa sees Saw again, and she has some things to say about “torture porn,” serial killer narratives, and the long-running CBS crime thriller Criminal Minds.
It’s Halloween once again, which means it’s time for me to revisit one of the most resilient (and pretty silly) horror franchises of the 21st century. While I wish I were writing about my favorite stupid horror series of all time, Final Destination, I am instead writing about Saw, an early piece of millennial “torture porn.”
First, I wish to discuss this term. “Torture porn” is a pejorative which refers, typically, to horror films that titillate viewers through a combination of graphic violence/gore with nudity. Although David Edelstein technically coined the term in a review of Eli Roth’s Hostel, which fits the definition to the T, it is often retroactively applied to films like Saw, which certainly rely on graphic violence and gore, but rarely on nudity. To call Saw torture porn is a misnomer, although a convenient one. There is nothing sexual about the violence in Saw. It is not erotic to the viewer, or to the serial killer character engineering these acts of violence. I watch an awful lot of police procedurals and serial killer narratives, and Saw’s distinct lack of erotic attachment to violence is notable. In many serial killer stories or true “torture porn” narratives, the camera dwells on the body of the victim, often in close-ups that show the murder weapon penetrating the flesh, and blood/guts/abjecta spraying everywhere. Saw, by contrast, tends to imply most of its violence by showing us, via the villain Jigsaw’s tapes, how his devices work, to heighten the sense of fear about what could happen to a body because of it. We do, of course, see the aftermath of the torture, but rarely the actual act of killing. (This is true of the first film specifically – other entries in the series dwell more on the moment of death.) So there’s not really a moment within Saw in which the viewer can eroticize torture, nor is this eroticized for Jigsaw.
It’s important to make note of his motives here as a serial killer type. Jigsaw is unlike most serial killers we encounter on procedurals or in real life. (NB: Most of my data on serial killers on police procedurals is drawn from Criminal Minds, which is arguably one of the most grotesque shows on television AND I LOVE IT.) Unlike a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy, Jigsaw isn’t interested in taking personal or sexual power over his victims. Other than the moment of abduction, he interacts with them only voyeuristically and from a distance. His goal, revealed by the tapes and videos he has prerecorded for his victims to play upon waking, is to test the moral mettle of the abductees. As Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp points out, Jigsaw never really kills anybody, actually. He always provides his victims with the option of escape. The tragedy is that most of them are not smart enough (or in Jigsaw’s point of view morally right enough) to win the game. Though voyeurism can have an erotic component to it, and the lingering camerawork of most horror films cements, voyeurism functions less erotically in Saw and more like surveillance in the panoptic, Foucaultian sense. Jigsaw isn’t watching his victims to get off on their deaths. He’s watching to police them into making the right choices.
Saw is an interesting take on a serial killer narrative because it shifts perspective so frequently over the course of 90 minutes. Viewers experience the narrative through the victims, Adam and Larry (screenwriter Leigh Wannell, pretending not to be Australian, and Cary Elwes, pretending not to be the Dread Pirate Roberts), as they struggle to understand how they came to be chained to pipes in a disgusting bathroom that crustpunk Helen fromWetlands would really love to live in, as well as through the detectives, Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung), who have been following some of Jigsaw’s earlier murders. The Tapp and Sing narrative actually takes place prior to the Adam and Larry narrative, which we learn when Tapp and Sing walk into what is obviously a trap, during which Tapp gets his throat slit and watches Sing take a shotgun blast straight through the brain. There’s also a Tapp-trying-to-solve-the-case narrative that continues until the film’s climax, and a small plot involving Larry’s wife and daughter, who might be killed by one of Jigsaw’s disciples (playing his own version of one of Jigsaw’s torture games) if Larry doesn’t murder Adam by 6 pm.
Got all that? Good, because these interlocking stitches of narrative go to show that Saw, as an experimental, low-budget horror film, is anything but linear, and these temporal, spatial, and narrative disruptions make it much easier for viewers to invest in the bottle narrative of the two men trapped in the dingy bathroom, being tasked with death. Further, the shifts in narrative focus also make it clear that this is not a film that’s endorsing the viewpoint of the serial killer or the cops, which I suggest are the dominant ways that serial killer narratives are structured on Criminal Minds. Viewers are either meant to understand the violence from the perspective of the killer (camerawork might follow someone on the street before an abduction occurs, and linger on instruments of violence or acts of violence), or the perspective of the people trying to catch the killer (scenes in which evidence is looked at and discussed, emphasizing the aftermath of violence rather than the violence itself). Saw doesn’t adopt Jigsaw’s cinematic perspective at all – even the stylized scenes of violence to early victims are narrated from the point of view of the cops or the point of view of Amanda, the one surviving victim. Saw is distanced therefore from any pornographic tendencies because viewers are never watching a single perspective long enough to internalize a viewpoint. Rather, it shows that, unlike Jigsaw’s clear-cut moral games, there is a lot more going on to horror than can easily be categorized.
These are the things I like about Saw, but they’re also what makes Saw seem very silly to me. The narrative takes itself so seriously, but is actually quite funny. I am pretty sure that I spent the entire climactic scene where Larry starts to cut off his own foot in order to escape his torture cell laughing uncontrollably. The complexity Saw strives for, in retrospect, strikes me as amateurish, even though I admire the attempt. It’s actually a very small story about a series of interconnected people who’ve spent a lot of time fucking each other over, and it has no stakes outside of itself. Yet, amazingly, as Saw developed into a series, the mythology of Jigsaw grew even more and more elaborate, each film winding around the previous one like some kind of horror ouroboros, and soon Jigsaw’s vengeance against a specific doctor who told him he was going to die ballooned into moral punishment for the real estate bubble bursting (Saw V) and, in something of a return to the series’ roots, the health care crisis (Saw VI). The attempts at stakes and commentary in the latter films is also pretty hilarious to me, and that’s because the early parts of the series, especially the first film, are so much about the personal stakes of a character and the world in which the film is set is so small that there’s ultimately nothing fear-inducing about it. Would it suck to be chained to a drainpipe in a basement and be forced to cut my own foot off? Yeah, that would suck hardcore. But a situation like Saw is never going to happen, and that’s why I find it funny. No serial killer chooses to torture victims into behaving like moral human beings. Other serial killer narratives are actually frightening because they are plausible, and this is why Criminal Minds (which also takes itself far too seriously) is actually scary. Serial killers don’t try to teach people lessons. They strike a series of victims that map onto their own individual neuroses/psychic traumas/etc. They perpetrate violence against these people randomly, and that’s violence from which escape is frequently not an option. Criminal Minds is terrifying at times because the randomness of violence is really real. And because most of the victims are women. And because most serial killers are white men. Anything that ever happens to a woman onCriminal Minds has a far greater chance of happening in the real world than does anything inSaw. I give Saw kudos for choosing to have male victims, and to have Shawnee Smith play the “final girl,” the sole survivor of Jigsaw’s games. But this is also why I find that it isn’t scary at all: it does not conform to a serial killer narrative in a way that would actually produce fear.
And that’s why I can laugh while watching Cary Elwes cut off his own foot and then crawl out of what should have been his tomb on his bloody stump of a leg. It may not be scary, but it is a pretty cool image. Even cooler? The corpse that had been lying between Adam and Larry throughout the entire film standing up, peeling off his latex head wound, and revealing that Jigsaw had been among them the entire time.
– Tapp and Sing are … interesting choices of names for detectives. Sing is played by an Asian-American actor and is a common Asian-American surname, so that’s not so odd. But when it’s paired with Tapp . . . I can’t help but notice that this is a strange combination of verbs to choose. I feel like they shouldn’t be detectives, but rather a vaudeville duo.
– Ken Leung and Michael Emerson from Lost are both in this. New theory: everything that happens in every Saw movie ever actually takes place on the Island inside the Pearl station.
– Returning to Tapp & Sing for a second: These guys are awful detectives. It’s no wonder Sing takes one in the head because the minute they both walked into that obviously very staged crime scene, they should have known it was a trap. If the crew from Criminal Mindshad happened upon this scene, Hotch would have immediately gotten on the radio, announced that it was a trap, and called in backup. Then Derrick Morgan would have taken down Michael Emerson with one clean shot as he tried to run away. Easy.
– My favorite scenes in detective narratives are scenes in which the characters analyze evidence and theorize. This is sorely missing from the detective scenes in Saw, and it’s really disappointing. There’s one brief scene in which Sing looks up some medical records and then triangulates a building on a map and I think it might actually be the most exciting part of the movie for me.
– So, one year, for some reason or another, my husband, editor of this here website, purchased a Billy doll, which Jigsaw uses as his surrogate in all of his video messages. I found this a confusing gift, and so we forgot about it for awhile. But then my husband decided to start putting Billy in random places around the house to see if I would notice. Sometimes, it would take me weeks to notice that Billy was in a new part of the house, which was obviously quite shocking to come upon when you’re not expecting it. The worst/best incident I’ve had with Billy was last October, in fact. I’d had a late night Halloween gig, and didn’t unpack my gig bag for a week. When I finally did, Billy was sitting inside it, ready to terrify me. This is the one time I can saw that something related to Saw had legitimately scared me.