Wednesday, July 8, 2009
My Achilles' heel (please don't sever)
I have a confession to make:
I'm the reason they keep making Saw movies.
Didn't know that? Sorry. My bad.
I saw only two of them in the theater, but as of Sunday night, I've now seen all five. All five that have come out like clockwork each of the past five years, during the week leading up to Halloween. In fact, I can't remember any other series of movies coming out with such machine-like regularity. Even the ever-prolific Friday the 13th movies came out at random, albeit short, intervals, as opposed to one predictable time each year. The closest any series has come to Saw would be the release of Lord of the Rings movies in three consecutive Decembers -- but that was always planned that way, not some rushed reaction to the continued viability of each sequel as a box office force.
And why do the Saw movies continue to have such viability? Because of people like me.
I don't know why I keep giving the Saw movies chances, I just do. I think it's a little bit of the Saturday Night Live syndrome. Just like the Saw movies, Saturday Night Live has its devoted fans who will watch every week (every Halloween), and yuk at even the lame skits (shriek at the stupid deaths). But then it also has its more discriminating fans, who watch not because they are consistently entertained, but because they want to be there when SNL does, on occasion, get it just perfect. It's the remembrance of past glories and the hope for future ones that keep these viewers tuning in.
And so that's why I continue to tune into the Saw movies. Damn that awesome opening kill in Saw II.
But let's go back to the beginning.
1) Saw (2004, James Wan). Viewed: October 31, 2005. Although I'd been curious about Saw based on the trailers, I did not see it in the theater, due primarily to the laughably negative review given by two of my friends. I believe this review was why I ended up liking the first Saw movie as much as I did; I carried in exceptionally low expectations. So I wasn't bothered by -- and in fact, was prepared for -- the indubitably hammy acting of Cary Elwes. Instead, I was swept up in the catch-22 philosophies of Jigsaw's games -- in order to save your own life, you have to hurt yourself (or someone else) really, really badly. It had an elegant simplicity and forced people into instant action, either to summon the courage or pay the consequences. Plus there were some chilling, splattery deaths that were especially effective on me, it being Halloween and all.
2) Saw II (2005, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: November 12, 2005. The original Saw left me hungry enough that I sought out the second one in the theater, just 13 days later. A friend was visiting, and it didn't take that much convincing to get him and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) to come with me. They hadn't liked the first as much as I (nor were they as fresh from seeing it), but both had various levels of interest. At first, we thought we might have hit the fear jackpot. The opening scene of Saw II blew our minds: A guy with a trap around his neck, which will crush his head like a melon, must use an exacto knife to cut out his own eye, in order to retrieve the key that will unlock his trap -- which has been sewn behind the eye. He has 60 seconds, and you can guess how it ends. Unfortunately, as good as that opening scene was, the rest of the movie is that bad. In fact, I found this movie so ridiculously, laughably incompetent, that I actually ranked it last of all the movies I saw in 2005.
3) Saw III (2006, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: October 30, 2006. Considering what I've just told you about my hatred for Saw II, you are certainly justified in asking how I ever got to Saw III. Well, I'll tell you -- it was conveniently timed as the second half of a double feature I saw on my last day of freedom before the first day of my current job. (The first movie was Catch a Fire, and no, it was not a particularly memorable double feature). Plus, that opening scene in Saw II left enough of an impression that I was willing to give Saw III a shot. If Saw III had been as bad as Saw II, that probably would have ended my affair with the Saw movies right then and there. But the third movie managed to improve on the second enough that I actually gave it a thumbs up. A tentative thumbs up, to be sure, but I couldn't deny that I squirmed a bit, and ultimately found it sort of clever. (Emphasis on "sort of.")
4) Saw IV (2007, Darren Lynn Bousman). Viewed: October 27, 2008. However much I sort of liked Saw III, apparently it was not enough to send me back to the multiplexes when the fourth came out. I took a two-year break this time, and saw Saw IV while Saw V was in theaters, again as an accompaniment to my personal Halloween season. Saw IV did not manage to be totally incompetent, like Saw II -- but it does contain one of the most bogus, convoluted, chronologically inconsistent/ambiguous wrap-up scenes I've ever seen in a movie. I believe I literally shouted "What??" at the screen. The other hilarious thing about this movie was the tagline on the poster: "It's a trap." Um, yeah, you think?
5) Saw V (2008, David Hackl). Viewed: July 5, 2009. Okay, so now I'm clearly just ticking them off my list, going for the complete collection. I watched this Saw movie in the middle of summer, planning it only in the sense that my wife was out of town -- so she wouldn't laugh at me for continuing to watch this drivel. It's the third best in the series, which isn't saying much -- but at least it makes sense for the most part. It's still not possible to believe that everything could be set up so perfectly, with Jigsaw having spent each of the past two movies dead. (I'm sorry if you consider that a spoiler; I will be sure to pray for you.) But if you are looking for plausibility, you shouldn't be watching Saw movies.
What I've discovered about myself is that I don't keep watching these movies because I'm some kind of horror junkie. In fact, though I love being scared, I find horror to be the most consistently disappointing genre out there. The movies I'm most excited about seeing -- of all the movies out there, in all genres -- are the ones that I think will genuinely unnerve me. But I can smell it a mile away when I know they won't, so I don't even usually get close to most of them.
What's different about the Saw movies, and other movies in the subgenre known alternately as "torture porn" and "terror porn," is that you aren't waiting for something to jump out of the shadows at you. Slasher movies have become so hackneyed precisely because of that startle scare, when the violins shriek, and a cat jumps down onto a character's shoulders. (Followed about 10 seconds later by the actual killer, who splits the character in two). No, torture porn posits the inevitability of slaughter, allows you to wince as it approaches -- as the character fails to crush his own hands in exchange for avoiding a knife on a pendulum that will split him in two. It's the same reason I was drawn to Hostel, and even to the wretched Captivity.
And I guess what fascinates me is the eternal question: What would I do in that situation?
Could I muster the courage to cut out my own eye, if I knew it would save my life? And if I had only 60 seconds to muster that courage?
As long as Saw keeps making me ask these questions, I'll keep coming, even if the returns are increasingly less satisfying. Even if they are totally unsatisfying.
And I'll get my next chance when Saw VI comes out on October 23rd.
It's being billed as the last in the series -- but I'll believe that when I see it.
As long as there are those of us still seeking that one perfect kill that blows our minds, and genuinely gets into our gut, and as long as we translate that desire into box office dollars, I wouldn't be surprised if Saw VII, Saw VIII and Saw XXXIV weren't far behind.