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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Dead End: SAW to THE FINAL CHAPTER


When Saw came out in 2004, it was huge. The film, made for roughly a million dollars, grossed over a hundred times that. Its grimy aesthetic was a blast of fresh air in an environment where the highest grossing films were Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2, and its competition in the world of horror were things like Alien Vs. Predator, Zack Snyder's polished Dawn of the Dead reboot, and a prequel to The Exorcist that I frankly forgot existed. Coming at the tail end of the ghostly, atmospheric J-horror boom, Saw could not have been more different. In the pared down horror exercise, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (writer Leigh Whannel) find themselves chained to the walls of a bathroom and pitted against each other, their own bodies, and a ticking clock by a mysterious mastermind hoping to teach them a lesson about self-love.
 

But Saw is a weird case in horror super-success because... well, it's not really scary. It's gross, sure. It's weird, and crazy grungy. But unlike a lot of 'extreme horror' that predated it (the superior art house horror flick Trouble Every Day, for example) or that would follow (Hostel, Wolf Creek, The Devil's Rejects), the earliest Saw film wasn't terribly graphic. For the most part, it's a bleak, amoral mystery in the vein of something like David Fincher's Seven as viewers try to figure out who Jigsaw is and how Dr. Gordon and Adam could solve the puzzle. The film was almost presented as one of those "Escape the Room" games where you try to outwit the designers, albeit one in which we occasionally flipped the screen over to a particularly dour episode of Law & Order. On the rare instances in which the film actually went for fright, newcomer James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) displayed a keen eye in setting up the sort of suspenseful set pieces that would become his calling card in the years to come. There are a handful of shots throughout the film involving masked men stalking Gordon and Adam that are tense, effective, and memorable in a way that Wan specializes in. Sadly, the directors who picked up the baton after Wan left focused more on the gore than on the tension, to the series' detriment, in my opinion.

So, you have a huge mega-hit on your hands, which means sequels. The series had a few tried-and-true directions it could take a horror sequel. The shocking twist, which revealed Jigsaw's identity and completely upended audience sympathy, made it easy to follow the villain, something horror movies love to do. Saw was no exception there. But where the series did innovate was in who else it chose to follow, tracking virtually every supporting cast member not being played by a 'name' actor (farewell, Cary Elwes, Monica Potter, and Danny Glover). If there were people who survived the games, what did they go on to do? And if the police failed to catch Jigsaw at the end of one movie (obviously, given that there was always a sequel around the corner), how did that investigation evolve, how did he handle the police? The series got incredibly wrapped up in those questions, to the point where - unlike most horror franchise enders - Saw: The Final Chapter was primarily about answering those questions, its central torture plot rote and a bit repetitive. 

But while Saw: The Final Chapter is unquestionably worse than the original entry, everything that would undo the series was present in the original. An obsession with grim police procedural overloaded with exposition? Check - Danny Glover, Ken Leung, and Dina Mayer are on the case in a series of flashbacks that detract from the grungy horror of the two men locked in a room. Twist layered upon twist until everything was meaningless? Saw has that, too. Some of the reveals are legitimately great, but the biggest one - Tobin Bell's Jigsaw finally revealing himself at the end - is a gasp-worthy moment that falls apart the second you stop and think about it, and that is the moment the series chased over and over again. Rampant, nonsensical moralizing about 'appreciating life'? Holy God almighty did the series fall down that particular rabbit hole.


The subtext here is, "Oh wait, you can't, I killed them all. Hope you learned something from this!"

I've watched a lot of Saw recently, but I'd be lying if I said I totally followed what was going on in the series' elaborate meta-plot. Some of the films were quite solid - Saw, Saw III, and Saw VI are all pretty effective, though both III & VI have some gender issues most of the series avoided - many were not, and by the time I reached Saw: The Final Chapter (originally known as Saw 3D), I had mostly given up trying to follow the elaborate, occasionally flawed timeline of the series. The twists and triple-crosses that so thoroughly dominated the series' latter entries were rewards to hyper-vigilant fans who rewatched regularly, but they may have been driving away more casual fans. Twists like the climactic moment in Saw IV only work if you know Saw III incredibly well, and the series' ongoing story about the infighting between Jigsaw's apprentices was filled with such moments. A key moment in Saw III, in which one of Jigsaw's apprentices reads a letter before doing something stupid, isn't explained for another three full films, and when it finally is, it changes the Saw III scene completely, neutering a powerful moment from the franchise's best character (Shawnee Smith's Amanda Young, whose arc from Saw through Saw III - an informal trilogy - is the best work the series ever did).


Still, even forgiving some of the excess plottiness of the series, Saw: The Final Chapter is a bad film. In this chapter, there are two stories running side by side. In the first, series baddie Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) stalks the wife of Jigsaw (Betsy Russell), hoping to get revenge on her and everyone else who has done him wrong while continuing Jigsaw's work (Tobin Bell, whose character died in Saw III); in the second, a talk show celebrity (Sean Patrick Flanery) has been making the rounds - and a lot of cash - pretending to be a Jigsaw survivor, a fact that understandably pissed off the actual Jigsaw, who left instructions on what to do with the pretender. No, I don't know why Jigsaw didn't handle that himself. The series baffling timeline, where months if not years can pass unremarked upon in a single edit, certainly left plenty of time for him to do so.


Unfortunately, neither story really works. Hoffman, a meathead detective blackmailed into helping Jigsaw, was never a terribly interesting villain, and despite a premise that pits Jigsaw's muscle against Jigsaw's wife, their story was mostly a pretty mundane "serial killer stalks a pretty girl" plot. Hell, at one point, Hoffman chases Jill into an evidence locker filled with old Jigsaw traps, something the film does virtually nothing with aside from bust out the fan-favorite 'reverse bear trap,' the only trap to get used in three different films Meanwhile, the talk show celebrity's gauntlet trap borrowed heavily from the films that came before it - it was the fourth gauntlet (in which one character goes from trap to trap with the option to save or condemn the person inside it), and for the first time in the series, traps were either goofy as hell or basically just riffs on more memorable versions of previous entries. Had either story been allowed to breathe, Saw: The Final Chapter might have been able to pull if off, but by this point, the series had pretty much entirely abandoned character in favor of plot. So when the plot doesn't work....

In addition to all that, Saw: The Final Chapter was plagued by so many problems I'm shocked it exists at all. As chronicled by Brian Collins, the director had to be basically blackmailed into making the film, and he made his frustrations very publicly known; the film took the plots for Saw 7 and Saw 8 and combined them into a single film after Saw VI underperformed at the box office; and when they blackmailed Gruetert into directing, they fired original director David Hackl, who then (understandably) quit as the series' production designer. The Saw team was always fairly tight, with basically the same crew working on the entire series, so this sort of disruption paired with a director who seemingly wanted to be anywhere else clearly hurt. But the naked misogyny on display in the opening, for example, or repetitive nature of the traps themselves suggests that the series may have just been on its last legs regardless of crew passion. 

Many of James Wan's directorial flourishes like this wouldn't last, sadly.

Many horror franchises end with something to say about the franchise itself. Wes Craven's New Nightmare explicitly criticized the commercialization of Freddy Krueger and talked about why horror films worked; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series-enders (there were two, both equally odd) each had specific things to say about what horror means and why Leatherface worked; Alien: Resurrection was a none-too-subtle critique of the idea of bringing Ripley back over and over again. But Saw: The Final Chapter has none of that. Jigsaw died four films back, so it was impossible for anyone to debate his philosophy with him; indeed, despite showing how much it failed over and over and over again on screen, the filmmakers seem oddly aligned with the murderous mastermind. Saw: The Final Chapter wasn't about ideas in the way that the first, third, and sixth film were, however shallowly the films presented their ideas; it was about wrapping up the ongoing story. It thought that what fans wanted was fan service, when what fans actually wanted was a good film. 

Thus far, the Saw series has lived up to the final film's title. Though the film's cheap production and reliable fanbase draw suggests that another entry wouldn't be misplaced, audiences have moved on. Paranormal Activity replaced it in the hearts of yearly Halloween filmgoers, a fitting change of pace given where we were culturally by then. But for awhile, Saw was king, and in a way, it was the perfect post-9/11 horror franchise for American audiences. In it, a once-good man is twisted into a monster enforcing his brutal lessons upon a helpless world. Vigilante justice comes, in the films, from a fundamentally moral root, but in Saw, it always creates more monsters than it destroys. What's more, the series if a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, an immaculately controlled puzzle where every single action, no matter how mundane, is controlled by a single all-seeing, all-knowing actor.

Of course, conspiracy theorists are awful storytellers, and the Saw franchise is an excellent example of why that is, as it is more concerned with making the puzzle pieces fit together than making them coherent on any sort of human level. I'm sure the labyrinthine timeline and endless reversals probably make some sort of logical sense, but I also couldn't give you more than a single character trait for anyone not introduced in the first film aside from what Jigsaw tells us on one of his ceaseless, judgmental tapes. In order to make it all 'fit', in order to have everything come together just right, the series had to shed any vestige of the humanity found in Saw and even Saw III. As with the film's increasing fetishization of Jigsaw's deathtraps, all that was left of the stories were soulless machines of variable precision.


Game over.
 

Coming Up Next on The Dead End


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