Sean K. Cureton

The Allure of Sadism

In My Favorite Movies on November 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Saw
Directed by James Wan
Commercial Release: October 29, 2004

Originally conceived as a nine and a half minute short film, the low budget, quasi-exploitation feature Saw is currently being celebrated with a 10th Anniversary theatrical re-release in theatres, and is one of the key sources of cinematic influence within the culture of the contemporary horror film genre from the past decade. Alongside such notable disseminators of high-decibel terror as Darren Lynn Bousman, Eli Roth, and Tom Six, Australian director James Wan is one of the most successful, commercial filmmakers among a band of compatriots intent on taking the horror film to its most extreme and depraved depths. Through the substitution of psychological terror for cheap, bloody thrills, memorable in terms of sheer sensory explicitness, and frightening in their unrelenting use of vulgar brutality, Wan and Company have made a name for themselves by placating an audience that seems to revel in distressingly shocking and unsettling cinematic imagery. And yet, despite the viscerally compelling nature of these films, collectively they are more often than not macabre to the point of banality, paying homage to all of the various horror genre tropes and tableaux to the point of cinematic regression and stagnancy, unaware and tactless in their hyper-aesthetic send up to the form. Possibly one of the most cited and well known aspects of the original Saw film is its central antagonist’s predilection for elaborate torture, dismemberment, and death, played out as a series of puzzles in which his victims are forced to capitulate and play, else die in a brutal blood bath, each demise more sick and twisted than the last. In the original film, one of the victims is found impaled amid a nest of barbed wires, another narrowly escapes having her jaw ripped open by a bear trap, and the film’s central protagonist is forced to desperately search for a saw with which to perform self-amputation, sans anesthesia and tourniquet.

The lurid nature of the Jigsaw Killer’s homicidal actions in the original Saw gave rise and license to a slew of sequels predicated on delivering more of the same, each subsequent installment in the franchise bloated with grisly extremist violence. In response, the larger commercialization of the contemporary horror genre has become more explicit in its depictions of violence than ever before, showing the sort of on screen gore that classic horror staples from decades past only ever implied, or used sparingly if graphically depicted at all. Where John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher-genre, original Halloween rarely depicts outright murder, with Michael Myers seen largely in shadow, amid intricately composed shots and meticulously edited sequences, the kind of gore and carnage that plagues the Rob Zombie directed re-make is comparatively excessive, marking Carpenter’s film as a classic and Zombie’s a disposable cheap trick, the first truly scary and the second merely nauseating. The larger proliferation of Zombie-level macabre, graphic violence has its roots in James Wan’s directorial debut, which has a decided preoccupation with the exploitative nature of its setting, giving way to the audience’s attraction towards the film’s psychopathic murderer, the perverted orchestrator of shock, awe, and gore. Jigsaw is the main draw of much of the Saw franchise’s continuing appeal and cultural relevance, and one of the main reasons why horror has become so synonymous with extended sequences of bondage and torture, bordering on the pornographic nature of the snuff film, and paving the way for a contemporary fetish for voyeuristic violence, divorcing the horror genre from terror, and marrying it to sadism.

And yet, on closer inspection, Saw isn’t about sadism at all. At its very core, from a structural stand point, Wan’s film is about two people trapped in a room together, forced to come to terms with life itself and how they see themselves in relation to the larger world, bringing up questions on the meaning of exsistence and morality. Yes, the film’s central protagonists are engaged in a sadistic exercise in contemporary horror genre violence and sadism that is potentially damaging to the reputation of the horror film, but a larger existentialist dialogue is submerged beneath the surface level gore. While Wan’s style as an auteur is decidedly over laden with senselessly nihilistic overtones, his intentions are good, and when the film focuses on its characters’ internal extrapolations it truly shines, reaching towards larger dramatic ambition and intellectually nuanced scares. While the film never truly finds its rhythm, oscillating between scenes of dramatic tension between its two central protagonists, and sequences of luridly revolting, shock-based theatrics, Saw is singular in its approach towards its subjects, offering an avenue into its bondage-based scares that is tasteful, coming off as being both respectful of and primarily interested in its victims, even if they don’t always get away in the end.

And yet, for all of Wan’s understated cleverness and underlying dramatic ingenuity, Saw is still remembered for the moral perversions of the Jigsaw Killer, and the creative ways in which he chooses to kill his victims. While Wan never directed or wrote any of the subsequent films in the franchise, his mark on the contemporary horror genre as a whole can be traced to this particular series of films, ushering in an era of nihilism and detachment within the horror genre that still permeates the popular culture. American director Darren Lynn Bousman, who took over the Saw franchise starting with the second installment, took up creative reins to a series that has since become centered around a brand of cinematic violence that is depraved, debauched, and immoral in the treatment of its victims, the villain turned into the main attraction and perversely sympathetic hero. In addition to Bousman, directors such as Eli Roth and Tom Six have ensconced themselves within a horror genre culture of recreational homicide, producing such blockbusters as Hostel, wherein American tourists are tortured to death at a grisly European locale, and The Human Centipede, a sick and twisted Frankenstein tale, both proof of an ever growing taste for desensitizing violence and an intellectually dulled horror palate. While this strain of barbarism as spectacle is nothing new in terms of the history of the horror film, with the most notable example from the past being Tobe Hooper’s 1974 splatterfest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s important to note that Hooper’s backwoods nightmare never feels exploitative thanks to its minimal set design, unsettling musical score, and effectively misleading editing, its outright depictions of violence implied, the viewer prodded into projecting the levels of sadisitic depravity that Bousman, Roth, and Six shoot outright, confining their films to the realm of documentary, overly fascinated with violence itself, as opposed to what that violence might mean or incite in the viewer, initially revolting but not consistently terrifying.

While the contemporary horror genre may be more unsettling than ever before, the original Saw film itself is not the source of this preoccupation with depravity. Rather, it is its poorly conceived atmosphere and perversely compelling violence that has helped to propagate sadism in the modern horror film, convincing many directors that their audiences truly crave sick and twisted horror movie villains and monsters, visceral debauchery the social currency of cultural relevancy and cinematic ingenuity. It’s ironic then that much of what makes James Wan’s debut feature film so interesting is its focus on the victims, the film less of an exploitation or bondage feature than an existentialist play, a poor man’s No Exit, hell found within the souls of Jigsaw’s victims, rather than within Jigsaw himself. Fortunately, Wan has found some less problematic success with his more recent cinematic fare, both in 2010’s haunted house romp Insidious and 2013’s surprisingly effective demonic possession feature The Conjuring, turning away from the obvious scares of the Saw franchise in order to explore some of the classic horror tropes and conceits that make his more recent outings so memorable and, may it be said, terrifying. And yet, James Wan is no modern master of horror, as of yet lacking the ability to tell a scary story that doesn’t rely entirely on what has come before, his films owing a lot to the form and the genre without elevating either to art. Nevertheless, he is possibly the greatest horror director of his generation, and Saw is a cultural landmark, and one of the most important horror films of the past ten years, even if its legacy is indebted to sadism, an unfortunate side effect that continues to bleed into the modern horror film to this day.

Saw is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is one of My Favorite Movies.

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