Picking up the pieces of the Saw franchise in a post-"torture porn" world

The following article contains references to plot details for the first seven films in the Saw franchise.

Thirteen years after its original release, I will still defend the original Saw as a worthwhile and cleverly structured horror thriller, even if its low-budget production and corny performances haven't stood the test of time as well as its plot twists. "Perhaps you enjoyed Se7en. This often goes up to Ei8ht" was the pull quote from Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review slapped on the film's DVD cover, emphasising the echoes of David Fincher's earlier (and far superior) neo-noir with added brutality to be found throughout James Wan's first mainstream directorial effort.

Importantly, Saw was not the film which earned the series its position at the centre of the "torture porn" trend which dominated the horror genre for the opening decade of the twenty-first century. That dubious honour went to the first sequel, 2005's Saw II, which ventured down the bigger-equals-better route by expanding the claustrophobic primary setting of the first film from a repulsive abandoned bathroom to an entire derelict building. The ante was also upped considerably in terms of the sadistic "games" set up by John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a.k.a. the Jigsaw Killer, moving from the psychological minimalism building to horrific self-sacrifice seen in the first film, to a gleefully unpleasant house of horrors designed to cause maximum suffering and splatter throughout.

If Saw II marked the franchise's first undeniable steps into the torture porn arena, then the third film was the point at which it plunged in headfirst and never looked back. The ante was upped once again, and whilst the series arguably takes place in an extreme reflection of our own world from the very start, it's still hard to accept Saw III's traps could believably be planned and executed by Jigsaw even with the help of his disciples as revealed in subsequent installments - I mean, who has access to that many putrid pig carcasses?

Away from the increasingly convoluted and unpleasant traps, Saw III was also the final installment to give a script credit to the original film's writer Leigh Whannell, making it the series' swansong in terms of narrative coherence or sense of craft. Whilst the second sequel was a far cry from Saw's twisting thriller plot, at least it made sense and involved characters we vaguely cared about. It's fitting that Jigsaw himself dies at the end of the third film, as this is where the series' life should have ended as well.

Instead, we were "treated"  to another four installments which cater pretty much entirely to the torture porn crowd. The traps may make less sense, but hey, at least they get the blood gushing, the guts splattering, the victims screaming and the audience wincing. Away from the gore, however, there's little within any of the closing four Saws of worth. Each of the main "games" in these films is essentially a lazy rehash of elements lifted from Saw II and Saw III featuring characters in whose survival we're given no reason to invest.

By far the biggest error post-Saw III was the series' shift increasingly further away from Jigsaw - given a hokey and entirely unnecessary origin story through flashbacks - and onto Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), eventually revealed to have been Kramer's accomplice since before the events of the first film. Thanks to Bell's convincing performance and the groundwork laid in the first few installments, Jigsaw was an intriguingly paradoxical antagonist providing the franchise with a solid core even as other elements continually deteriorated. Hoffman offered none of that: a stock bent-copper-cum-serial-killer with a clich├ęd and thinly drawn motive, performed by Mandylor with as much nuance as a pair of industrial-sized ice blocks to the head (take a bow, Saw IV).

Seven years after Saw: The Final Chapter seemingly drove the very last nail into Jigsaw's coffin, an eighth installment, simply titled Jigsaw, will attempt to resurrect the series once again at the end of October. There's no doubt that horror tastes have changed since torture porn's heyday in the early years of the noughties. The more traditional approach of films such as The Conjuring and its sequel and spin-offs, the social commentary approach of Get Out and, most recently, the brazenly nostalgic coming-of-age slant on Stephen King's It all offer horror experiences distinctly removed from the later Saw films' thinly-plotted splatter-fests. Jigsaw therefore not only has the task of rebooting the franchise from a position of practically zero critical credibility; but also needs to prove to those of us who were there at the beginning, before the torture porn aspect displaced everything else, that the entire concept of the Saw films isn't simply a relic of the recent past that should have been left to rot.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

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