Lauded as a significant entry in the catalog of torture porn, Saw became one of the highest grossing horror films in recent memory. The 2004 film opens with two characters chained in a dilapidated bathroom. Instructions detailing how to escape are left by an unknown assailant but there is a catch. One of the characters must kill the other if he wants to live. What follows is a game of cat and mouse in which our ringleader, named Jigsaw, uses physical and psychological horrors to test the will of his “players.”
Initially I resisted seeing this film because of my distaste for torture porn horror. Yet, at least in the first film, this description of the film is not accurate. While subsequent films in the franchise reflect more vividly the elements of torture porn (nudity, torture, mutilation, sadism), the original film is concerned more with the psychological ramifications of being put in a horrific situation and what humans are capable of doing to survive. The kills are intense but serve the moral questions of the film. They are not solely gratuitous like what we see in the Hostel franchise.
I’ve thought about the question of whether we’ve seen this type of monster before and I think the answer to that question may be what I find so disturbing about these films. While Jigsaw is positioned as the ringleader, the monsters in fact turn out to be the victims. Horror is designed to redraw societal boundaries after a process of purification. In each of the scenarios in Saw, we see the victims exhibiting the disgusting (Adam vomits, Adam reaches into a toilet of excrement) to such a degree that it is their actions that cause the audience’s repulsion. Purification can only be achieved with a character’s death because that is what ends the display of the disgusting. When a character isn’t killed explicitly, such as Lawrence, the audience is never able to achieve the same sense of release. Instead, we are left with a further reminder of the disgusting via a severed stump.
This also ties into the idea of a Christian mindset that permeates the film. While Jigsaw isn’t quite a Christ figure, it seems undeniable to me that elements of Christianity are reflected in the film. There is also more than a nod to the idea of original sin. Each of the participants comes to the game with a pre-existing sin that must be expunged in order to achieve salvation. This fits with traditional Catholic and Baptist ideologies. Interestingly, the dogma of other Christian religions not beholden to the idea of original sin is also reflected. For example, one of the core tenets of Mormonism is choice and accountability. Certainly, that is at the heart of Jigsaw’s philosophy.
I’ve wondered too about the rationale behind the casting of this film. The Se7en to Saw to Hostel evolution appears to be borne out in how each film was cast. In Se7en, the leads are major actors whose body of work will be present in the minds of audience goers thus creating a more solid fiction versus reality line. This line is then blurred a bit in Saw. Although Carey Elwes and Danny Glover are actors with impressive bodies of work behind them, they lack the celebrity of a Pitt or Freeman. This allows the audience to have a bit of removal between actor and character that, in turn, helps the audience enter into the film a bit more fully. Finally, with Hostel, the cast is comprised of actors who the majority of the audience will not recognize. There is no facial reminder that this is just a movie. As a result, the line between reality and fiction is obliterated at least in the sense that it is easier for the audience to accept that what is being perpetrated on screen is happening to “real” people. I think this may be important when it comes to the idea of complicity.