Want to play a game? Every time I hear that harmless and inviting question I automatically think of one of the most gruesomely cruel, disturbing and repulsive film series of the last decade: Saw. Abreast with the Alien saga, it’s the most successful horror franchise in history, raking in a worldwide profit just shy of one billion dollars.
Comparatively, you might suspect it’s due to the fairly unique nature of them. Audiences will contently munch on popcorn while blankly watching multiple characters being slowly torn apart in unimaginable ways. That, in and of itself, is a little disquieting.
Since the first sequel, the shtick of the series has been the gore. It’s easy to label that as the majorly obvious element of its appeal, and for the most part, I’d concur. But another factor resulting in its overall intrigue — perhaps on a more subconscious level that I find difficult to pin down — is its Christian-like philosophy. All by which lectured by the most sanctimonious, soul patched bad guy in horror film history known as Jigsaw.
How Saw Affected My Young Self
I remember the first time I watched the original film, Saw, when I was either eleven or twelve years old (big mistake). Cooped up in my aunt’s converted attic late at night, we watched it on a small, rudimentary computer screen. At this point, Saw III‘s theatrical release was on the cusp – circa 2006, perhaps.
The film struck a particular chord with my preteen self. From start to finish I was totally captivated by the harrowing plot which mostly entailed two men chained up in a capacious, dilapidated bathroom. In order for them to win this game and escape with their lives, they essentially needed to kill the other person. But this was a grim intimation for what followed.
I think the first installment is actually one of the most underrated and overlooked horror films of the last twenty years. It has its technical flaws and the acting can be shoddy and over the top in patches but taking into account the arduously difficult circumstances in which James Wan and Leigh Whannell were in, it’s quite a victorious, boastful and influential piece of work.
They both have gone on record stating that the first title was not at all intended to be a torture porn project. Subsequently, with little to no creative interest in its later follow-ups, the series was eventually (and wholesomely) handed over to Lionsgate to be decorated with that splatter tag. In summation, I found it horribly disturbing because everything seemed perfectly plausible in our own reality.
How it Differs From Other Horror Films
To reinforce the two Aussies’ disinterest in cheaply provoking its audience with gore, the concept for the film actually began with its villain, Jigsaw, rather than the traps themselves. The writer of the original film, Leigh Whannell, experienced agonizing bouts of migraines and after numerous tests, he sat in a hospital waiting room with great apprehension, wondering what it would be like if he had been told that he was terminally ill.
What would it do to you, psychologically? How would your frame of mind change? And how would your outlook on the world devolve? Luckily, those tests returned with flying colors and the first inception of Jigsaw was hatched.
The one aspect about the premise of these films is the helplessness of the victims’ predicaments. In other typical horror flicks, the main course meal involves maybe a crazed, masked psychopath chasing promiscuous teenagers down with an axe in a moonlit forest. I’m being hyperbolic, but with stereotypical premises such as that, it occasionally makes the viewer say something along the lines of “JUST RUN AWAY AND SCREAM FOR HELP.” And so this jocose expression is laughable because you’re putting yourself in the situation and coming up with solutions easily.
I always liked to look at Saw as a relative subversion of this trope. With Saw, you can’t just run away from the danger; in order to survive you must head towards the danger, head first. There isn’t any recourse that will allow you to say to yourself that if you were the victim you’d escape. I thought that one of the film’s slogans was brilliantly puzzling: ‘How much blood would you shed to stay alive?’ This is the concept that gripped and shook me to the core.
If you like Saw, check out the film, Cube.
There Are Definitely Some Religious Undertones
Forcing the captured souls to look inward to analyze their own behavior and morality, there’s no easy way out. Unspeakably excruciating acts of self-harm must ensue or the grave consequence of death is the alternative. The innards of these wrongdoers are brought out into the open and it’s not pretty. Symbolically, revealing their true ugliness.
One character is kidnapped because he is cheating on his wife; another for being a voyeuristic spy, violating people’s privacy with a camera for expedient cash; another for being a self-destructive drug addict. The interesting notion here is that the captor, Jigsaw (mysteriously nothing but a name in the first film), is that he actually doesn’t want his ‘test subjects’ to die and this becomes quite apparent. He wants them to succeed, to survive, to pass the test so that they may become spiritually enlightened.
Although his actions are criminally extreme, his motives are not all that malign. The actor who portrays Jigsaw, Tobin Bell, has often said that he believes the character is more of a theologian. Would Jigsaw be a conservative or a liberal? I’d like to think he’s a very twisted conservative with Christian values, predicated on the suffering to glory ratio in a raw manner. Would he be more of a protestant? What about a vigilante?
In the first film (and loosely in a number of others), the only real survivor of his ‘game’ is a character named Amanda Young. She escapes the iconic bear trap sequence and finds salvation. Jigsaw, in a quite polarizing and unexpected way, congratulates her: ‘Congratulations, you are still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.’
Amanda eventually goes on to be his primary disciple, indoctrinated in the same philosophy and being his apprentice in carrying out these heinous acts. Now, I’m not a religious man at all, nor am I a complete atheist of any secular kind. I haven’t got a PhD in any area of theology (well, I haven’t got a PhD, full stop). But in this regard, it’s as if Jigsaw is an extremely distorted representation of Jesus Christ.
This comparison can also be challenged as the majority of his sufferers do not make it out alive. Unclear rules or instructions that are too cryptic to fully understand are riddled throughout his work. And there’s always a kicker; always a twist. Sometimes an unfair or skewed outcome will occur – such as when Adam Faulkner ultimately could not escape because he failed to notice the blue key underwater.
Just like any religion or cult, there are flaws and they can be criticized. Jigsaw’s hypothesis is merely a hypothesis; an experimentation on a presupposed belief that pain enables someone to be grateful and spiritually aware. I really don’t think that we’re drawn to these films as an audience solely for the stark visual torment; there’s definitely some heavy religious/biblical connotations prevalent.
Jigsaw’s Origin Plays a Major Role
One aspect to his character that I really think is vital in breaking down his psyche and perspective is his humble beginnings. How did he become Jigsaw?
John Kramer is a civil engineer married to his wife, Jill. She is the founder of a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts. While being pregnant with John’s child, the clinic is raided by a low-life addict named Cecil. In a panicked commotion, he slams a door on Jill’s swollen midsection — thus, causing her to have a miscarriage. Forgive my brusque exposition.
Jill and John descend into a darkly severe depression that leads to their separation. All in the midst of this, Kramer is diagnosed with terminal cancer of the brain. He decides to take his faith into his own hands by attempting suicide – plunging his car off a cliff at high speed. Miraculously, the fall doesn’t kill him. He agonizingly pulls a long piece of metal out of his abdomen with the sounds of gurgling flesh being mutilated. He survives… barely.
But it is at this exact moment where John inadvertently transforms into his alter ego, Jigsaw. All because he felt a profound and galvanizing epiphany. It overwhelmed him spiritually and so he vowed to try his absolute best in helping sinners in becoming saints and if they don’t fit the bill then they’re better off dead, cleansing the world.
I find it all subliminal with the initial motive of his ex, Jill, trying her best to help people. Paradoxically, his derangement is indicative of his cancer type; sick in the head.
His Ultimate Failure
In his final breaths, I always saw it in a way where he discovers that his ideology was fallacious; all of the pain and death of his victims was erroneous as they never truly learned. You can visibly see his sadness, regret and disappointment when Amanda fails her second test in Saw III. With an ironic grin on his face, Jigsaw dies on a gurney knowing that he was wrong and his work will continue – and there’s nothing he can do about it.
From Saw IV onward, his work absolutely continues. But corruptly so. Critics categorize the later sequels in a state of disrepute and mediocrity, having highly forced, convoluted plotting. The sequels are essentially flashbackception; its narrative becomes more scatterbrained than a Lost episode.
The series descended into sheer far-fetched ridiculousness. It quite simply became a parody of itself. This sounds terse but one caveat that I find interesting about the later iterations is its lack of redemption.
In the initial trilogy, there seemed to have been a redeemable quality to its narrative which Amanda Young was at the epicenter of. Saw sees her suffer but she admits that the Jigsaw killer ‘helped’ her. By Saw II, she joins the movement that she believes is divinely righteous. And in Saw III, she discovers the deepest flaws in the philosophy that rescued her.
Jigsaw also learned a similar lesson. There was a clear arc in the trilogy and I actually think Saw III is an underrated follow-up that focuses on forgiveness and puts things to bed fairly conclusively. In the later sequels, all it was was suffering.
And from Saw IV on till Jigsaw (2017), the only true result gleaned to this day is that the suffering is mostly pointless. Jigsaw realized this just seconds before his game ended.
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