Thursday, October 30, 2008

Movies: I seen what I saw.

Before I start in on what promises to be a long and rambling review, I need to talk about the Kaiser Dog.

My friend Dave and I have made Saw a Halloween tradition for several years now. Around this time every year, we meet up at Pete's Waterfront Grill on Atlantic in Brooklyn and then catch Saw. I bring this up because the most amazing thing I saw all night was Pete's "Kaiser Dog": a hot dog that's wrapped in bacon and then deep-fried altogether, served with gruyere cheese, sauerkraut, and spicy mustard on black bread. It boggles the mind.

Alright. Now that I've gotten that off my chest . . . confession time.

I've got a weird confession: I don't trust horror critics who don't follow the Saw films.

Well, I mean, I guess I trust them, personally, as much as I would any random faceless stranger I knew strictly from Internet contact.

What I mean is that I don't trust their opinions about horror. I don't understand how such folks can expect to be taken seriously. I'm sure they're lovely people who are kind to children, love their country, pay taxes, drink responsibly, support local music, and help old ladies cross the street. But when it comes time to sound off about horror movies, I pretty much tune them out.

I'm going to go out on a limb and start this review with an unnecessarily confrontational and aggressively over-generalizing claim: If you haven't seen the Saw films, then you really don't care about horror films. Horror-centric critics, both pro and amateur, that opt out of the films, taking either a stand of principled ignorance or an uncritically dismissive attitude, are essentially announcing that they've intentionally removed themselves from the single most important modern horror series currently running.

Okay, that's done. Let's see if such an absurd claim can be defended.

One of the two poles around which the media-hyped non-phenomenon of "torture porn" congealed, Saw survived a tepid critical reception and divisive reactions in the horror-fan base to become the only significant long-running horror franchise created since the height of the 1980s slasher boom. As they've done every Halloween since 2004, Lionsgate has rolled out yet another installment in the series. This gives the franchise the sort of staying power reserved for slasher icons.

Financially, the Saw flicks are, by some accounting, the most profitable horror franchise of all time. The first flick made Lionsgate just over $1 billion dollars worldwide and on all formats (on an initial investment of just over $1 million). Since then, every installment of the series has debuted in as a top five box office contender, snagging between $30 to $34 million dollars on its opening weekend. Since Saw 3, there's been a slight dip in overall profits, but each installment still regularly nets about $150 million in worldwide ticket sales.

Now, admittedly, this is pretty small potatoes when compared to genuine blockbusters. The Disney-backed tween entertainment juggernaut High School Musical 3 rolled over Saw 5 without so much as breaking a sweat on it eugenically perfect lab-grown brow. But, within the confines of the genre, the franchise stands astride the field like a freakin' colossus. In all of 2008, only three genre films came close to Saw 5's opening weekend mojo: Cloverfield, The Strangers, and The Happening. Of these, only The Strangers really required horror fans do all the heavy lifting. Cloverfield and The Happening enjoyed significant crossover attention from people who don't normally bother to go check out horror flicks.

Sure, sure, sure. So it makes bank? So what?

The "what" is this: Even the weakest Saw flick can reliably depend on the fact that the vast majority of horror fans that still watch flicks in the theater will show up to see it. If you wanted to take a quick demographic snapshot of the population that actually supports horror films in theaters, who actually go to see new horror films when they come out, you could do much worse than taking stock of the audience for the Saw films.

The franchise's genre-specific critics who have avoided the series on principle and can’t speak to the pictures are – from a statistical point of view – basically irrelevant. They've made themselves so. They simply no longer share a definition of horror that includes the same material that a majority of the community does. They're like self-proclaimed experts on popular music who really only ever listen to jazz. They are, of course, free to proclaim the utter and unquestionable superiority of jazz over all other forms of popular music, but unless they can cough some knowledge of other music, then their claim is bullshit. Such critics might have a lot of spiffy stuff to say about jazz. They may be veritable libraries of jazz info. But, ultimately, their aesthetic judgments are simply untenable because they made from a position of ignorance.

Despite the tut-tutting of critics who think that the Saw franchise is propped up by a phalanx of teen movie-goers who basically show up because they've got no better option on Halloween, the numbers suggests that Saw out-performs strong horror contenders regardless of the time of release and regardless of whether or not it has got competition. Even when there's a strong October contender, such as the remake zombie flick Quarantine which appeared to challenge Saw's October dominance earlier this month, Saw rolls right over it. Quarantine actually made it on to top-ten box office list its opening weekend, making it one of about ten horror flicks to perform so well all year. Still, Saw's opening weekend just about doubled the rabies-zombie flick's entire month-long performance.

In short, the majority of the audience for horror is watching these films. And they've been doing so in astounding numbers for half a decade now. When somebody claims to be a critic of modern horror films – even if its only in the role as a hobbyist – but doesn't know these flicks, then they're making the implicit claim that they have basically been out of loop with the largest development in the field in the last twenty years.

All this isn't to say that you have to like the Saw films. In some previous posts I did about the alleged torture porn sub-genre, I made the claim that we have yet to see a truly classic "torture porn" film. This would include all five Saw flicks, in my opinion. None of them are so awesome that they'll ever rise to the level of, say, The Shining or Jaws. Twenty years from now, the entire franchise will have most likely settled into the cult status that was the reward of the slashers that came before it. That said, even a critic with an axe to grind is basically talking out his or her ass when they talk about modern horror and can't discuss contemporary horror's single largest moving target. If you make some claim to make about modern horror, unless you're specifically restricting your claim to some minor subset of current films and say as much, you are pretty much making a claim about Saw. If you don't know Saw, then you don't know what your talking about.

Anyway, that's the official policy position of ANTSS.

Doubters, of course, will say that this opinion is really just an elaborate justification for the fact that I've seen every Saw flick in the theater and I'll hiding my resentment over the fact that I'll never get that money or time back.

To those critics I say, what's the point of a self-aggrandizing delusion meant to shield one's fragile ego if you're expected to be rational about it. I've said my story and I'm sticking to it.

Now, on to the review proper:

In Saw V, the mind behind the long-running franchise face a pretty difficult issue: how do you keep the series going when 1) almost all your significant characters have died off, including your star villain, and 2) what do you do with increasingly elaborate and nonsensical backstory that the series drags behind itself like a millstone.

The makers do an admirable job of handling the first issue, but make a mess of handling the second.

To move the series forward, this is the first Saw were the primary trap-maker and killer is not the original Jigsaw. Though the original Jigsaw appears in several flashbacks, the mantle of "Jigsaw" has been passed to Detective Mark Hoffman, one of the officers introduced in Saw 3. Hoffman escapes from the slaughter-house that is the setting for the third and fourth Saw flicks – a charnel house of death traps that pretty much dispatched every significant character from the franchise – with the belief that everybody who could connect him to the Jigsaw murders is dead. Unbeknownst to Hoffman, one other investigator, the relentlessly determined Special Agent Strahm, made it out alive, if a little worse for wear.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Strahm and Hoffman, the former closing in on the new Jigsaw while the latter hastily prepares as death trap for his pursuer.

As that plot unspools, a second plot unfolds involving a group of five prisoners – all linked by a single murderous mistake – who must negotiate a series of four death traps, each of which seems to demand the death of one of the players if the others are to survive. (For fans of the show Dexter, Dex's long suffering girlfriend Rita – sporting black hair – appears as one of the victims.)

These developments – the bifurcated plotting and the removal of the original Jigsaw – have lead to some complaints from fans of the series, but I personally didn't mind them. The Jigsaw killer has never been an icon in the way the '80s slashers were. It's his methods that are the hallmark of the series. He's got a set of best practices (the traps and ideology), a brand name (Jigsaw), and a mascot (the doll). A truly post-modern movie maniac, Jigsaw isn't a killer so much as a murder franchise. From the second film, the filmmakers have established that the original Jigsaw planned to train little Baby Jigsaws and send them out into the world. That we're now dealing with Jigsaw 2.0 is not only expected, but it is preferable to either dragging out the original killer's influence as if there was no operational limit to his ability to predict human behavior or doing what the slashers would have done and reintroducing him as a supernatural entity.

As for the second plot, the complaint is that the whole thing feels disconnected from the main mythology of the flick. Personally, I took that as an intentional move. Unlike the first Jigsaw, Hoffman is concerned primarily with screwing over Strahm and protecting himself. He's not above picking semi-random victims, building traps that can't be escaped, and generally acting in less cultish, more selfish manner than the original. If the victims in second plot seem like gory red herrings, it's because they are. There purpose there as nothing to do with their crimes and everything to do with trapping Strahm. If people were weird quasi-religious experiments for the first Jigsaw, they're essentially disposable trap fodder for the new one.

What the filmmakers handle less ably is the ever more elaborate backstory of the series. In fact, with several retconning flashbacks, this film simply adds more layers of unnecessary complexity to the tale. At this point, despite the fact that we're starting all over with a new killer, I don't think somebody could start the series with this film. There's way too much knowledge assumed on the part of the filmmakers. This is unfortunate as I don't think anybody watching these films takes the evolution of the Saw mythology half as seriously as the filmmakers do. Every film they've tweaked Jigsaw's motivation slightly – he's gone from crazed cancer patient to religious messiah figure to libertarian social philosopher to his latest incarnation: Zen death trap builder – but the results are always a wash. What could possibly make all the effort Jigsaw puts into to building his traps make sense? The constant revision of the storyline is equally un-involving. Has anybody ever praised a Saw film for its incessant twisting of character backgrounds? I'll admit that the attention paid to the evolving mythology of the series was a pleasant change from the slipshod continuity of the '80s slashers, it now threatens to devour the flicks and reduce all characterization to a series of recurrent cameos.

The production values also seem a tad lackluster in this outing. While some of the traps are classics of their type, the sets seem dull rather than sinister. Shot compositions have a flat, ready for video feel; the washes of sickly color lighting that were so important to the earliest installments are either absent or bizarrely used (as when ordinary water appears to glow neon blue). The acting is adequate for the film's needs. Though we'll never see another cast as almost comically over-qualified as the cast from the first flick, everybody here holds down what they need to do. The unfortunate exception here is Strahm, who screenwriters decided would essentially narrate all of his investigations lest we miss some crucial point. The result is wooden and annoying. To be fair, this might not be the actor's fault. Who could possibly have made such an annoying character trait work?

Within the series, Saw V is middling entry. Its strictly workman like visuals and tangled interest in a backstory that's become more of a hindrance than a boon undermine the interest in a fresh beginning promised by a new villain. Though a handful of the traps are some of the most evil contraptions ever built for the series, this alone doesn't raise the level of the flick. Regular fans of the series will find plenty to discuss, but I suspect they'll find the flick had more promise than it delivered on. People approaching the series for the first time should avoid this one. It's opaque to anybody who hasn't been following along all this time.

10 comments:

SpaceJack said...

Bah! If you've seen one, you saw them all.

I'm like the Jigsaw of bad jokes and limericks.

CRwM said...

Ladies and Gentlemen - Mr. Screamin' Spacey.

He'll be here all week. Please remember to tip your wait staff!

In this case, I'd say if you've seen one and two, you've seen 'em all.

Sasquatchan said...

So when do we get SAW: Jigsaw vs Predator or Saw H2K (cross overs or retro-remakes) ? Do you see that in 10-20 years ?

Sean T. Collins said...

"The franchise's genre-specific critics who have avoided the series on principle and can’t speak to the pictures are – from a statistical point of view – basically irrelevant."

But they're critics, not statisticians. I'm not making value judgments, I'm simply running down what's at the top of the charts right now: I'm fine reading comics critics who don't read Secret Invasion, I'm fine reading music critics who haven't listened to the new AC/DC record, I'm fine reading film critics who haven't seen High School Musical 3, and I'm just as fine reading horror critics who haven't seen Saw. It's not a principled thing with me--i just haven't gotten around to it, same as I haven't gotten around to seeing any of the Friday the 13th movies--but I still respect myself when I look in the mirror.

CRwM said...

Sean,

"To those critics I say, what's the point of a self-aggrandizing delusion meant to shield one's fragile ego if you're expected to be rational about it. I've said my story and I'm sticking to it."

I thought that punchline was clear enough, but maybe I let the joke go on to long.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I assume, in 20 years, theaters will have to suffer "reimaginings" of stuff like Saw.

I don't see many monster-mash style team ups in it's future simply because there are no contemporaries that really match it in terms of scope and form - Hostel, for example, seems a match but doesn't really have an important central villain to team up with - plus it takes place in such a self-contained little world, especially as the series turns in on itself in these last installments, that mixing characters from elsewhere would seem jarring.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review (and I haven't bothered to see anything but the first one either), but I'm not sure if the backstory really isn't that unimportant to the audience - at least judging from the talk on the message boards etc. it seems that most Saw fans take the whole backstory really seriously and I've actually seen plenty of praise forSaw's "incessant twisting of character backgrounds" (also the main reason why I didn't bother to watch the other movies - seems to me the filmmakers are at least flirting with the idea that Jigsaw is some sort of (anti-)hero and there's been a depressingly large number of Saw fans that seem to think Jigsaw is somehow a deep thinker and "justified" in his actions).
I also slightly disagree about what makes Saw so important as a horror franchise - I don't think it's the fact that a majority of the audience for horror is watching these films (I'd argue the same could be said about Quarantine which did remarkablyw well given that it's a remake, had a comparatively small advertising campaign, and came out two weeks too early), it's that Saw somehow manages to cross over into the mainstream (without sacrificing its appeal to the horror fanbase by toning down the content) that makes the franchise so remarkable.

CRwM said...

Anon,

The idea that people take Jigsaw seriously would sadden me to virtually no end. You are definitely right that the filmmakers have grown increasingly interested in making him a dark messiah figure of some sort, most of the fans I talk to feel that the Jigsaw speech scenes are a sort of tedious tax you have to pay in order to get to the good parts. If you're right, then Saw fans deserve the increasingly uninteresting amount of time given to his ramblings.

As for the importance of the series, I hope my comment to Sean made it clear that all that number crunching was mostly in jest. First, if ticket sales determined a film's importance, than High School Musical 3 would be the most important film of the season. Second, head counts and ticket sales really shouldn't be considered the same thing. Who knows how many people really watched Saw?

That said, there is a lot I do think it important about the series. I think you nailed an important issue. I'd also say that Saw's important because it seems to mark a generational divide between horror fans. Like slashers before them, Saw seems to be a young persons thing and make older fans and critics hold their noses.

spacejack said...

I don't know why I'm going to try and defend it, and only having seen the first two (the second I can't even really remember - that's how much I thought of it) I can only speak to the initial two entries.

Anyway I was thinking about Jigsaw, and what sort of fear he represents. He's just a regular human. He's got no omniscient view of the world, so we find his judgements suspect.

So maybe he represents an exaggerated parent figure. Someone that feels they need to make judgement calls, even if they've got imperfect information to work from. That person we hate and fear because sometimes they're right. Not because they've got evidence, but somehow have an intuition about our failings. Or will invade our privacy to find evidence. And the punishment is rarely considered fair either.

As for Jigsaw's converts, maybe they represent traitorous siblings who've sided with the parents.

That could go a long way to explain Saw's popularity with kids. And perhaps why older folks, who would really hate being parented, can hardly stand watching the films.

But not having seen 3-5 and with fading memories of 1 & 2, it's just a wild theory.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

While I'm a literalist who thinks that the fear Jigsaw represents is the fear of getting all sorts of mangled in one of his machines, you're theory has got some interesting support in the films. There's the Amanda and Jigsaw Jr. relationship (which ultimately sours in 3 and ends in Amanda's death). And in 4 we learn that the death of Jigsaw's unborn child was what drove him to become the trap-maker. Plus, films 2 and 3 revolve around Jigsaw attacking messed up families.

I don't know if it all adds up to something, but there's definitely a good parent/bad parent theme in several series installments.