Recently, I went in to get some dental surgery. A root canal had shattered, and my dentist was convinced that he needed to root around in my gums with a metal pick and dig out the shards. He said that it would be very painful, but assured me that it was for my own good. Reclining in his chair before the procedure, I was more than a little nervous, and it got worse when he pulled down an overhead monitor that was playing the Saw movies. These films are about people, usually immobilized in chairs, forced to endure unbearable agony by a serial killer who assures them that it’s for their own good. I asked my dentist if he was mocking me. “I’m using them as an anesthetic,” he said. “Trust me, by the time the second Saw movie starts, you’ll be numb from the neck up.” He was right—by the half-hour mark I felt like my head was made of wood.
This weekend, dental technicians around the country will rejoice as Saw IV opens. At a mind-numbing 108 minutes, the movie will transform viewers into blockheads, allowing oral surgeons to perform even longer and more complicated procedures on them. The Saw films represent the flagship series in the “person tied to a chair and tortured” horror genre (see also: Hostel, Captivity, The Passion of the Christ). In each of the Saw movies, someone wakes up in a room with a clockwork deathtrap a) strapped to their face, b) strapped to their neck, c) stuck through their flesh with hooks. An overachieving handyman named Jigsaw informs them that they have a limited amount of time to find a hidden key before the deathtrap is sprung. The key is usually hidden somewhere inaccessible, like at the bottom of a jar of flesh-eating acid, deep inside a pit of dirty hypodermic needles, or in someone else’s stomach. The goal is to make these poor saps appreciate their lives by forcing them to do something completely gross and painful. Think of it as Dr. Phil meets Fear Factor.
The first Saw film, made for less than $2 million, was picked up by Lionsgate Entertainment in 2004 and became the company’s fifth highest grossing movie of all time, hoovering up $55 million at the U.S. box office alone. The following Halloween, Lionsgate released Saw II, which grossed $87 million; and in 2006 they released Saw III, which raked in $80 million. Lionsgate is the studio responsible for such highbrow hits as Hotel Rwanda, Crash, and Fahrenheit 9/11, but the Saw franchise and Tyler Perry movies, such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman, are the lowbrow moneymakers that fuel their furnaces with piles of cash.
The first Saw movie kicks off with Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) and one of the film’s writers, Leigh Whannell, waking up to find themselves chained to the walls of a locked room. Jigsaw gives them six hours to free themselves, either by killing one another or by sawing through their own feet. Larded with flashbacks and requiring massive suspensions of disbelief (given six hours to kill or be killed would you really pull out your wallet and show your cellmate photos of your daughter?), it’s a neat idea for a short film inexcusably stretched to feature length. Now with four installments under its belt (and parts five and six already in the pipeline), the Saw conceit has been stretched even thinner, padded with useless back story and so many recurring characters and dark secrets that the entire enterprise resembles a soap opera for young men.
The Saw movies are also radically conservative. Like the creaky old Republic serials of the 1930s, they’re full of deathtraps, nerve gas, slow-acting poisons, and a complete misunderstanding of how electricity works. But their greatest crime is rejecting the anarchic thrills of the slasher movie in favor of reinforcing modern-day corporate culture. There’s always been a vein of reactionary conservatism in slasher films. The Halloween movies are all predicated on the concept of honor killings, with Michael Myers stalking and slaying his sexually active sisters, and the Friday the 13th series is boneheaded reiterations of the sex = death equation. But these movies are also id-tickling celebrations of the chaos that ensues when mindlessly violent monsters are unleashed in controlled environments like summer camps, schools, hospitals, and space stations.
Jigsaw, on the other hand, is a pedant and a bore, a Type A overachiever who is constantly creating “tests” for the other characters and then grading the results. Chaos is his enemy; order and personal productivity are his friends. He’s a management drone leading the cast in a team-building exercise, and, even worse, he often speaks through a puppet. In Saw III he uses liquefied pigs, death by car wash, and a tricked-out version of the rack to awaken a grieving father to the magic of forgiveness. It’s the liberating figure of the motion picture monster reduced to the status of a self-help guru. And he won’t shut up. “Despite all of the advantages and privileges that you were given at birth, you have returned to prison again and again,” he scolds one of his victims. “Up until now, you have spent your life among the dead, piecing together their final moments. You’re good at this because you are also dead. Dead on the inside,” he preaches at another. It’s like an endless lecture from your mom.
The Saw movies don’t just celebrate traps; they are traps: Fans are lured in with the promise of gore, but they find themselves stuck in their seats, subjected to Jigsaw’s endless stream of numbing pseudo-profundities. For many, the most unbearable movie moment of 2005 was a woman’s eye being plucked out in Eli Roth’s Hostel. For me it was watching one of the New Kids on the Block and the star of Decoys 2: Alien Seduction debate the meaning of life in Saw II. The idea that, in an act of brand loyalty, millions of people are going to line up this weekend and pay money to get a lecture on personal commitment and productivity from a puppet is so horrible, so degrading to the human spirit, that I have to close my eyes and look away. It’s absolute torture.