Revisiting Saw, and the Torture Porn Genre

Making a return after its supposed Final Chapter, Jigsaw has once again come under fire for championing guts for glory. Yet for all the bad rep it gets, the flak may not be entirely justified. As criticism continues to spew from every end, there is no better time than now to revisit the much-maligned ‘torture porn’ genre, and the movie that started it all.

Saw may be well known for its creative display of gore. But it was the plotting and characterisation that proved the most intriguing in the 2003 release. Such as is rarely done in horror, the film builds up a strong case for its fascinating villain, whose impetus goes far beyond pure murder intent.

Before his big plans, John Kramer was a stricken cancer patient, who survived his desperate suicide attempt. It is only with his proximity to death, did he begin to appreciate life, and it is this belief that inspired his becoming.

Photo: Lionsgate / Greg Gayne

As Jigsaw, Kramer began building complex contraptions, forcing his victims to confront their last moments. The traps seem assuredly fatal at first. But each came with a possibility of escape, so long as one chooses to confess and sacrifice, changing their lives from that point on. The simple game at the very beginning epitomises his philosophy.

Chained in a grimy bathroom with nothing but a saw, Adam Faulkner and Lawrence Gordon are ordered by a taped voice to kill the other to save themselves. What happens with the saw makes an impression. But it is where John Kramer as Jigsaw espouses his steadfast doctrine, that the story gets truly riveting.

Never committing a kill with his own hand, he does not see himself as a killer. In fact, he despises murderers. His intent is not to murder, but to allow his ‘players’ to survive. He believes that his deathtraps are lessons to help fix the broken, by giving them a reason to live.

“Most people have the luxury of not knowing when that clock’s going to go off. And the irony of it is that that keeps them from really living their life. It keeps them drinking that glass of water but never really tasting it.”

– Jigsaw

As seen in Saw, the violence in ‘torture porn’ is not always gratuitous. For instance, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs has more to say in its depicted brutality, which served as a route to spiritual transcendence. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser similarly delves into the interesting motivations of hedonistic pleasures, treading the line between pleasure and pain.

Sometimes, the atrocities probe human behaviour and survival instincts. With Cabin Fever, Eli Roth shines a light on the terror of those driven to the edge, far exceeding extrinsic uncontrollable threats. Again, Hostel shows the darkest side of seemingly ordinary people, whose hidden lust for release easily emerge when given a mask.

Photo: Lionsgate / Greg Gayne

Likewise, John Kramer’s game is purposeful in its bloodshed. Each conversation with his victims reveals his compelling, if perverse, beliefs. Parallel to religious impositions, his world is one where sins beget retribution. He sees himself as a God, who can help those with one foot in Hell. He is the Messiah, who can deliver mankind from evil and bestow sinners a second chance at life – if they survive.

His methods are twisted, yet his mind is arguably rational. There is a marked understanding of the difference between pure lunacy and his calculated crimes. When Amanda takes over his legacy, her designs importantly contrast with Kramer’s. What she had created were not experiments or lessons as Jigsaw believed his to be, but deathtraps for the sole sake of cruelty.

“You didn’t test anyone’s will to live. Instead you took away their only chance. Your games were unwinnable, your subjects merely victims.”

– Jigsaw (to Amanda)

Controversy over the violence overshadowed how Saw had not only been one of the most interesting films in years, but had reinvigorated the horror genre during its decade of stagnancy. Its soundtrack (Charlie Clouser’s Hello Zepp) and character design (Jigsaw, Billy) made their respective halls of fame, where new entries have been rare in recent years. Its success also inspired a barrage of solid murder gameplay films like The Collector and 13 Sins.

While Saw has since veered from its initial essay on punishment and sins, the increasingly provocative carnage does not negate the depth of its original story. What James Wan and Leigh Whannell once created 13 years ago, would prove the specious accusations of its critics wrong, and justify the longevity of a franchise that has no doubt left an indelible impact on the genre.

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12 thoughts on “Revisiting Saw, and the Torture Porn Genre

  1. Terrific post! As you know the Saw movies for me are a bit of a guilty pleasure. This first one though will always be the best. Yes there is a little bit of graphic violence on display here. But it never comes close to the later movies. I always thought of tbis first film as a thriller instead of a full on horrormovie. A very good one though.😊

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post. I think SAW is actually one of the best low-budget films ever made and subsequent films from Wan and Whannell have confirmed their quality writing and directing skills, especially in the horror genre. I think “Torture Porn” is a harsh label for what is an excellent horror film. Perhaps other films and the subsequent sequels of SAW deserve such a label, which is really just a journo-catchpenny-name to replace previous incarnations such as: “Grindhouse” “exploitation” or “video-nasties!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks much, Paul! I too think that Saw was mislabelled, and unfairly dismissed by many as such. Besides, certain exploitation films have their merits too. I’m glad that both Wan and Whannell have gone onto bigger things since then. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yup – great post. The whole ‘torture porn’ label is an interesting one, huh? Something new was required, as it didn’t play by the long established horror rules.

    I thought Saw was a great flick, but as the franchise wore on it began to get a bit weary (to the point where I have no interest in this recent effort).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, J! 🙂 And it’s true – the Splat Pack came at a time when the horror genre was getting dull, and broke several rules of the game to great effect. Like so many horror franchises, the sequels never lived up to the original.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Shock horror will always be around to varying extents, I think. I quite liked the French extreme films that came after Hostel, like Frontiers and Inside. 🙂

      Like

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