Happy(?) 10th Birthday, Saw!


I’ve complained in the past about movie studios underprogramming the actual Halloween season even as many of them make horror movies a big part of their business plan. Last year, for example, the anticipated ghost sequel Insidious: Chapter 2 came out in September, while the weekend before Halloween saw Paramount deviating from its Paranormal Activity strategy in favor of Jackass: Bad Grandpa. I actually kinda liked Bad Grandpa, but the move made it clear that the Paranormal movies were not a seasonal tradition for Paramount so much as one of several low-budget components that could be plugged into a number of low-competition release dates. January gets as many, if not more, horror movies these days: Mama would have made a particularly spooky Halloween release, and the latest Paranormal spinoff came out this past January when Jackass took its place on the schedule.

This year, I grudgingly admit that the studios kinda-sorta stepped up: Warner Brothers put out Annabelle, a spinoff of last summer’s big hit The Conjuring (a perfect Halloween movie that, naturally, came out in July), while Paramount subbed in Ouija for the still-absent Paranormal franchise. I cannot speak to the quality of these movies because I did not see them. It’s not a boycott (although when in Prague last week, faced with the prospect of seeing Annabelle for a fun night out, my wife and I wound up picking a Czech movie we’d literally never heard of at the last minute, picking blind novelty over a movie tied to another movie we both really liked); there are just a lot of worthwhile movies out right now, and as much as I like seeing horror theatrically, it’s hard to get excited about a couple more ghostly cash-ins.

I assume Lionsgate senses some horror-fan restlessness (Annabelle was the first big horror hit of the year after a 2013 full of them) and that may have contributed to their decision to re-release their seminal low-rent 2004 hit Saw this weekend for its tenth anniversary.

The first Saw movie had a simple enough premise, blown up to hysteria: two men, captured by a madman, trapped in a room and handcuffed to radiators, eventually forced through convoluted and loud circumstances to decide whether to saw off their own limbs to escape. Also, Danny Glover gives what I can only hope and assume is the worst performance of his career. Cary Elwes (who plays one of the men) does not, because he does some sleepwalking in Saw VII (also known as Saw 3D).

The movie arrived during something of a horror boom: it debuted below the second weekend of The Grudge at the box office. A year later, Saw II outgrossed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the remake of The Fog and in 2006, Saw III trounced both a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake-prequel and a Grudge sequel. As the series continued on even past the death of Jigsaw, its signature villain and bass-voiced moralizer, other horror movies continued to come out in October, but rarely did as well. The ascension of Paranormal Activity in 2007 codified the Saw model of an extremely low-cost and hastily produced series making an annual quick buck for as many years in a row as possible.

Paranormal Activity also ushered in an era of big horror movies focused almost exclusively on ghosts, possessions, and/or exorcisms, often though not always with a found-footage non-twist. These movies tend to have stronger genre bona fides than the Saw series, which were rarely actually scary (I’ve seen ’em all; quick best-to-worst goes I, III, II, VI, V, VII, IV). In fact, it’s surprising just how outmoded the Saw movies seem now, even though the last one came out not so long ago in 2010. They’re gory, hard-R exploitation movies that detail punishments self-inflicted-by-force on the human body: “torture porn,” in the parlance of the day, although even in the realm of horror movies about horrible torture, the Hostel movies are both freakier and better-made. The Hostel movies also, like many horror movies throughout the ages, star attractive young people, whereas the Saw series made a protracted endgame out of a cancer-ridden senior citizen passing the baton to a husky, unsmiling middle-aged dude.

I won’t make the case for the Saw series as refreshing, because mostly it was pretty grody and shamelessly amped-up—although Saw VI does articulate some surprisingly strong arguments in favor of public health care. It’s just striking that this series maintains a domestic box office average roughly on par with, say, George Clooney—even as mainstream horror in recent years pretty much sticks to the aforementioned ghost-centric playbook. Saw movies have more in common with slashers, and when a decent one of those comes along (like last year’s You’re Next), it’s lucky to get a wide release instead of a few theaters and a VOD presence—nevermind the nationwide support of genre fans. Despite the success of Saw ten years ago, it’s hard not to imagine that a similar movie today would be consigned to that VOD status—though if Tusk got out to 600 theaters, I guess anything is still technically possible, horror-wise.

Even weirder: as low-rent as every single movie in the franchise is, as sweaty and desperate and tedious as most of the actors are, Saw launched a major career. James Wan, the director of the first film, has since jumped ship into ghostland, then off to another fleet entirely: he made the much better-crafted Insidious pictures plus The Conjuring before stepping into Fast and Furious 7 (out next year). Wan’s career may turn out to be Saw‘s greatest legacy; it’s been a while since a horror director scored that many different hits and designed himself a big-budget escape plan.

At some point, someone will reboot Saw. Maybe if this reissue does well, that point will be Halloween weekend 2015; it’s not too late to conceive, shoot, and market a Saw redo from scratch for that release date. But I’m hoping if Saw does come back, it stays true to its slasher-movie legacy and picks right up with the labyrinthine continuity so laboriously established in the first seven films, complete with some idiotic ret-cons and left-field plot twists. Maybe put it out in January, where it always sort of belonged anyway.


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