Do the 'Saw' Movies Still Have a Place in Horror?

'Jigsaw' returns in an era when the genre has moved on from the torture-centric thrills of the 2004 original.
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Jigsaw is back. Has anyone missed him?

In the mid-2000s, the Saw franchise swiftly rose to become Hollywood’s preeminent scare machine. Over the course of seven films — each released during the Halloween season — the series raked in a total of $870 million in worldwide box office and spawned an entire wave of gore-soaked horror films that critic David Edelstein famously dubbed “torture porn.” Hostel, Turistas, Captivity and remakes of not one but two Wes Craven cult classics (The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes) attempted to capitalize on the trend, with varying levels of success.

But the craze was short-lived. Beginning with the fourth installment, the Saw series began running out of steam. By the sixth film — which grossed just $27 million in North America — Lionsgate was looking for a way out, and they got it with Saw 3D, disingenuously subtitled The Final Chapter (we of course learned our lesson from the Friday the 13th series). The films’ fall from grace coincided with the rise of the premiere scarefest of the early 2010s, Paranormal Activity, which supplanted Saw’s position as the Halloween-season horror franchise. Notably, it managed the feat without resorting to displays of bloody entrails.

Like Saw, the Paranormal Activity series began losing momentum right around the third sequel. But unlike the former, it helped kickstart a raft of supernaturally themed horror films that became blockbuster hits in their own right. Saw co-creator James Wan ironically did more than anyone to cement the shift away from torture-centric thrills by minting hits like Insidious and The Conjuring, creating a pair of new supernatural-themed franchises in the process (the latter is now being billed as a “universe”).

So where does Jigsaw fit in the horror-movie landscape of 2017? The belated sequel/reboot is the first in the series since Saw 3D hit theaters seven years ago, and it now feels like an outlier in a horror marketplace dominated by films that typically favor spooks over spurts. The top-grossing horror movie of 2017 and of all time  — Andres Muschietti’s It — may feature its share of cringe-worthy violence (it opens with the brutal murder of a young boy), but compared to the unrelenting torture showcased in the Saw films, it feels damn near timid.

Therein lies the most unprecedented element of the Saw phenomenon: For the first time in genre history, depictions of brutal, gory torture were elevated as mainstream entertainment. In the ‘70s, films like the original Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and I Spit On Your Grave found their niche, but they were generally considered outside the bounds of polite society. And while the spate of slasher movies that arose in the ‘80s found box-office success through promises of explicit violence, the deaths in those films tended to be swift. Prolonged displays of human suffering were almost non-existent.

As Benjamin Lee notes over at The Guardian, it’s no surprise that the “extreme horror” trend of the mid-to-late ‘00s produced relatively few hits outside its best-known franchise. “Torture porn was one of the least accessible horror subgenres, the casual cinemagoer less open to watching a woman’s insides fill with acid over, say, a ghost knock over a kitchen cabinet,” he writes. In the case of Saw, the sequels’ perpetual game of one-upmanship became numbing to all but the series’ most hardcore fans. “Each film would need to be crueler than the last, each punishment even nastier than before,” Lee continues, “and eventually this became tiresome and also impossible.”

Jigsaw is expected to earn in the low $20 millions in its opening weekend, considerably below what the franchise commanded at its height but regardless a win for a film with an estimated budget of $10 million. Still, I’m dubious on the question of whether Jigsaw can cultivate enough audience enthusiasm inspire further sequels or even, God forbid, kick off a second wave of “torture porn” copycats. The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a negative review, and the trailers promise more of the same, which is something horror audiences tend not to appreciate (case in point: last year’s disappointingly redundant Blair Witch sequel, which was D.O.A.). In 1996, the musty slasher genre was revived only because Scream brought a clever twist to a tired formula. At the risk of assuming too much, Jigsaw simply feels too similar to previous installments to manage the same. 

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