Having never seen any of the Saw films, I thought it would be a fun experiment to start with Saw VI, the most recent installation, and see what I could piece together of the previous five films based on my familiarity with other long-running horror franchises. This idea presupposed that the Saw series had the same general lack of serialization of, say, the Friday the 13th series, whose twelve installments were really bound together only by a common killer. The result probably would have consisted mostly of tired jokes about Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover.
Luckily, it turns out Saw is actually something of a soap opera, with several loosely-drawn characters who have managed to survive multiple films in service of something kind of like a narrative. It goes like this: There’s this pensive serial killer named Jigsaw who arranges for mean people to compete against each other for their lives, using torturous contraptions that are meant to be perversely poetic in their relevance to precisely what makes these people mean. All the while, Jigsaw calmly spouts barely coherent platitudes of morality, life, and death from his super-villain control room in the sky. That’s a lot of work for one guy, though, and thus most of the recurring characters that aren’t federal agents are his accomplices. Each of them has just enough secrets to keep the flashbacks flashing while Jigsaw is between victims.
But as much fun as that web of intrigue supposes itself to be, the filmmakers clearly understand that the disposable victims are the series’ real bread and butter. Corners are cut when you’re cranking out annual sequels on tiny budgets, and for a production schedule like that – without time or money for luxuries like cinematography, skilled actors, or any notion of subtlety – topicality is its lifeblood. Saw VI’s victims? Predator lenders and health insurance executives! When you’re guaranteed profitability on opening weekend, the shelf life of the escapism on offer needn’t be long.
That brand of escapism defines this film. Despite its creators’ denouncement of the classification, this is textbook torture porn. Good horror films understand that empathy and morbid titillation needn’t be mutually exclusive. Without empathy, there is no horror, and Saw VI’s trivial attempts to humanize its victims are at odds with its insistence that you despise them and enjoy their suffering. As a result, nearly every character is both protagonist and antagonist. Apologists might call it a “postmodern moral crisis,” but there’s not enough dimension here to call it anything but lazy.
What we’re left with is essentially a reimagining of A Christmas Carol, in which the ghosts force Ebenezer Scrooge to choose between the barbed wire strangulation of either Bob Cratchit or Tiny Tim, each of whom lobbies desperately and vociferously on his own behalf. How does Scrooge change over the course of the story? Well, when all is said and done, he has become more accutely aware of how much it sucks to be pumped full of hydrofluoric acid.