The ‘Saw’ Franchise is More Than Just Torture-Porn

Chris Rock as Detective Banks in Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Det. Banks is slumped in a darkened room, handcuffed by one arm to a pipe, mirroring the trap from the first film. In his other hand he holds a saw, which he stares down at.
Lionsgate

“Live or die, make your choice,” is the philosophy of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the infamous Jigsaw. The newest instalment in the Saw franchise, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, will be released May 13, where Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV) is returning as director with an all new cast starring the likes of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. As fans of the franchise look forward to the next film, it’s time to look back on the franchise and analyse why the Saw films are enjoyed by so many, and address the claims by some that these films are simply just “torture porn,” by breaking down the ethics of Jigsaw.

John Kramer, the series’ main antagonist, is dying from a brain tumour that he developed from terminal cancer. After surviving a suicide attempt, John decided he wanted to live out the rest of his days testing the fabric of human nature by putting people through torturous games that serve as a lesson for the flaws in their character. His death sentence gave him a new appreciation for life, and he believed people who have the luxury of not knowing when they are going to die “keeps them sleepwalking.” There can be an argument made that this entire philosophy is the main focus of the series, and not necessarily the torture, although gore is certainly at the forefront of this series and is its biggest talking point for those who have yet to see the films.  

John got his name Jigsaw from the media because he cuts a puzzle piece from his victims’ skin to symbolise that all of his victims are missing their survival trait. If his victims survive his games, they have proved themselves worthy of living. John claims he has never killed anyone, as he believes it is the people who made their choice to die rather than fight for their life. “I’ve never killed anyone. I give people a chance.” However, as Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) in Saw II rightly points out, “putting a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to pull the trigger is still murder.” 

Cary Elwes as Lawrence Gordon in Saw (2004). Gordan is sitting in a dirty abandoned public bathroom, his ankle chained to a pipe. In his hand he holds a saw, which he looks at.
Lionsgate

Those who survive John’s traps prove that his methods do not always teach a lesson. Some of John’s disciples like Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) use his teachings for their personal agendas. In Saw V, Detective Hoffman puts a man named Seth Baxter (Joris Jarsky) in The Pendulum Trap. Seth serves five years of what should have been a life sentence for the murder of Detective Hoffman’s sister, getting out on a technicality. Detective Hoffman wants revenge, so he makes the trap inescapable, thus what he does is murder, twisting John’s ethics to fit his own game. 

John’s theory seems to consistently fail, not just with Detective Hoffman and Amanda, but with his other survivors as well. The beginning of Saw VI starts off with two people, Eddie (Marty Moreau) and Simone (Tanedra Howard), trapped in cages. The one who gives the most flesh will be released. This leads to a gruesome display of Eddie cutting skin from his stomach, where Simone is forced to cut off her arm to win. Later in the film, we see Simone recovering in the hospital and she tells Detective Hoffman that Jigsaw did this to her. Although she cut her own arm off, he made her do it. When Hoffman asks her if she learned her lesson, she is in complete disbelief. “Look at my goddamn arm. What the fuck am I supposed to learn from this?” If someone survives a Jigsaw trap, they are not reborn like John thinks, they are just traumatised by what they had to do in order to survive. 

“Nobody changes… Nobody is reborn,” says Amanda.

Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young in Saw. Amanda is in a darkened concrete room with metal piping. She is on all fours on the floor, her movement restricted by heavy chairs around her neck and ankle. Her expression is fearful.
Lionsgate

Although John’s methods are obviously flawed, there are actually important messages that the films are trying to get across. The focus when speaking about the series is on the bloodshed, but if you actually watch the films, you will see the amount of thought that has gone into weaving such a complicated and interesting storyline that starts off strong with such a knockout first film. For instance, the entire plot of Saw VI is a criticism of health insurance in the United States and the formula people use to determine whether or not someone is fit to live. This is a formula that, according to John, fails to take into consideration someone’s will to live. William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), a health insurance executive, denied John health insurance coverage for an experimental treatment for his cancer. William is subsequently put through a series of tests, where he has to choose which of his colleagues live or die, faced with the flaws in his own policy.

Clearly one of the many criticisms of the Saw series is that it is just “torture porn,” but this seems to dismiss the plot of the films underneath all that gore. The issue is that there seemed to be a growing focus on making the traps in each subsequent film after the fairly mild Saw I even more grotesque than the last bunch. Of course, John’s use of torture to teach people a lesson, regardless of his justifications for doing so, is wrong and should not be condoned. However, to say that these films are not serving as an interesting commentary on some of the issues we face within our society would be doing them a disservice. Perhaps the purpose of inserting these commentaries into a horror franchise is to get their message across to a wider audience. Ultimately, whatever you make of the franchise as a whole, it is undoubtedly ingrained in our popular culture and if you can stomach the gore, it is definitely worth checking out before the exciting release of Spiral.

by Alysha Prasad

Alysha Prasad (she/her) is a freelance writer who is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favourite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.

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