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A couple of years ago, I watched all of the Saw movies in a row. I recently redid it when they all became available on Amazon Prime because they tend to stick in my head. It’s not the gore that gets me. It’s the writing. I believe there was a reason these movies were some of the most financially successful horror movies of all time, and I believe that the reason is the writing. Spoilers for the Saw films and, strangely, Speed. I talk about the most recent one, but don’t spoil it. Before you read this, I highly suggest you watch all of the original seven. And Speed. That’s a good movie if you can look past that archaic title card. You can skip to the bottom of the Saw sections to see my ratings for each; however, I spoil previous movies in talking about next movies, so hopping around is not suggested.
My first semester of college I took a writing class wherein I was introduced to the Major Dramatic Question by a playwright by the name of Evan Smith using a movie I knew quite well: Speed. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen that movie, but the answer is surely more than seems necessary for an action romance movie. Before I get into the MDQ, let me just say, that the stunts of that movie are some of the best and most ballsy ever done. Especially for the time, considering it would have been unimaginable to have your lead actually on a mechanic creeper under a moving freaking bus (Reeves was always dedicated and crazy) or to actually jump a bus with a stunt driver inside it across a gap. Insane. And awesome. Totally unsafe. Back to the class: Smith asked us what the climax of the movie was. Most people don’t know the movie as well as I do to remember the subway train after the bus. But after the bad guy has been defeated, there’s still more movie. Jack (Reeves) can’t get Annie (Bullock) free and can’t stop the train, which means she’s probably going to die. Once that pesky business is out of the way, the movie ends with Jack and Annie kissing and a sense of completion in the audience. Because the major dramatic question of Speed is “Will the guy and girl get together?” Answer: Yes, until the sequel and Reeves is too expensive to hire again or something.
A major dramatic question is usually presented pretty early on, in the first act. Character-focused movies can have one per major character, usually best for ensemble casts, but a movie without one is very blasé. It’s a movie most people walk away from without ever wanting to watch the movie again, without being able to remember the movie very well, and without a feeling of satisfaction. Due to rewrites, poor writing, changing directorial hands, and studio interference, some movies make it to audiences without this question. I’d say that blockbusters require these more than any other film. Indie films are actually allowed to get away from the MDQ because they are sometimes instead character studies. Movies that focus on a twist can sometimes get away from this if the twist is well set up (see The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable for the best examples and none of the rest of Shyamalan’s movies–including the much enjoyable but nominally twistless Split). Most movies though need to use an MDQ and answer it to be successfully entertaining. A lot of viewers get bored without one, but for established franchises, ala Star Wars and Star Trek, people are willing to give them a pass because they are fans. I’m usually willing to give Star Trek a pass, except for the new ones, but First Contact did have an MDQ focused on Picard (Can he overcome the violation the Borg perpetrated upon him? Think about it: the movie starts with a Borg-based nightmare he’s having). Typically though I won’t watch a movie again without an MDQ because it isn’t satisfying. It’s like if you took three bites of your meal and then your waiter just whisked it away from you. It’s just unfulfilling. The number one reason I believe I enjoy the Saw movies is the fact that the majority of them have an MDQ.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t watch any of these in the movie theater. I wasn’t interested. One month a couple of years ago, the first four were available on Netflix, so I decided to watch them. Wild hair and all that. I very much enjoyed the first one. It has a rawness to it the rest don’t have mostly because it comes from new faces in Hollywood, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who happened to be given free reign and a new studio to work with, Twisted Pictures. The two were fresh out of film school and had an idea, and they even filmed a bit of it to show to studios. Their idea was picked up, but they were given very little budget. This is pretty obvious in the movie, especially when compared to the others. I’m sure a lot of the budget went to hiring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and Dina Meyer, but even with what little they had they did a fantastic job, using CCTV footage to round out the movie and having Whannell step in for one of the parts and some shots of other characters to make sure they got everything. The rawness of this movie reminds me a great deal of The Evil Dead (the original, not that run-of-the-mill remake). Wan moved quickly when filming, managing to get all of Shawnee Smith’s scenes done in a day, while she had a fever. The bathroom scenes were filmed sequentially, which is virtually unheard of, but lends a realness to those scenes, as the griminess of their clothes and skin increase true to life the longer they are in there. Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? No. It is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Is the acting amazing? No. Elwes is often fighting to act through using an American accent and Whannell is unrefined. But they both do an amazing job during the dramatic climax, which is what matters most.
That scene is amazing and answers the MDQ of the movie: How far will Dr. Gordon go to save his family? Answer: Pretty freaking far! One of the reasons that scene is so good is that most of the sawing is not shown. Instead we see the start of it and then most of the shots are of the two characters’ faces as it happens. The horror and pain on their faces are enough to make the audience cringe. This is also the most graphic thing to happen in the movie. The other movies are very much torture porn but the first one is not. I also believe that it brings up a very good point. In previous games shown in the movie, the victim is only fighting to save their own life. In the main game of the first movie, he is fighting to save that of his family. Most of the previous victims were not able to save themselves, but Dr. Gordon wasn’t fighting to save himself. And while he wasn’t able to do it by the due time, he was still more successful than most of the other victims. There is an emphasis on mind games and traps in the other movies, but in the first one, Dr. Gordan and Adam must solve puzzles and riddles, not work their way out of elaborate traps. Jigsaw is still playing mind games in this one, partially by being in the room the whole time, but the mind games are rarely focused on the actual victims of his games in the later ones and instead are focused on the police as a whole and on his disciples. So it seems obvious that while the first one and a few that follow involve writing by Whannell, it is also obvious that this first movie is different, partly due to its budget constraints (notice the fact that there are almost no exterior shots) and partly due to its freshness which comes with some sophomoric qualities but produces a movie well worth watching. My score is 7/10, IMBD has a 7.7, and the Metascore is a failing 46. On an estimated budget of $1.2 million, it made $103.9 million, giving it a return rate of 8558%.
This movie was actually written by someone not connected to the first one and then the studio thought it would make a good sequel. I’m not usually a fan of this way of making movies, as I mentioned in my adaptations post in relation to Bug Hunt at Outpost 9 vs Starship Troopers (and making 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel when it was not intended to be as written makes JJ Abrams again an asshole because a viewer spends the whole time wondering how it is related to the first one and not giving the story shown their full attention), but the studio was smart enough to bring on Whannell for rewrites. He even stayed on set to make sure any changes could be made to the script and sometimes didn’t have pages for them until they were ready to shoot. Now that can lower the quality of a movie, but that’s what multiple takes and good editing are for. Overall, this one lacks the rawness of the first one, pumps up the use of traps ala the reverse bear trap, and is a tighter movie. A second watch actually makes John Kramer’s comments to Dave Matthews somewhat tongue-in-cheek in a good way. “A safe place?” Hardy-har. On a first watch, I spent a good deal of time trying to place the brunette woman (Emmanuelle Vaugier) until I just looked her up and saw that she was in one episode of Supernatural. But besides that distraction, the movie did a really good job. I did not see the twist coming, even though the first one had a twist. This early in a franchise, it’s too hard to tell what methods will be carried over to other films, so a twist wasn’t necessary at this point in creating a Saw movie. This one still wasn’t really torture porn. It wasn’t overly graphic while still being horrifying. However, the scene where Xavier cuts off his number is a bit–okay, a lot–corny. It’s just not very well edited and the whole production of it makes it out to be more horrific than the actual situation calls for. It’s far more horrifying when Dave Matthews is screaming in anger and fear in the dark bathroom. Bloody gruesomeness is less horrifying than the idea of dying slowly in the dark alone. The MDQ: Will Dave Matthews be able to restrain himself? Answer: Apparently not! I also give this one a 7/10, which has an IMDB rating of 6.6 and a Metascore of 40. With an estimated budget of $4 million and a gross of $147.7 million, it had return rate of 3592%.
Whannel wrote this one, and gore is kicked up a notch. The story is like the second one, split in two: we have the doctor working to save Kramer and Jeff going through a maze of traps. This is the first movie to have the single-person maze/journey, as Jeff is the only person running the maze, whereas in the second movie we had a big group of people. At this point, they have finally solidified how they are writing these movies. Either it is a group of people who are supposed to work together or it is one person trying to work out their issues as they solve the traps. I feel the single journey movies are stronger, because the focus is narrowed, unlike in the multiple people traps. That’s a stronger foundation, but it doesn’t mean it will be better. The idea that Jeff is so wrapped up in his anger that he is incapable of letting go of the past, moving on, and forgiving is such an interesting idea. It is also the major dramatic question, and each of the rooms are designed to test it. The parts with Lynn, Kramer, and Amanda are a little distracting to this, and this is really when the movies start to bring in their overall storyline, which they barely pulled off at times. When Amanda opens that note and starts crying, it is incredibly frustrating and distracting because we don’t get an answer to what it was about until a later movie. I felt the gore was just below the threshold of “too much”, but no other movie takes it just to the edge as this one did. The twist was actually pretty good. Jeff was too much of an idiot to be able to forgive, and it cost him a lot. The beginning of blending the movies makes this movie not as good as it could be. This one also gets 7/10 from me, has an IMDB rating of 6.2 and a Metascore of 48. It had an estimated budget of $10 million and earned $84.6 million, giving it a return rate of 746%, making it the first to drop below a thousand percent return.
This movie is similar to the one before it in that it is about a single person. All his tests are based on the same question, which is also the MDQ: Can Rigg prevent himself from running through an unsecured door? At the same time, Agent Strahm is chasing after him and is a general dick about everything. This movie is one of the most focused because they don’t show us what’s going on behind the traps, and there is an awesome reason for that! This was my favorite twist of the whole series. Not Hoffman. That was surprising but not as amazing as how much they hid the timeline. Whannell did not write this one, but what brilliant writing. They didn’t even cheat. Unfortunately, this means the movie cannot stand on its own at all. To enjoy it, a person would absolutely have to see the third movie. That and Rigg’s less than compelling character prevents this movie from being better than the others even with its tight focus and amazing twist. Again 7/10 from me, but it has an IMDB score of 5.9 and Metascore of 36. With an estimated budget of $10 million and a gross of $139.4, it has a return rate of 1294%.
This movie starts immediately after the fourth one, and it’s when the series kind of loses focus. While I enjoyed it, mostly because of Julie Benz, who is enjoyable in anything, I could see it wasn’t very good. Hoffman is a dumb character and weak antagonist and while Strahm is played by one of my favorite TV actors, he’s still just a major dick. Now the movie is pretty much all about the behind the scenes crap with Jigsaw’s disciples. The story of the five people in the trap is the most interesting part of the movie and is minor in the plot of the film. This is also where the gore is ramped up to comical levels. For all that, the movie is lesser than the others and has gone off the rails of the original intrigue and intensity. We’ve got a problem in that our MDQ isn’t the focus of the plot nor related to the main traps: Can Strahm follow instructions? Now we’re down to a 6/10 from me, and it has a comparable IMDB score of 5.8 and a Metascore of 20. The budget was estimated at $10.8 million and the movie grossed $113.9 million, resulting in a 955% return rate.
The quality drops a notch further. Again the traps and the main focus of the plot are unrelated. The real question is if the FBI and police can figure out that Hoffman is the new disciple. While the best work is done with Easton, the CEO of the insurance company that denied Kramer an experimental procedure that might save his life. It brings up important issues with health insurance and shows how mercenary and unempathic those who work in that industry can be. This is where the real writing is being done. But we have so much with Hoffman, who is just bleh. And something’s going on with Jill. Jeeze, who cares? The gore level is now outrageous and sensationalist. Not worth the time they put into it. I only give this one a 6/10, the IMDB score is a matching 6 even, and the Metascore is 30. The estimated budget was $11 million but it only grossed $27.7 million, giving it a low but profitable return of 152%, which shows that people stopped caring so much at this point.
Saw 3D: The Final Chapter
Man, if only. Again, the focus is not on the traps, which are being navigated by a false victim who wrote a book about his experiences before, during, and after as a Jigsaw survivor. There’s more about Hoffman and Jill. Oh, and look, Dr. Gordon is back. Unrelated, I wonder what the twist will be about. Obviously, I’m not a fan. We also don’t even get an MDQ, so we don’t even know what we’re waiting for. I have a problem also with the fact that Bobby doesn’t manage to save anyone, even his girlfriend, who had no idea he was a complete liar. Guilt by association is not something early Jigsaw would have done. Then there’s the 3D gimmick. Also by this point I am sick of hearing that twist music and that horrible metal music in the credits. Now, we’re at a 5/10 from me, a 5.6 from IMDB, and a 24 from the Metascore. It had an over-bloated budget of $20 million and grossed $136.2 million, giving it a return rate of 581%.
I’ve not seen this one yet, but it doesn’t involve Whannel or Wan as writers or directors, who moved on to Insidious and The Conjuring—though Wan is a producer. Instead, it is directed by the Spierig brothers, who have done Daybreakers (which I enjoyed), and written by Pete Goldfinger, most of his experience being in horror films no one has ever heard of, and Josh Stolberg, who has worked with Goldfinger on many of the same movies, but his most well known film is Good Luck Chuck, which is absolutely a completely different genre of movie. I’m not sure what to make of this combination of major players. The premise also seems off the mark from the cannon ending of the seventh film which is that Dr. Gordon and the two young men from the beginning of the movie are going to continue the games. Whereas, the description I read says that a new series of murders is taking place and it seems like it is John Kramer. Maybe since it was so bad, most people won’t remember that ending, but it was such a shock to so many viewers that I’m sure fans will remember it. Or maybe they are pulling a Bryan Singer ala Superman Returns and ignoring some of the later, and frankly worse, sequels. But look how well that turned out for him! I imagine they are just going to retcon it, especially considering I’ve not seen Jigsaw hitting Elwes’ IMDB acting credits. I’m not expecting much from this movie except to say that it will be a studio beating a dead horse. Currently it is sitting at a 5.9 from IMDB and a 39 from Metascore. The budget was a respectable $10 million and has grossed $38.1 million. This puts the return rate so far at 281%. As I said, not much hope.
Too Make a Long Blog Post Short . . .
Too Late! Horror as any genre can be done well, but like any genre of film requires focus on a singular question. Without which, the audience will not know what they are waiting for and will no longer care, shown partly by lowered return rate over the course of the series. The shine has also worn off by the sixth movie. It may have been too soon to try again. There were only seven years between the seventh and eighth films, but that could mean that the cooling off period was too short or long, in that either people were still sick of Saw films or that people no longer cared for them at all. It’s hard to tell and depending on who you talk to you might get different answers. To be honest, while I give my opinion on things, I do not much care for the aggregate opinion on most things. Critics don’t like horror films, and a lot of regular joes don’t either, thus bringing down the scores of horror films in general. But to gauge audience retention, aggregate scores are helpful. Overall, I believe the Saw movies have merit. There is often good writing being done, in that the focus is sometimes there and the themes are at the very least brought up if not exhaustively explored. Obviously, horror is capable of being thematically capable as shown by It (2017) and Stranger Things. Without focus and theme coming together, a movie of any genre is not going to be good in my book, and I will not judge a horror movie (or any other genre film) by the same expectations beyond those two metrics across genres. Which is why my scores may seem high for some of these movies. I would say that there was a reason for the outrageous success of the first film, and it wasn’t the twist, and it wasn’t the gore. It was the focus on Dr. Gordon as a character and just how far he would go to save his wife and child from that goddamn Benjamin Linus!