Whenever something invents a genre or revitalizes an existing genre, it is lumped in with the lower-quality copycats that come after it. In the early 2010s, when dystopian fiction was everywhere in the Young Adult section, The Hunger Games was often spoken of and complained about in the same breath as the more crude entries to the genre such as Matched, The Maze Runner, or Divergent. While The Hunger Games was nowhere near the first dystopian novel of all time, or even the first best-selling dystopian for teenagers — people forced to read The Giver in middle school know this well — it revamped the genre and gave those desperate for a cash-grab a roadmap to success.
The Hunger Games demonstrated several hallmarks of the dystopian genre, such as the criticism and exaggeration of the American government as well as societal structures, yet, the other examples mentioned did nothing but write a crude ‘bad society’ with a love triangle willing to save it. Every dystopian novel that came out after The Hunger Games’ release in 2009 up until around 2015 was worse than the one that came before it. The desperation was palpable, yet not a single novel dared to actually make a statement. Despite this, due to the success of the originator, it will always be associated with the garbage that clung to its coattails.
But just as The Hunger Games was not the first in YA dystopian, Saw was not the first in the “torture porn” or exploitation horror genre. There were the rape and revenge films of the 1970s, like I Spit on Your Grave, depicting the graphic assault of women for a large portion of the runtime before spending the rest of the film on the victim’s violent murder of each of her assailants. Simultaneously, the cannibal film became extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s in Italian cinema, the most popular of which being 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. These films usually revolved around a group of unlikable Western explorers wreaking havoc on a Native population before being slowly murdered and devoured by them until the movie ended. The closest link to the content of the Saw films would be the splatter genre of the 1960s and 1970s. Films such as Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead achieved both widespread success as well as derision for their commitment to depicting copious amounts of blood and gore on screen.
The films in these genres were often met with universal panning from critics— and even the arrests of their directors in the case of Cannibal Holocaust —for their willingness to show such horrific violence in its entirety, yet the goal was more often than not to make a statement about political atrocities happening in the real world. The success of cannibal films in Italy were meant to criticize Western colonialism and the treatment of Native populations by the West. Other Italian extremist films criticized more specific parts of the Italian government and the corruption seen within by their writers and directors. Rape and revenge films came at the same time as second-wave feminism, coming as some of the biggest figures of this movement spoke out against violence against women and pornography. These films are not feminist by any means but exist as both a reaction to the feminist movement and a way to depict further degradation of women on screen as women were achieving more politically and socially.
Saw’s debut in 2004, as well as the short film it was based on which was made in 2003, coincided with the United State’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as the invasion of Iraq. While this was a time of intense patriotism in the U.S., these years also came with knowledge of the torture being done by American officials to prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which opened in 2002, being released to the public. The acts that occurred at this prison were repeatedly defended and diminished by U.S. officials, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and remains open to this day. The defense of Guantanamo Bay and the acts that occurred there were meant to be seen as acceptable due to the character of those who were being held there, as well as being consistently downplayed by politicians.
James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the creators of Saw, are both Australian and did not even move to the United States until after 9/11 had occurred. Neither of them cite the terrorist attacks or the human rights violations that occurred after as inspiration for the film, but its success in America along with the subsequent copy-cat films have everything to do with it.
Saw kept its location, premise, and back story entirely American, despite its non-American creators. The films take place in an unidentified American city, often believed to be either in New Jersey or New York. In the nine films that exist in the franchise, not once do they budge from this city with a seemingly unlimited supply of abandoned warehouses and basements. Whereas Saw kept its terror domestic, the ‘torture porn’ films that Saw’s legacy spawned focused on a foreign terror experienced by Americans in a country that was not their own.
American filmmakers preferred to outsource their guilt and confusion over the videos and news of real-life torture being made more and more attainable by the hands of American soldiers. Torture was in the American psyche, and the cognitive dissonance over the obvious moral failure while every official we were meant to trust telling us it was for the greater good was being transformed into film. In films like Hostel and Human Centipede, well-meaning, yet flawed and stupid Americans travel to foreign countries to be tortured and murdered beyond the audience’s comprehension, often heading into the fanciful. What is interesting here is that in real life, Americans were being exposed to news about people from other countries being brought to an American base to be tortured, while in these films, the focus was on Americans traveling to other countries to be tortured. In a true American fashion, the way for us to understand torture is by putting ourselves in the shoes of the tortured and still keeping the threat foreign and unrelatable.
In Hostel, the 2005 film created by Eli Roth, follows two American men traveling Europe together. After being seduced and tricked by two Slovakian women, the two men are kidnapped and tortured by rich, European “clients” who pay to torture and murder tourists. Similarly, The Human Centipede, created by Tom Six and released in 2009, follows two American best friends traveling Europe together who are kidnapped, tortured, and turned into a “human centipede” by a German surgeon. At the same time, films that would not fit into the ‘torture porn’ genre are still following similar formulas to these films. Films such as Taken, released in 2008, follow a former CIA agent whose daughter is abducted by a European sex trafficking ring while on vacation. In this case, the on-screen torture is primarily dealt out by the protagonist, seen as the necessary method in order to save his young, blonde, American daughter.
Hostel’s creator, Eli Roth — someone who has explored every exploitation film trend that has ever existed, from splatter to cannibalism — claims the inspiration for the film came from a website he saw on the Dark web that promoted Thai murder vacations. Yet, the timing of the film, and the films that came after it, cannot exist in a world without a population that is newly interested in torture. The audience's desire for these films is equally, sometimes more, important than the filmmaker's intentions. There are still cannibal films in the world, and there are still rape and revenge films, but the audience’s interest and desire dictate the trends just as much as the desire of the filmmakers to create them in the first place. In the mid to late 2000s, audiences knew what they wanted, even if they did not entirely understand what they wanted. And they wanted to see Americans die brutally with a clear, comically evil villain to blame.
Saw, however, relies not only on torture methods inspired by real-life devices, it also relies on a very American ideology of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. John Kramer, the Jigsaw killer, was once a civil engineer with a normal life. His goal was to create housing for low-income people while his wife ran a treatment center for those dealing with drug addiction. Tragedies slowly struck his life, starting with the miscarriage of his son, divorce, a cancer diagnosis, a tumor that was not caught in time, thus causing his cancer to become terminal, as well as a suicide attempt. It was after his suicide attempt, where he drives his car off a cliff, that he decides he wants to survive after all and has to remove a piece of metal from his own body. This encourages him to put others through tests of their own will to survive, based on his idea that they are not living their lives to the fullest.
Kramer’s definition of “not living their lives to the fullest” varies with his victims. He has tortured everyone from child abusers to a girl cheating on her boyfriend, without any acknowledgment that some crimes are far lesser than others. The idea behind each ‘trap’ is that the victim is always given the opportunity to survive, just not in a way that they may find fair. For instance, a man who manages a hotel and uses his power to rape the women who stay there is put into a trap where he must gouge his own eyes out to prevent himself from being torn apart. The man is not given the option to survive unscathed, but the torture and disability he would endure, are meant to teach him a lesson and to use his life differently. However, most of the victims are unable to prove their willingness to save their own lives, proving Kramer’s point that they do not deserve their lives as well as giving the audience a front-row seat to whatever torture method the Saw team has come up with this time.
The audience is not meant to relate to John Kramer or condone his actions, but to see the philosophy that he applies to torture. The same rhetoric that was being pushed to Americans about the real-life atrocities committed: they deserve it. The torture exploitation films that came after Saw — and many that came before — relied on getting the audience on board by creating entirely unlikable characters. An audience can suspend its morals to see horrible things happen to despicable people. Making these films exist more on the side of the perpetrators than the victims. Maybe these deaths are deserved, maybe it’s fine to see horrible things happen when the person deserves it. Saw, on the other hand, even when showing exactly why this person has woken up in a trap, still seems to be asking the audience, do they really deserve this? As you watch a person beg for life, helpless to what is happening to them, does it matter the crime they committed before? Even still, Saw does not paint John Kramer as an evil, unattainable villain, but instead as a man who is just as much a victim of the state as anyone else is and is driven to unimaginable extremes by imaginable experiences.
John Kramer’s progressing cancer should have been caught earlier, but his x-ray is carelessly mixed up with another patient’s, mislabeled and allowing him to go misdiagnosed until it is too late. He should have been able to be saved much earlier, but because of the apathy of the American healthcare system, he is not given his treatment. Dr. Lawrence Gordon, one of the victims in the bathroom from the very first Saw film, was Kramer’s doctor, placed in the trap due to his dismissiveness towards Kramer as well as his condescending attitude as Kramer dealt with his cancer and came to terms with his diagnosis. Similarly, Dr. Lynn Denlon, one of Gordon’s co-workers, is placed into a trap in Saw 3 where she is forced to attempt to save John Kramer’s life while being placed in a shotgun collar which is linked to Kramer’s heart monitor and will detonate and kill her if he dies.
Saw does not place the entirety of the blame on the doctors, however. Throughout Saw 3, the audience is shown how the stress of being a doctor and attempting to help others while working within such an oppressive, traumatic system has affected Lynn Denlon. Her marriage with her husband is deteriorating, she is experiencing compassion fatigue, and she is constantly reminded of the death of her own son while trying to save the lives of those like him. The reason why Dr. Denlon is placed in her trap makes sense to the audience, but the idea of her fate is unfathomable. John Kramer’s fear and trauma from being sick in America is relatable, but those he takes it out on miss the point entirely. That is, until Saw 6.
More often than not, the sixth entry in any franchise, horror or otherwise, is rarely worth watching. Saw 6, however, goes right for the source of the problem John Kramer faces, and remains relatable to this day after its 2009 release.
In Saw 6, it is revealed that John Kramer went to his insurance to beg for an experimental, life-saving cancer treatment as a last effort to save his own life. William, the health insurance executive who has repeatedly denied his customers coverage for necessary treatment, and has led to the deaths of both John Kramer as well as husband and father, Harold, is placed in a test that revolves around a series of traps replicating his business decisions. William has consistently made decisions that lead to the deaths of his clients, without ever having to see them as anything but numbers. The test he is placed in, however, forces him to look his victims in the eyes as he chooses whether they live or die. In one of his final tests, his six subordinates who are rewarded for their cut-throat method to their jobs, are restrained to a carousel that will rotate them in front of a shotgun.
William is able to save two of them, only if he presses a button that forces a nail into his hand. If he does not save two of them, all six will die. Each subordinate rotates so they are directly in front of William, given a chance to beg for their lives and state their case. William saves two female subordinates, one who is a mother and begs to still be present in the life of her children, the other a woman who survives by begging for her life and throwing her other coworkers under the bus. When the final victim rotates in front of the shot gun, William attempts to walk away as to not deal with what he has done. Instead, the man preparing to die demands that when William kills him, he must look at him, and William looks into his eyes as the shotgun slowly raises and shoots and kills the man. Forcing him to do what he has never had to.
At the beginning of Saw 6, William seems like the most natural character in a late 2000s torture porn film. He is entirely unlikable, greedy, demanding, and has hurt everyone who has ever come into his path. However, by the end of his test, he has attempted to save and has succeeded in saving, nearly everyone he was able to. He allowed himself to be tortured to do so, and changes in front of the audience’s eyes. By the end, the audience understands him as a changed man, a man who has put himself through the test and proven that he wants to survive, and he understands he can no longer be a hindrance to others’ survival.
However, once he believes he has finally made it to the end, he is forced face to face with the widow and son of Harold, a man who died due to William’s decision to take away his health insurance. Harold’s wife chooses to let William survive, unable to take the life of someone else. On the other hand, Harold’s son, Brent, given the choice to kill William, takes it immediately and allows him to be injected with hydrofluoric acid. Even though he passed the test, the anger and hurt of others is enough to take away his life, mirroring John Kramer’s decision in the very beginning to create traps in the first place.
Thus, Saw does not revel in the audience’s enjoyment of watching bad people be tortured for hours, but instead asks when revenge will ever stop, when there is a natural conclusion to the cycle. It is not the fault of the individuals, it is not the fault of one bad man, it is the fault of a system. A system that fails people until they are forced to turn on one another, and creates a cycle of trauma that cannot conclude. John Kramer’s logic, though flawed, is that he will be able to rehabilitate people through his inhumane methods. Yet, is shown, time and time again, that he cannot stop them from choosing to perpetuate revenge. What has been done to them, they wish to happen to others.
It is seen in Detective Hoffman choosing not to give domestic abusers the chance to save themselves, completely in contrast to Jigsaw’s philosophy, due to losing his sister to her abuser. Amanda Young, implied to be abused by her father in a deleted scene, also only gives her victims the illusion of survival, yet takes away the actual option of it. Yet, she is revealed to have returned to the bathroom from the original Saw and mercy kill Adam, who was left there to starve to death after failing his test.
John Kramer himself, even though he invented the philosophy of allowing everyone the chance to survive, also has several victims that clearly never had a chance. In Amanda’s trap, the reverse bear trap, she must retrieve a key from her dead cellmate’s abdomen. However, it is revealed to her that he remains alive, and she kills him anyway. He was given drugs to prevent him from being able to move, making it clear that there was no chance he could have fought back. Kramer, however, knew Amanda, as she was a patient at his wife’s treatment center who was partially responsible for the miscarriage of his baby. While Kramer’s wife could not rehabilitate Amanda, perhaps he believed that he could. Thus, she was given a trap that compared to others, was barely a test of her own will at all. Instead, John Kramer simply wanted to prove that he could ‘help’ others. And for three movies, it seemed to work.
At the heart of Saw, there is not the thrill of seeing human bodies torn apart for sport, or instilling fear of the other in American audiences to quell their guilt over the horrors committed by their home country, but instead an examination of humanity living under the horror of the structures above them. A cycle of abuse is demonstrated coming not from one individual to another, but instead flowing down from governmental and capitalistic structures and poisoning the ideals of American people. Rather than attacking the way health care exists under capitalism, we turn the anger on each other. We decide that people simply shouldn’t get sick, or we blame the doctors who exist in the same oppressive systems that we do for not having another method than the one they were given. Saw, even if it is not so in its production, is a deeply American film, turning the mirror on its audience while also showing them the most convoluted methods of torture ever thought of. Saw may not be a perfect movie, but is our movie, and it is the movie we deserve, not the movie we deserve to deride.