Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Through Flesh and Bone: A Review of Saw III

Well, this has been a decent Halloween. Not the best EVAH, but certainly more likable than the stint I did taking a goddamn Accounting I test lats year just before All Saints Day. How lame was that?

Part of what I do - aside from dressing up head to toe and scaring the bejesus out of 3 year olds who walk up to my door and take a gummy eyeball from Mr. Zombified Corpseman - is make it a point to see a movie every year on Halloween. My wife always comes with me, and I've somehow managed to con her into seeing both the fairly dismal THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 2003 remake, and the original SAW without knowing a thing about the latter. We also took in Tim Burtons' CORPSE BRIDE that, while not a horror film, sums up Halloween beautifully; cutesey kid cando coated fun that happens to be filled with rotting corpses and Christopher Lee. I dig it. Anyway, a while back I showed my wife a trailer for SAW III, and it was decided she wouldn't see it. She'd let ME see it, sure, but she'd be in the other theatre. That's pretty weak, so I shrugged and said we'd go see the Prequel to the Remake of one of my favorite films of all time. Uh-huh. I was REALLY looking forward to that one after hearing it makes TSCM'03 look like a masterpiece.

But I have my reasons: my wife despised SAW II. The first one left her disgusted, which confused me. Even the unrated version isn't all -that- visceral, it just leaves massive psychological scars with the camera work and editing, making you think you've seen twice the intestine yanking and foot lopping than is actually on the screen. It's a great tactic, and the film - despite some obvious flaws - was something I didn't expect: it was a mature, intelligent, studio backed horror film. That's not to say all horror films aren't either mature or intelligent. But... no, screw it. Most horror films suck, and appeal to the lowest of the low in what humans want to see - blood, boobies, and stupidity. We still love them, but if you can look me in the eye and tell me that SCREAM is actually any more intelligent than SCARY MOVIE, you're not quite jaded yet. I don't give a rat's ass if it was the most intelligent slasher ever shot, it still only won the Special Olympics spelling bee by a slight margin by spelling the word "cat" without a numerator involved. And that's okay. We didn't ask that Scream was a post modern masterpiece, and I'm sure Craven just figured it'd be a cute and fun twist on an idea he ironically avoided pretty much his entire prior career. We have critics to make that bone-headed judgement for us. Bald and fat pretentious dickshits.

Anyway, then came SAW. The doing of a pair of crazy Australians who had the clever idea of sending a script -and- a completed scene from it (in the form of a short film) in to Lion's Gate films. It worked, and while I'm sure the making-of documentary has convinced every single horror film making wacko to include a DVD-R with their script, it was a fairly unique way to show their hand. The concept of a serial killer who drugs people, and then puts them in death traps with the chance of surviving is definately an interesting one, and one that I'm dissapointed hasn't been ripped off more yet. It's arguably in and of itself a knock-off on the Sci-Fi film CUBE, but let's not go there yet. When all was said and done, SAW was, at heart, a moralistic tale in the vein of SE7EN with the gritty-yet-psychadellic sensibilities of SUSPIRIA. It was a good combination, and worked mostly thanks to the strong performances going in to it. The biggest problems with the film were, in a sense, the character in the film that was grabbing the people and making them do bad things to themselves...


...If you didn't catch that, I'm about to spoil the hell out of Saw. And Saw II. And most of Saw III. So if you don't want me to do that, then... I dunno'. Go make me a sammich. And I want mustard, no mayo. Oh, and Aeris dies, Soylent Green is made of people, and it's his sled. Tell your friends.

So, "Jigsaw", the evil mastermind, turned out to be a terminally ill patient that we see for all of 2 minutes in the film proper. He actually only has a single line of dialogue in the film (when not voicing his all too freaky little puppet), and while his intentions are clear - present foolish people with a taste of death to let them appreciate the life they hold so little regard for - there's almost nothing making him "click". We know he's terminally ill. That's about it. We don't get a sense of who he is, why he cares, how he came up with these grand plans, or even how he pulls them off when he's pretty much a bed-ridden cancer patient. You'd assume that, given the final scene in the film in which Jigsaw turns out to be the corpse rotting on the floor of the filthy bathroom the lead characters find themselves in, we'd learn a bit about who he is in the inevitable follow up.

Funny thing, that Saw II. We really didn't learn shit about him. He doesn't tell us any stories about why he started doing this, or how he pulls it off. We're also treated to a film that's very different in tone and nature, in which not 2, but 8 (!) main characters have to play to survive in a CUBE inspired house from hell, which includes the scene that promptly made my wife nearly lose her lunch: a pit of syringes with a key at the bottom. I didn't like this scene either, for a simple reason: I've stepped on a drinking glass. I KNOW what that shit feels like on the inside of your foot. Not a pleasant experience, let me tell you. There's also the psychological issue of "where have those things BEEN!?", but that's another matter entirely. What we learn is that Jigsaw convinced his sole surviving victim, Amanda (aka "Reverse Bear Trap Girl"), acted as the dying man's right hand. This, at the very least, explains how a cancer patient who can't even wipe his own ass can escape Danny Glover and lug unconscious people around at will. This is something the first film didn't touch on at all, and to me, hurts it's credibility and logic. Saw II fixes this... but also uppes the disbelief required to sit through it, since we have to believe that the entire FBI team is watching the events in "real time", and that the timing would just coincide perfectly without any major hiccups.

The other big problem in Saw II is the cast. We now have 8 people who have a chance to escape: which, of course, also means 8 potential nasty, gory deaths (and as the needle pit proves, you don't even have to die to make the audience happy). The problem is that, apart from Amanda's world weary character (who's a massive setup) and the kid's general innocence, every other character is an unlikable asshole. This is a tactic that was started by slasher and zombie films at the end of the 1970's, most likely in an attempt to make the audience root for the set pieces to shut these irritating stereotypes and jerkwads once and for all. The upshoot is that when the gore does hit, we feel elated rather than bummed. The downside is that it becomes wholly impossible to care if anyone makes it out alive. Much as people have chastized films like HOSTEL for being nothing but an excercize in brutality and torture, it's also a film that centers around a compitent and likable character, which is pretty amazing as they've been turning him in to a total dick for the first half of it. Hostel was full of graphic violence, but it was never without careful planning and a place in the story. It was there to make you squirm and feel sick as much as it made you hope that our hero makes it out alive. We like him. We don't WANT him to get his eyes torn out, his toes cut off, his head skewered or his achiles tendons snipped like every other person we liked in the movie. That Jay Hernandez plays a hero makes Hostel something aside from gonzo porn for sadists... it makes Hostel a "real" movie. Not a perfect one, no, far from perfect (damned third act...), but a film in which we have a hero we want to see prevail. It's this vital missing link that makes Saw II exactly what everyone who didn't like it right. Saw II, in lacking a central character (or at least a tolerable one) is, indeed, torture for torture's sake.

That's not to say Saw II isn't damned good torture for torture's sake, but there are better options still.

Then, we have Saw III. It also solves a major problem with the first film: the lead characters were in a logical puzzle rather than a massive chain of machines, like everyone else that Jigsaw had dealt with before. Much as I can appreciate the concept of allowing a person the right to saw off his own foot to escape ala MAD MAX... it seems kind of, simple. Cheap, even. It was still an intriguing idea, but it's one that reeks of a low budget and smaller scale in comparison to the energetic and nasty sequences we see otherwise. Saw III picks a man who's son was hit by a drunk driver, and makes him solve several puzzles to confront the people who were responsible for letting the killer get off almost scott free. It's a much larger, more ambitious puzzle, without being so over the top that it makes the proceedings look suspiciously like a commentary on reality TV (something I both applaud and despise about Saw II). Most importantly, we finally see a human side to John Kramer, Jigsaw himself. We saw him in the flesh in Saw II, but he comes across as something of a sideshow ringmaster or a game show host. He's controling everything and knows it, and doesn't have to be thankful or apolagetic to anyone. Saw III begins with him getting increasingly sick from the cancer, and has Amanda collect a surgeon to ease his pain, at least for a while... and she's quickly outfitted with an explosive collar that will end her life should Jigsaw's heart stop.

I should also note that I'm quite fond of the opening stretch. Literally a remake of the final scene from the first Saw, we watch Mark E. Mark (or, since he decided not to show, "I Can't Believe it's Not Mark Whalburg In This Dark Set!") bust his own foot to escape without bleeding to death. While I fail to see how a crushed foot is any more or less useful than a cut off foot, hey, it sets a tone and then some. While the first film ended with the raw rubbing of a heavy blade against flesh and bone, the third begins with the oh-so lovely sound of bones crunching and twisting in to shapes they were never designed to take. Yum. No, it's not as satisfyingly sadistic as hearing Jesus' getting nailed to the cross from a certain gore-fest that went on to be called the BEST MOVIE EVAH by pretty much everybody, but it reminds me that if you do the same thing without a religious or historical context, it's exploitation. Also, kudos for showing the results of every single "machine death" to follow. That's some nasty stuff.

Right from the onset, the better aspects of the two previous films are in action: the extreme and fetishistic mechanical torture that was the focus of Saw II, and the strong morally ambiguous characters of the original Saw. It also up's the "ew" factor considerably, with not only someone's head blown literally to pieces (and how the HELL did the MPAA let that go?!), a man twisted apart on a rotating crucifix, a woman frozen to death in sub-zero temperatures in several stages, a shotgun blast fo the face, and finally, fun with a circular saw (though not nearly as much fun as I expected). Much like the needle pit in Saw II, this also has a satisfyingly squirm-inducing sequence that isn't fatal, in which a man is doused in rotten liquified pork. While you'll see plenty of repulsive things in your lifetime, rotten liquified pork will remain right up there for a while. But there's also a preliminary pair of torture sequences, one of them ripped right out of the final moments of Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, and another that leads to an even bigger problem: if Amanda is fully capable of attatching cable to someone's ribcage, why can't she perform the brain surgery on Jigsaw? I guess brain surgery is a more difficult endeavor, especially since she wants him to live afterwards, but this makes her uselessness in the brain surgery sequence kind of... suspect. Also, they didn't shave his head? What the hell? Kudos for very believable and utterly nasty fake brains though: some guy behind me actually said "call me when this is over" and walked out of the theater. Haha!

Saw III also leaves us with another burning question: "who the hell was that?" While the first film was based on flashback, since we were dropped in to the middle of the story, Saw III's flashback feels almost tacked in. Who is this lovely blonde woman that Jigsaw has such an affection for? Well, he's dead, and so is Amanda, so I guess we won't know unless James Wan can somehow come up with a logical explanation for the Jigsaw murders to keep going. While I don't for a moment doubt that SAW IV is coming out next Halloween, I do have my doubts that it'll be able to continue the story set down up to this point.

If I'm to assume that Saw is a trilogy - and I'll be wrong, I'm sure - it's one that more or less delivered in it's final hour. I like all 3 films, despite their obvious flaws, and while we can really credit the TSCM'03 remake as the revival in super-gory R-rated horror films, we can credit Saw for the current trend of original American horror films that don't totally suck. It's not the revolution of modern horror some people were freaking out about in 2004, but it's always been a fairly smart, and mostly not tongue-in-cheek combination of some of the better ideas horror films have been toying with for the past 30 years. If you have any love for either of the previous 2, the third is definately no worse, and I'd honestly say it's better than 2 totally... if you can forgive that the final scene is very, VERY hard to swallow. Much as Jigsaw is the man at what he does, to assume that everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - would play out as he assumed it was seems like a copout to me. Saw II could get away with this because he already knew the events, and just had to play along with them as if they were current. Frankly, the scene where the film "Rewinds" to show us everything we didn't, and mostly did see, is totally irrelevant. The revalation we shouldn't have caught (maybe? Watching gialli a lot lets you spot this shit from 40 paces...) only occurs after Jigsaw is dead, and while the first film was pretty intelligent in its setup and thus deserved some kind of summary, it feels a bit tacked on here. Maybe it's there to justify the "flashback montage" that ends with the blown up head. If that's the case, damnit, do more of them and end with more still shots of extreme gore.

Saw III is nihilistic, grimy, and anything but "fun" or "spooky" like you'll get from the other 2 limp wristed looking horror films in theatres right now (TSCM: The Beginning and The Grudge 2, if you're unsure). It has some flaws, and could have stood a bit more exposition and a bit less random useless gore - much as I do love the 2 opening mechanical kills as truly gross set pieces, they do very little to further the story as a whole. But that doesn't stop it from being a worthy, if not superios, predocessor to it's occasionally overrated but definately enjoyable previous films. It's violent and smart franchise horrror, and if that isn't worth $8 (plus $13 for a soda, popcorn and box of sweedish fish), hell, I don't know what is.

Did I mention that my "Uncut Special Edition" of the first SAW broke not long ago? Yeah, middle ring snapped like a bastard at some point and I didn't know it 'till a few days ago. Also, it's out of print. Fabulous. So I'll pay $50 on eBay for the privelage of having a "new " copy to sit alongside the uncut version of Saw II I haven't yet paid $20 for. Friggin' awesome.

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