If you haven’t seen the Saw films yet… watch them or spoil them. Make your choice.
Following the by-then de rigueur twist finale of the fourth instalment of Lionsgate’s yearly and, it seemed, unending Saw series (2004-2010), in which sort-of-serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) puts people through life-or-death ‘games’, the cinema lights came up but my friends and I didn’t move from our seats. We were already discussing what we’d just seen. Saw IV‘s central twist was arguably the most remarkable the series had featured yet: while Saw II‘s two plots take place not at the same time, as the intercutting leads us to believe, but several hours apart, Saw IV ups the ante considerably by revealing that it had taken place simultaneously with Saw III – the brilliance of the twist’s execution sees Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), himself no doubt bedazzled by the series’ approach to plot structure, accidentally, and literally, walking in on Saw III‘s ending, seconds after it has taken place.
Because I’d done my homework and watched the previous three films in preparation, I had a better immediate grasp of what we’d witnessed than my friends did, and began to explain it as best I could as we slowly wandered out of the screen, but we’d barely made it to the corridor before my delineation of the plot attracted a small crowd of other moviegoers, and once I’d finished my piece, the floor opened, and an impromptu seminar began. Explaining the entire plot wasn’t as easy as explaining the twist, though, and our ensuing discussion incorporated the previous three films’ plot intricacies and particularly the backstory of Jigsaw, which was crucial to this latest film. I began to realise that this was part of the Saw experience itself: we’ve all had discussions about what a film’s message was, or what we thought of it, but our symposium was divorced from interpretation and analysis. We weren’t trying to work out what the film was communicating. We just wanted to know what the plot was.
The nature of twist-ending films is that they make it a game to figure out what the twist is before it comes (and if it isn’t clear enough from the film itself that you should be guessing, the advertising and press around the biggest such films often clues you in anyway). It’s a fair bet that you’ll know someone who claims to have figured out Keyser Soze’s true identity before The Usual Suspects‘ (1995) final moments, or who knew that Dr. Crowe was dead the whole time. You may even be that outstandingly annoying, and obviously lying, individual yourself. Saw combats this smart-alecry by making it a reasonable challenge just to follow the plot, let alone deduce anything from it.
The plot is made complex by the series’ insistence on such shenanigans as revisiting old characters, jumping around between the present day and flashbacks, setting up plot devices that don’t pay off until three films later, and beginning some instalments by following the previous films’ final scenes from the instant the credits rolled, plunging us directly into high-tempo, high-tension situations that we only half-remember and aren’t given time to adjust to. No popular horror franchise has ever developed and examined its own history and characters like Saw does.
In each edition of Friday the 13th (1980-2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-2010), a new batch of victims is released into the film’s enclosure alongside Jason and Freddy (the only notable recurring characters), and we happily sit back as the killers go about hunting them down, with few alterations to the formula each time. Not so in Saw: Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a victim from the first film, returns in Saw II, again as a victim, until she is revealed to have been Jigsaw’s undercover apprentice throughout. Obi Tate (Tim Burd), a minor Saw II victim who burns to death, is deemed important enough to return in flashback in Saws III and V. Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), one of the first film’s victims, makes a return in the final film, Saw 3D, when he is revealed to have been one of Jigsaw’s most important apprentices since that first film’s conclusion (although the twist is robbed of its potential to shock by his appearance in an opening flashback and later chewing of the scenery). The grotty bathroom of Saw, the memorable setting of that titular first game, is established as a casual icon of the series as new sets of traps lead to it, characters exact vengeance on others by dragging them there and leaving them to die, encountering the decomposing corpses of other victims who have suffered the same fate in previous films, and flashbacks reveal goings-on in there both pre- and post-games.
The term ‘hyperlink cinema’ describes a type of storytelling in cinema that has existed in some form or other for decades, but has become much more common and complex since the spread of digital technology, especially the Internet (indeed, the term itself derives from the World Wide Web and was coined as recently as 2005). In hyperlink cinema, plots go back on themselves and interweave with each other, individual characters are used in multiple storylines, seemingly disparate plots are brought together and flashbacks and flashforwards are used to interrupt and elaborate on scenes.
Using these formal techniques and structures, hyperlink films convey more information than most films, often in more inventive and complex ways than we’re used to, reflecting the digital, always-online, information-overloaded world in which they’re made. The term is usually attached to ‘quality’ cinema: critically-acclaimed awards contenders such as Crash (2004), Magnolia (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2012). It’s clear, though, that the Saw series is a hugely profitable, blockbusting exemplar of hyperlink cinema. (Critically panned, too: the lowest-ranking Saw film on review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com coaxed a positive review from 9% of critics; the best-received earned the praise of a whopping 48%.)
The flashback, indeed, is the sine qua non of the Saw franchise – the films are their own DVD boxset, filled to the brim with behind-the-scenes featurettes that explore the design of traps, explain Jigsaw’s motivation for producing them, and show us footage of him and his apprentices (or, to stretch the analogy a little further, crew) constructing them. Instead of driving forwards at all times, the Saw films regularly employ flashbacks to give the chronological plot a hiatus while going back on and detailing some plot detail or other from the past – the cinematic equivalent of reading a Wikipedia page, clicking on a link and being sidetracked by it for five minutes, before returning to what you were initially reading with an enhanced understanding of it.
But it’s not that simple. The Saw films advance the definition of hyperlink cinema. Usually, only individual films are considered to be hyperlink films, but Saw‘s hyperlink structure isn’t confined to any one film. Indeed, taken individually, the Saw films are relatively simple – they contain only two or three central plot threads and groups of characters, rather than the floods of plotlines that typical hyperlink cinema treats us to. It’s taken as a series that the unique structure of Saw becomes apparent. Each sequel links to previous films – the most complex flashback sequences use footage from several earlier films at once, alongside newly-shot scenes, some of which elaborate on scenes from those films, and some of which provide all-new elements of backstory. It’s one thing to closely interweave four or five central plots and carry a cast of thousands as a film like Magnolia does; it’s quite another to build, revise and maintain a complex universe over seven separate films. The Saw series is very much of its time in this respect: a 21st Century, Information Age version of the classic horror franchise. Where plots used to be simple, chronological and predictable, they are now complex and demand more attention and audience effort than ever.
All the viewer was required to do with the horror juggernauts of the 1980s was anticipate the deaths of the teenagers, which, you could be sure, were coming – the audience was composed of consumers, nothing more. However, in today’s Web-enabled environment of active participation, sharing and interactivity, the Saw films encourage the audience to play along, setting up plot puzzles for us to solve, drip-feeding information to us at just the right times to throw our theories off, and teasing us, always one step ahead. It’s tough to get such storytelling right (and I certainly can’t argue that Saw always does): if your twists aren’t creative enough the audience figures them out early on; too complex, too many or too illogical, and the audience is left randomly guessing, unconvinced that they really grasp what’s going on, which is equally dissatisfying. It’s a fair criticism that Saw tends to lean too far towards complexity – sometimes it feels, probably accurately, as though the writers have came up with a plot on the spot, and then had to rewrite it several times to try and make everything fit, which in turn made it more complex and so on. But the Saw films demand that the audience steps up and puts the work in, and if we come across a plot hole, we can choose to either attempt to explain it away (or await the following year’s instalment which will hopefully fill it in), or put it down to an environmental hazard of developing such a complex network of plots. The former response requires an audience that is active in the writing process (if only to satisfy themselves), while the latter response requires an audience that is mature and intelligent enough to recognise the difficulty of writing such stories and let the plot hole go.
As I said, part of the reason that I was able to explain Saw IV to other people immediately after seeing it was that I’d gone back and watched Saws I to III during the previous day, and with them fresh in my mind, I was in a better position to understand the convolutions of Saw IV than most others. I’d correctly assumed that my understanding and enjoyment of Saw IV would rely on how well I could remember the films it followed, I’d revised (not a concept with which I was hitherto familiar), and was ready for the challenge of solving the film’s plot puzzles. There are few film series that demand such close attention and effort from the audience (and none I can think of that are such massive franchises) – it’s a quality that’s much more common in television, most notably in Lost (2004-2010), which, over the same period as the Saw films were released, made a similarly massive cultural phenomenon of ludic, almost ergodic viewing in long-form narrative television (as opposed to programmes such as Twin Peaks [1990-1991], which didn’t have the colossal impact of Lost, and such anthology series as The Twlight Zone [1959-1964], which, although they employed puzzle-solving and twist endings many decades prior, featured no narrative connections from one episode to the next).
Which is more, Jigsaw dies in Saw III. Horror franchises of the past would have been unconcerned by such trivial problems, simply bringing the villain back to life. Halloween‘s (1978) Michael Myers is effectively invincible, surviving six bullets to the chest and returning from having been burned to death. Jason Voorhees survives death more than once, gains superhuman abilities, and gets involved in supernatural possession. Freddy Krueger kills people in their dreams, so we know from the start that there’s no place for reality in his world. Jigsaw, though, is a terminally ill cancer patient – indeed, the plot of Saw III follows a game in which a doctor has to keep him alive until her husband can complete his own, separate game, and it’s at the end of this film that Jigsaw is killed off.
There is nothing supernatural about the Saw world, despite the unlikely machinations it sometimes takes the writers to reverse-engineer their own plot holes – once Jigsaw’s dead, he’s dead for good, and he can return only in flashback or in a remarkably conceived and shot autopsy. It’s a cinematic secularisation of a sort: where horror series used to invoke any number of magical and mystical plot events to keep a series alive, Saw is a product of today’s increasingly secular and atheist society, and the filmmakers have found that to keep the story going, the gradual revelation of the plans and games that Jigsaw devised and put into motion before his death is a plot mechanic that doesn’t break the world of the film, in which supernatural occurrences and abilities never come up. The extent to which Jigsaw is able to have planned the events following his demise might stretch credulity, but crucially, doesn’t break the rules of the franchise’s magic-free world.
So secular is the series, in fact, that it critically and satirically constructs Jigsaw as a cult leader, who uses his games to inspire his victims to listen to him and consider him powerful and superior to them, and who infects them with his rhetoric to give their lives up for him. In an extended flashback sequence in Saw III which depicts his initiation of Amanda, who becomes his first apprentice, there are influences of religious ritual and the occult: Jigsaw and Amanda stand in a room full of candles; harsh lighting casts dramatic shadows; the smoothly moving camera lends a dramatic weight to the scene; Jigsaw gives a poetic speech about demanding ‘every cell in [Amanda’s] body’; with a hooded top, bald head and thin beard, Jigsaw is made to look like a Westernised, modern-day version of a monk or occult leader. The combination of the stylised, near-mystical set dressing and lighting with modern dress and use of scientific language (as well as the fact that, two and a half films in, we are used to the Saw world being a non-religious, non-supernatural one), results in a parodic scene in which it is clear that Jigsaw is nothing more than a human being with a knack for presentation.
Jigsaw brainwashes his apprentices to follow him beyond his death – the characters that continue his ‘work’ after he dies are not ‘new’ Jigsaws, but people who treat him as a quasi-Jesus upon whom they attempt to model their lives. Not only do the apprentices usually fail to follow Jigsaw’s supposed moral teachings (often happily giving in to murdering those honest detectives who would try to track them down, and constructing traps in which human deaths are inevitable – a corruption of Jigsaw’s philosophy that he despises), the films show them to be mindless followers who are given step-by-step instructions to carry out beatings, kidnappings and torture in the names of a greater good and a deceased leader. This nod and wink towards the idea that religion is a human-created and human-led cult is symptomatic of the series’ status as a modern cultural phenomenon: one that was produced in a Western world in which supernatural beings and forces are worshipped less and less as society grows increasingly secular, and our figures of worship are no longer gods, but humans.
The Saw films are a clear product and reflection of the world in which they were produced. The rise of digital technology and in particular the Internet has given audiences more and more ways to share and discuss content, and Saw responds to that by providing a type of cinema that demands attention and effort on our part to decode. It responds to the growing information overload of modern society by becoming its own Wikipedia page, delivering through constant and cascading flashbacks a torrent of ancillary information, information that the plot often doesn’t require to move forward but gives us a fuller understanding of the world of the series. The films are also resolutely secular, refusing to give in to horror convention by resurrecting important characters through magic or simply unexplained events, and even constructing a slight satire of organised religion and religious belief, something which it’s hard to imagine would have been part of such a massive franchise in previous decades. The modern world is in the DNA of the Saw series – despite their dilapidated terror houses of rusted iron and cracked plaster, they’re touchscreen films, constructed of glass and brushed aluminium. Only the actors are made of wood.