"I've Never Murdered Anyone in My Life. the Decisions Are Up to Them.": Ethical Guidance and Cultural Pessimism in the Saw Series

By Walliss, John; Aston, James | Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

"I've Never Murdered Anyone in My Life. the Decisions Are Up to Them.": Ethical Guidance and Cultural Pessimism in the Saw Series


Walliss, John, Aston, James, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture


Introduction

The Saw franchise of films is the largest-grossing horror franchise of all time. Over the course of seven films (2003-2010), the series has grossed, as of July 2010, $730 million at the box office and more than $30 million on DVD, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records (Kit 2008). It has also spawned two video games (Saw, 2009; Saw II: Flesh and Blood, 2010), an amusement ride (Saw: The Ride at Thorpe Park Theme Park, Lincolnshire, UK), several mazes, and a comic book (Saw: Rebirth, 2005). Despite its commercial success, however, the series is often dismissed, along with films such as Hostel (2005) and Captivity (2007), as "torture porn"; a sub-genre of films characterized, it is claimed, by excessive violence for the sake of titillating audiences and a sense of amorality, if not extreme nihilism (Lockwood 2009). For David Edelstein (2006), the New York Times writer who invented the term, the genre--in which he also, perhaps controversially, includes The Passion of the Christ (2004)--is "so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether." Such a partisan position over the negative qualities of the franchise has been reinforced by a majority of critics including David Hiltbrand (2005) of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who described Saw II (2005) as "vilely violent ... the Phnom Penh of splatter movies," and Mike Hale (2010) of the New York Times, who bluntly dismissed the franchise as "meretricious garbage, with a claim to moral complexity that serves as a fig leaf while we enjoy the sight of limbs being hacked off and heads exploding." LA Weekly's Nick Pinkerton (2009) intimated that the films should not even be allowed to exist by denouncing Saw VI (2009) as "gray, grisly, solemn, stupid ... the most dismal thing I've ever laid eyes on, the argument against film preservation." But it was, Michael Phillips, writing in the Chicago Tribune, perhaps best exemplifies the majority position of critics when, talking about Saw II, he opined:

[It is] not a film; it's an excuse to show victims bleeding at the mouth, or getting shot in the eye, or plucking out their own eyeballs ... No point in labelling this a horror film. This is a sadism film, and while all good and great horror films know what sadism tastes like, a sadism film settles for nothing of lasting, imaginative horror (Phillips 2007).

Such views were also echoed by film scholars, the most prominent being Christopher Sharrett and Douglas Kellner. Sharrett (2009, 32) complained that the series was characterized by both a "total exclusion of context ... intellectual bankruptcy and retrograde politics," while Kellner (2010, 9) saw the unprecedented and continuing success of the franchise as exhibiting a worrying trend in moviegoers that engendered a "pathological society riven with unmastered aggression and violence." Although both responses clearly perceive the Saw franchise as artistically lacking, they concede that the films nonetheless provide a social commentary on the United States in the twenty-first century. For Sharrett (2009, 32), the series critiques "capitalist society from a decidedly conservative position"; positing the figure of a vigilante--"a perfect emblem of the recent era's rightist ideology"--as the means to religitimate the "fallen world" of contemporary capitalist society. Kellner equally finds social worth in the transgressive use of violence and torture in the Saw films, arguing that the series

puts on display the demented illusions, grotesque hypocrisy, obscene violence, and utter lunacy of the Bush-Cheney era, which finds its true face in the sick and twisted killer-ex-machina Jigsaw ... the lunatic killer Jigsaw can therefore be read as a metaphor for Dick Cheney and his subordinates, a group of fanatical, warped, and vicious advocates of torture and murder, believing that their torturing and murdering is in the cause of good because it is punishing evil (Kellner 2010, 7, 8). …

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