I went to see a franchise horror movie hoping for mind-emptying mayhem. What I got was a shoddy dig at US domestic politicsby Mark Cousins / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Saw VI: an unfortunate attempt at social commentary
It’s Sunday. When I woke this morning it was pouring with rain and I was exhausted. I have been in Iraq, then chained to an edit suite for a month. I felt like going to the cinema but I wanted the “empty” experience of sitting in the dark and watching something without the challenge of themes or character. I scanned the listings. An Education, based on Lynn Barber’s book? Not empty enough. A season of African films? I’ve done too much discovery and travel recently. And then I spotted it: Saw VI. I’ve seen none of the previous five films in this Hollywood horror franchise but, despite its reputation as “torture porn,” I reckoned it was bound to have long run out of ideas. As ideas were what I was avoiding, this was the film for me.
There were just three of us in the 11am screening, all blokes, all wearing hoodies. In the first scene, two people are bolted into a machine that will kill the one that cuts off the least of their own flesh. Pure hokum. Except both are pre-crash sub-prime mortgage vendors. Hold on a minute, that’s more zeitgeisty and interesting than I wanted. The scene ends. They’re suitably dismembered. But then the main character enters the story and—please, no—he’s a health insurance meanie who refuses to pay out to patients, citing clauses in the fine print. The über-baddie of the series—the serial killer John/Jigsaw—was a customer of his and got cancer, but the meanie again wouldn’t pay for treatment. John says: “In Asia they pay the doctor when they are well, but not when they’re sick. They pay for what they want, not what they get.” I knew what I wanted: my money back. Social commentary in the Saw movies? The Roger Corman B-movies of the 1950s and 1960s smuggled politics into their plots as do Egyptian and Indian musicals, but the biggest horror-movie cash cow of the Bush era?
As I watched, fully intending not to think, I had five thoughts about cinema today. First, if I imagined I’d bought a ticket for a ride in the mainstream, I was wrong. Horror fiction has never been aerodynamic enough for the mainstream’s uneddied currents, its ideological comforts, its libidinal ease. Rom-coms are now where the greatest unthinking happens.
My second thought was about Lionsgate, the company that produces the Saws. Originally Canadian, it made it big with American Psycho (2000) and then Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and after that Moore’s Sicko (2007). The latter, like Saw VI, is about US healthcare. Hmm. Lionsgate plays with the Hollywood big boys—it releases at least ten films a year. The combined income streams of the Saw films amount to about $1bn worldwide; since the total production spend is just $55m, these films are the most lucrative horror-movie franchise ever. Yet there are clearly ideas—hints of Canadian disapproval of America, perhaps?—running through Lionsgate’s productions.
Third, like some other film series, the need for Saw VI to induct those new to the franchise, and explain the significance of story points, has resulted in the most fragmented structure of flashbacks that I’ve seen in a film in some years. Saw VI cannibalises Saw I-V and regurgitates them in a way that is awkward and manic. The mania is augmented by average shot lengths of about four seconds. Commercial cinema cutting rates in the digital age are the fastest in film history.
My fourth thought was about how, once again, American cinema links up with Asian cinema. The writer-director of the first Saw film was a Malaysian-Australian, James Wan. The extreme violence of Saw I was very Asian as was the fact that John/Jigsaw was motivated by vengeance. Whereas revenge is marginal to, say, African cinema, it is the wellspring of Hong Kong cinema, for example. US directors such as Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino majored on it too; the success of the Saw series shows how well it continues to play in America.
Finally, why is this tornado of fury about American healthcare playing in my nearest multiplex? Watching it was like coming across my neighbours having a screaming fight in the street: it was embarrassing and irrelevant to me. I’m pleased that Saw VI is so enraged—though I wish it were better made—and I’m interested in the way that foreign countries organise their healthcare. But Saw VI says nothing much about healthcare, it just fumes over it. If films of so little relevance to my culture were not fed into international distribution channels that pump product into local cinemas all over the world, is there any way that Saw VI would find its way to my city? Surely not.
Saw VI was a kind of “eyeball rape,” to use a new internet term. It’s left me slightly shaken, and intrigued.