Six months before the release of Saw in 2004, the Drudge Report broke the Abu Ghraib story. James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s extreme horror debut was made for little money, with a perilous production similar to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, also released by Lionsgate the year before. Saw premiered at Sundance in early-2004, before anything about American military personnel torturing prisoners in Iraq had surfaced. Abu Ghraib, Pat Tillman, execution videos, and 1000 American soldiers dead paved the way for Saw’s hugely successful fall release; it became the defining horror franchise of the 2000s, with a new installment every year through 2010.
I didn’t understand the appeal at the time, but when I was growing up and going to the movies, I had no interest in horror. Typical complaint: why would I want to see people get methodically chopped up? The only major franchise I ever caught up on as a 10-year-old was Friday the 13th, and I was disappointed that none of them delivered the same gloriously bloody thrills as Kill Bill. These were lugubrious, often poorly-constructed films that I’d never be able to see in a theater before I turned 17—my parents liked horror, either.
Fine by me: the brutality and sheer horror of Saw’s premise made me avoid the series for 20 years. Now that the first six are streaming for free on Amazon Prime, I caught up. The first Saw is practically a two-hander: Cary Elwes and Whannell locked in a dirty bathroom and chained to the walls by their ankles. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) tells them via tape that by their side are bone saws, and to escape, they must cut one of their feet off. There’s some jumping around in time and place, including Shawnee Smith as an earlier Jigsaw victim, and Danny Glover as the main detective investigating these crimes. But Saw is clearly the work of aspiring independent filmmakers doing what they can with every penny they can find. It’s much more of a psychological horror movie than the ultra-gory “torture porn” that the series would become.
The dearth of films directly about either 9/11 or the subsequent invasion of the Middle East confused me at the time—WWII films were made in concert with the military during the war, the “Lost Vietnam Vet” became a trope that drove films high (Coming Home) and low (Rolling Thunder). Even the first Gulf War was made into a motion picture, ironically just after 9/11: Black Hawk Down. But what films were directly about “our trying times”? United 93, World Trade Center, The Hurt Locker, Reign Over Me. The September 11, 2001 attacks can’t be dramatized because the actual news footage of that day is more cinematic and “spectacular” than any fiction film could ever match—unlike Pearl Harbor, My Lai, Stalingrad, and even the Holocaust, the defining event of our century so far was captured in living color with no special effects needed.
Three years on, with 1000 more Americans dead, an incompetent and deceitful administration headed for re-election, and no end in sight for either the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars, the world embraced Saw, a far less violent film than that year’s The Passion of the Christ, and much more goofy and somewhat silly (maybe that’s just time: the aesthetics of the series can be boiled down to “Hot Topic: The Movie.” It actually takes the edge off). The frenetic cutting and varying film speeds is centered by the solid camerawork of David A. Armstrong, who shot the first six Saw films. Controlled chaos? Not as much as a style very much of its time, and therefore safe: the death metal score and the plunging dolly shots on screaming victims caught in baroque torture traps mitigate an otherwise thoroughly miserable experience. Saw is not Schoolgirls in Chains, or even The Last House on the Left—putting aside the “guilt” of Jigsaw’s victims (adultery, drug use, drunk driving, and in 2009’s Saw VI, predatory lending and health insurance providers denying coverage), there’s nothing fun or funny about watching them try to figure out how to survive, unlike Scream, or even A Nightmare on Elm Street; this is popular cinema’s subconscious self-care, when people like my friend Leigh Ann flocked to theaters every year to see the new torture movie. Now, I know why: they were easier to deal with than similar snuff films covered on the news every night.
What about Eli Roth’s Hostel series? There were only three, and he only wrote and directed the first two; the first Hostel is somewhat similar to Saw in that it’s surprisingly tame, at least for the first half hour (Roth was inspired by Takashi Miike’s landmark 1999 film Audition, which plays like a romantic comedy before veering into one of the most bracing and intense sequences in modern cinema). But even the kills in the torture hostel—where billionaire businessmen and their cronies pay five figures to personally torture and murder young backpackers—are nothing compared to the carnage we saw on television and in major newspapers throughout the decade.
Beheading videos from Al Qaeda to ISIS were seen by children; today, snuff videos aren’t hard to find on Twitter. Roth’s torture visions draw from every era of horror cinema, reaching their apotheosis in two sequences in Hostel Part II: the ritual skinning of Heather Matarazzo by a wordless European woman embodying Elizabeth Bathory, cutting her up with a scythe as she’s suspended above, bathing in her blood; and the finale, where the headstrong businessman loses his shit when he actually starts torturing his victim, and his weasel colleague suddenly goes psycho. But Lauren German bests him in the end, cutting his dick and balls off with garden shears. She’s “bought” her way out of the torture hostel. “Let him bleed out.”
Roth’s films have more explicit commentary about America at the time, with the victims considered by others and conscious themselves of being “ugly Americans.” But the co-terminus of Saw’s Sundance debut in January 2004 and the revelation of Abu Ghraib two months later is too spooky to ignore: torture defines this American century.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith