When I was a kid, horror movies thrived off spectacularly fake blood and gore, latex masks, and rubber costumes for the monsters. These days, however, the more realistically rendered the violence/creature, the better the movie sells. And I think that was in part due to the success of 2004’s Saw.
Now on its sixth installment, the Saw franchise pretty much paved the way for what most now consider the staples of mainstream horror. Gone are the cheesy effects and over-the-top arterial spray; in their place stand moral ambiguity, gritty and realistic visuals, and a villain who may or may not be a “bad guy.”
Since the franchise has lasted for so long, there are many who claim it’s time to let it go and stop making Saw movies, that any series that runs six installments or more has run its course. I’m not so sure I agree.
Admittedly, the first half of the Saw series was much stronger than the second, but I have a feeling—based entirely on how other series I love fared after hitting the sixth marker—that Saw VI just might surprise us.
After all, it wasn’t until Friday the 13th: Part 6 that the world was given undead, zombie Jason Voorhees. Final Fantasy VI just might be some of the finest storytelling ever told in a videogame, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince killed Albus Dumbledore and settled in to be the most interesting, darkest book in the series (even if the film was more of a romantic comedy). Even the 6th and final Star Wars movie was better than the previous two installments, though I have a hard time actually calling it good.
If we look at the Saw series from its inception, there are lots of positive aspects (even in the 4th and 5th movies) that the sixth installment can build on to bring the franchise back to its initial quality.
- Saw was new. It was different. It was smart. Saw brought a level of moral ambiguity to mainstream horror and placed the viewers directly and viscerally in with the Everyman protagonist. And in the end, the film pulled the rug right out from under us by killing the characters in which we were emotionally invested and letting the bad guy win. That was enough for me. I did not care about the gore or the traps; I loved that Saw let the bad guy win. And not just in a skin-of-his-teeth win, either. He outplayed everyone, and we walked out satisfied.
- Saw II took the traps and gore people loved and stopped them being about introduction and worldbuilding and made them integral to the narrative and success of the characters. By trapping all of the ensemble protagonists in a house filled with the booby traps, they now served more of a purpose than they did during the flashbacks in the original. On top of that, it had Donnie Wahlberg (who doesn’t love The New Kids on the Block?) and a pit of hypodermic needles—the first trap to ever make me truly cringe.
- Saw III put a new spin on the moral ambiguity of the series. Instead of watching an ensemble traipse through a house avoiding traps entirely motivated by a sense of self-preservation, audiences get to see a supposedly sympathetic character railed through a labyrinth of death traps where he is responsible for other people’s fates rather than his own. While he knows there will be some personal consequences to his actions, the immediate effects impact others, framing him in a way so that the audience can be swayed as to whether or not he is worth emotionally investing in.
- Saw IV introduced audiences to the framed narrative that would permeate the remainder of the franchise. It was our first glimpse that the world Jigsaw and his traps inhabited was truly complex. Parallel narrative threads took the emphasis that had been placed on gimmicks like photorealistic gore and traps and made the audience realize there really was a story being told and that we should care what it was. While some criticism came from viewers who claimed the actual story was not far advanced by the film, the depth added to the narrative made further sequels possible.
- Saw V was probably the weakest of the franchise. It tried to take the trap mechanics introduced in Saws II-IV (moral ambiguity, ensemble teamwork, and self-preservation) and meld them together in a way that was more or less uncaptivating. On top of that, the narrative and effects felt like more of a rehash than a new installment thanks to the overly heavy use of flashback sequences. It was not a bad movie, but it was significantly weaker than any of the previous Saw films, offering little innovation in a series that had previously thrived on it.
And so with Saw VI being released this week, a lot can go wrong. Or right. I do what I can to avoid pre-release numbers, reviews, and spoilers, so I’m walking in with a clean slate. I don’t want to be influenced by anything other than what I bring with me based on the rest of the franchise. And honestly, that means that Saw VI could easily fall in with the fantastic first half of the series or the lackluster second half.