R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Defending Torture Porn

“It’s hard living up to Moses.”

I hate, hate, hate, hate that this had to happen when I was writing this particular column. I didn’t really plan on writing this column until the last minute, but I was about half way done when I read the news about Charlton Heston. I’ve never cared for Heston’s politics and because of Michael Moore, I think Heston’s reputation has been a little bit tainted in the last few years, but nothing is ever going to erase the joy I’ve had watching Charlton Heston’s movies through the years.

Ben-Hur is still the best Roman epic ever made and The Ten Commandments is a movie that should be watched by all every year. While some epics of that time period feel dated, I never get that feeling from these movies. I can’t really say the same about Chuck’s Sci-Fi movies outside of Planet of the Apes, but each of them still have their charm. I recently watched The Omega Man again, and to be honest, I think in 20 years it’s going to hold up better than I am Legend.

Despite my not agreeing with a lot of his stances Heston always excited me as an actor; portraying macho in a way that is very rarely seen these days. It’s weird seeing one of my favorite actors pass like this, but hopefully he’ll be remembered for the legend he was and not necessarily as he was sometimes portrayed.

Heston once said “If you need a ceiling painted, a chariot race run, a city besieged, or the Red Sea parted, you think of me.” I will Chuck. I will.

Now for our regularly scheduled and totally inappropriate column…

A while back the Popcorn Junkies staff had a huge debate about the state of Horror films and how we all stood on the sub-genre affectionately known as “Torture Porn”. The debate ranged from apathy towards the films, a little appreciation and then downright loathing, which I think is typical for these types of movies. I’ve kind of stayed out of the argument to some degree, though I know I’ve dogged Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween as being part of this sub-genre, but that’s only because I feel like he took the greatest Slasher film of all time and then took all the fun and suspense out of it.

At any rate, the biggest reason that I’d stayed out of the argument is because up till this week, I felt I hadn’t actually watched enough of the movies to really form my own opinion. Well, at the insistence of a friend of mine, I watched parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Saw movies. To some degree this was against my will, but as I started watching them, a lot of my trepidations seemed to fall to the wayside. At the end of the third film, I felt like I not only understood the appeal of these movies, but even gained a little respect for them.

Now of course, the Saw flicks aren’t the only films associated with these types of movies. To some degree, the more reviled series may actually be Eli Roth’s Hostel movies, especially the second movie in the series. I’ve read several articles denouncing these films, most notably a well written piece by Don Kaye of MSN.com, and at least to some degree, some of the arguments have weight.

Yet here I am, about to defend each of these movies. Well, without further ado…

Saw, Saw II, and Saw III Starring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Bahar Soomekh, and Angus Macfadyen. Saw Directed by James Wan. Saw II and Saw III Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.

Now, if you’re looking for some deep dissection of these movies, I don’t believe you’re going to find it here. Basically, I think the Saw films are decently made Horror films that rely on a heavy amount of gore to tell their stories. What I really kind of admire about the films is how good the movies manage to look on budgets that aren’t exactly blockbuster sized. The first film was made on a production budget of $1.2 million, but manages to populate its cast top to bottom with actors that are recognizable from both movies and TV. The movie doesn’t have the best Horror script ever written, but it is aimed at a little smarter audience than most Horror films are. Also, despite some moments of MTV-style editing, the flick is effectively shot and constructed.

The premise for this first film is quite simple as well. Two people, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a photographer named Adam (Leigh Whannell), wake up in a dungeon resembling a large bathroom. They are victims of a notorious serial killer name Jigsaw, a killer noted for not actually killing any of his victims. Instead, his victims are put in a trap and must test their wits and will to survive in order to get out. Most of the time, they do not succeed.

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Gordon and Adam slowly start to realize that they have ties to each other as they try to discover a way out and the tension in the movie builds to a fairly satisfying climax. The movie does have problems maintaining a little of its credibility towards the end because of a character going totally crazy, but overall the movie ends quite well for this type of movie, and manages to set up a sequel without completely insulting you.

Again, there are several things that I actually really like about this movie. First up, despite the movie’s reputation, it’s really not that gory. Most episodes of CSI will actually have more gore than this first movie contains. Secondly, as a character, Jigsaw is kind of unique. Never actually killing a person himself, he feels he is actually a righteous person who is trying to do these people a favor by teaching the error of their ways. Sure, there are shades of Hannibal Lector or Kevin Spacey’s John Doe from Seven in the character, but still there’s something unique about him.

In the series second installment, the scenario is expanded a bit. Instead of just two people, we’re given several people that are stuck in a house and must try to work together in order to escape. Thing is, all of the people dislike each other so much that they do as much damage to each other as Jigsaw ends up doing to them. Much more interesting is a subplot involving Detective Eric Matthews, who actually captures Jigsaw early on in the film and must figure out where the victims are held.

Again, for all the hullabaloo about the violence in this series, there were really only two instances in the film that really made me squirm (the syringe pit and the arm trap), the rest of it seemed kind of tame. What I did like was how this film was able to expand the scope from the first film while still not having a gigantic budget ($4 million). On one level the movie is an interesting police procedural with a look at interrogation tactics. Another aspect of the film follows a type of haunted house approach, with all the strangers meeting up in a strange place to find a way out before they die. Lastly, the movie still has elements of the slasher genre toward films end, with an unstoppable killer knocking out each of the cast one at a time.

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Saw II does feel a little more conventional because of all these different levels and does have more problems than its predecessors. Just because you add more characters doesn’t mean you like more of them, as most of them are really just fodder for Jigsaw’s games. If for a moment all of them would just start working together it seems all of them would live, but instead they act like people in a Horror movie and end up dead. Still, on a visceral level the movie still remains entertaining for me, and the plot and gimmicks that the movie throws at you are interesting enough so that I can’t help but stay intrigued.

To some degree, Saw III is a film that seems to combine the conventions of the first two films. Like the first film, we have only two victims that are captured by the villain, one is even a doctor, but like the second film, the scope of the movie is much larger than the first entry. By keeping its characters few, Saw III manages to make the psychological connection to these characters a much more viable one than with the previous film. Not that Saw III is a deep character study or anything, but I care about these two more than anyone in the second film at all.

This is also largely due to the work done by the lead in the film. Angus Macfadyen is one of my favorite character actors, stretching back to his work in Braveheart and Titus, and something makes me feel good about seeing him here. Yes, I would prefer to see him playing Orson Welles or something else kind of prestigious, but to some degree I feel like he brings a level of legitimacy to Saw III that it hadn’t had since Danny Glover was part of the cast, and even then Glover wasn’t the main character.

Macfadyen’s Jeff in this film is a man hell-bent on revenge for the accidental death of his son, and for this sin, Jigsaw has chosen him to come face to face with his need for vengeance. Again and again Jeff must face the people who were partially responsible for his son’s death, leading up to the man who was actually behind the wheel of the car that hit his child. All of these scenes are gut-wrenching, both visually and in Macfadyen’s performance, and I think the actor does just fine.

Now, whatever I’d said before about the gore factor being overblown totally has no merit in this third movie. This is perhaps the grossest American film ever made, though I’m sure I’ll get emails with examples to the contrary. I will say that I found the gore to be rather creative, despite how sick it was, but the film makers do get points for that. Drowning people in ground up pigs and the “ice shower” sequence seemed to both be creative ways of dispatching characters, and I’m glad to say that I probably could never have thought of those methods myself.

In the end though, I still think my favorite part of this film is Jigsaw himself. He’s an oddly likable villain, and Tobin Bell imbues him with a soft spoken modesty, despite the character’s sinister/noble grand intentions. I can’t say how well he stacks up with the big screen villains of the past, but I think to some degree the character has earned his niche. If these Saw movies keep making money, who knows how far it can go.

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The Saw franchise is one with a very grindhouse mentality to it. These are quick, cheap, sleazy pictures that make big bucks, but I think they actually end up a little underrated in the writing department. Yes, the pictures are formulaic and gimmicky but they still manage to entertain the series’ fans and really, isn’t that the whole point. Sure, these things aren’t art like a Takashi Miike film, but to completely write them off as trash cinema I think is a mistake.

Alright, so I didn’t get to Hostel this week, but plan on the blood baths to come next week.

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