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10.23.09

Saw, Scrutinized

Saw VI offers a hilarious anti-Wall Street/pro-healthcare message—along with all the torture! Plus, Choire Sicha’s primer on the first five movies.

One Saw movie has arrived at the theaters every October since 2004—an early Thanksgiving present. Around the time Saw VII comes out next year, the franchise should have earned a billion dollars worldwide. Isn't that an awesome testament to capitalism, that two kids from Australia can make a 9-minute short, bring it to the golden shores of America, and (at least in part) own a billion-dollar franchise in under a decade?

So last night, a fairly paltry number of twentysomethings staggered to Manhattan's Union Square movie theaters for the very first showing of Saw VI. (Yes, it is the Roman numerals that give the slashy franchise the class.) Only about 70% were men; apparently for some young couples it is the romantic thing to do to see 12:01 a.m. weeknight horror-flick premieres.

Everyone seemed a little bleary and their expectations were, reasonably, not high. The franchise—it all started with a movie about an ethics-obsessed (if psychotic) cancer patient who plays murder-death-kill games with not-quite-good people, so as to teach them a lesson—began to decline as swiftly as it peaked. The last two movies, in fact, were a bizarre muddle of identical-looking police officers with flashlights exploring creepy bunkers, punctuated by bone-snapping gore and confusing flashbacks. You've never been so happy in your life to see someone die!

Watch the trailer for Saw VI

Video screenshot

And yet, last night, Saw VI was greeted by howls of laughter and applause—because something amazing and unexpected has happened. The Saw movies have blown past their sorta-moral beginnings and later greater-pointlessness and reframed themselves as populist anti-corporate liberation propaganda.

Not only does the film open with the torture of evil and misguided mortgage executives, nearly the entire rest of the film is a slowly-exacted revenge against the evil of health insurance companies.

There is a long diatribe about human dignity and insurance policies and the role of the state and the individual.

There is also literally a conversation about contemporary practices in actuarial mathematics.

Which, you know: suck it, Michael Moore! In your face!

Now, don't let this surprising choice fool you into thinking this was filmmaking at its finest. Because the body count is so high, essentially the only long-term characters remaining (our cancer-ridden villain-hero died ages ago) are this one creepy cop (played by some guy who is the Australia-born poor man's Armand Assante) and the villain's ex-wife (played by a wonderful woman with a, how to say, absurdly inflexible visage—and an engagement ring from one of the producers, according to the Internet).

Oh but bless them all. What a delight. Wonkery famously goes wrong in movie franchises—as when Star Wars took a turn for endless space-congressional politics. But going wonk in a horror movie? Ludicrous, hilarious, wonderful.

So that you may go forth and enjoy this bit of wonder, if you quite reasonably have passed on the often-negligible pleasures of Saw to date, here is a comprehensive explanation. I can tell you all about it because I sat down yesterday and watched them all in order. Unlike lesser souls, I didn't throw up. I even ate a big plate of potato pancakes whilst watching.

Saw I
Also known as: The One with Actual Famous People
Notable quotable: "Would you murder a mother and a child to save yourself?"
Lessons to be learned: Danny Glover is really the man who'll try anything twice.

This is pretty much the No Exit of horror movies, because you basically are locked in a grody room with a whiny preppy doctor (Cary Elwes, looking rather fleshy) and an annoying hipster and neither of them will shut up. Don't feel bad for the annoying hipster! He's a producer of Saws I through MMCVI. Only one of them gets out of the room though. This scary, but sort of alluring killer named Jigsaw has put them there. The thing that's important to know about Jigsaw is that he tells you the rules, and if you don't listen, then you die. If you just do what he says, everything works out fine and you don't die! Remember this, it comes in handy in life. (No?)

Wonkery famously goes wrong in movie franchises—as when Star Wars took a turn for endless space-congressional politics. But going wonk in a horror movie? Ludicrous, hilarious, wonderful.

Saw II
Also known as: The One With the Guy Who Was Famous Until His Brother Sucked All the Fame Out of Him.
Notable quotable: "We have a human race that doesn't have the edge or the will to survive."
Lessons to be learned: When someone stabs you with a hypodermic, just shoot them. Immediately!

Donnie Wahlberg's son and some other people get kidnapped, and they pretty much all turn against each other. This is a pretty good movie actually, because it's not just people stupidly wandering through warehouses with their guns out. Also good for those who enjoy the prisoner's dilemma. In this one, it turns out one of the kidnapped people is Jigsaw's apprentice. And then Donnie Wahlberg refuses to follow Jigsaw's instructions at every step and so he ends up in captivity himself. Idiot!

Saw III
Also known as: The One that is Basically the Aliens 3 of the Franchise
Notable quotable: "The body is a miraculous creation."
Lessons to be learned: You know what's scary? Horror.

This one is like super-confusing but basically Jigsaw kidnaps this nice Iranian doctor lady (Bahar Soomekh, who was on 24 that one time) and makes her perform brain surgery on him. Yes, he really does have the cancer! Saw III also has a scene where a guy nearly gets drowned in rotting pig guts which nearly made this daring soul who watched the first four movies back-to-back dry-heave. I guess if this movie is about anything, it's about Jigsaw's lady apprentice, who looks like Molly Shannon but even scarier! She ends up dead because she just can't give the victims a chance to live, violating the Jigsaw standards policy. This movie has some problems. Are these moral dilemmas given to the trapped actually moral dilemmas? Not really. They're the same strawman trash used in the arguments about U.S. national torture policy. Ha, go figure.

Saw IV
Also known as: The One Where You Think About Your Grocery List
Notable quotable: "Do you know anything about the Chinese zodiac?"
Lessons to be learned: Why is it so stunningly easy to kidnap people? That's what I don't get. At this point in the Saw films, a viewer has seen about 950 people get kidnapped really easily. You may even want to try this yourself!

This one is about a nice cop who likes to help people too much. So he is forced to keep encountering people who need either help escaping from or help getting into Jigsaw's traps and a lot of people die. We find out from Jigsaw's creepy ex-wife that Jigsaw was not only mad about the brain cancer, he was mad because someone totally hit her with a door when she was pregnant and miscarried. One of the people who dies is a hooker who gets her pony tail nearly pulled off. Poor Donnie Wahlberg (right? He's still sort of here!) spends the entire movie in a noose. Finally he gets to die. Also pretty much everyone dies, including the nice cop. In the end you find out that this movie takes place at the same time as Saw III! Which is actually a neat trick except it is endlessly confusing. This movie is total garbage, even while being a Buddhist teaching vehicle about attachment. Problem is, basically anyone could be the Jigsaw replacement character/copycat killer and guess what, it turns out someone is. Like America, these movies get dumber every year. But, you know: basically Jigsaw is dead at the end. And it bears saying that Tobin Bell, who plays Jigsaw, is really terrific and wonderful. Seriously. Also? He works full-frontal in this one! (Even though he is dead.)

Saw V
Also known as: The One That is Embarrassing Even on the Official Chart of Movies Clearly Shot in Anonymous Canadian Cities
Notable quotable: "Get a clue, you fucking bitch, it's survival of the fittest!"
Lessons to be learned: You know what was a good animated TV show? Scooby Do. Oh, I'm sorry, was there a movie playing?

In Saw V, two men—basically the only ones who survived Saw IV—who look very similar (a problem from the previous movie) are fortunately distinguished throughout most of the movie by one man having a bandage from giving himself an emergency tracheotomy. Both of them are police officers but, oh noes, one of them is Jigsaw's apprentice who, in Jigsaw's deathly absence, has been killing people for some time, because he is mad because someone once killed his sister. In the end, the good one with the neck bandage is not only squished to death but also is suspected to be the killer while the killing dude is all smiles. Meanwhile there is a subplot (of sorts) about five people who all had a role in a crooked real estate deal. They get their comeuppance because they refuse to work together and are selfish people who cannot follow directions. But seriously, don't you want to see a movie where someone yells "Get a clue, you fucking bitch, it's survival of the fittest!"? Of course you do.

There. Now you have to know all that too, and you are ready to see Saw VI: The Sawening. Saw VI: Electric Sawaloo. Saw VI: Children of the Saw.

Whatever! I can promise you this unlikely thing about Saw VI: you'll never hear the words "preexisting condition" again without smiling.

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Choire Sicha is co-proprietor of The Awl and is at work on a nonfiction book for HarperStudio.