Culture Trips

Saw returns: what were the true horrors behind 00s torture porn? | Film

Saw fans should know better than to assume that anyone is really dead, even if they appear to be a bloody corpse with a mashed-in head. So it goes with the Saw franchise itself. After 2010’s shark-jumping seventh instalment Saw 3D – “the final chapter” – came 2017’s even-worse Jigsaw. Now the franchise has found an unlikely saviour in the form of Chris Rock, whose eagerness to join in with the gore games has resulted in Spiral: From the Book of Saw, co-starring Samuel L Jackson.

You may groan but the movie will probably push the franchise over the billion-dollar mark. And to think it all started with two Australian film students and a beautiful dream of people being forced to saw off their own feet.

How James Wan and Leigh Whannell got the first Saw made is the stuff of legend. They thought of a cheap, one-room concept, processed the labyrinthine tricksiness of hits such as Seven and The Usual Suspects, and injected some gruesome body horror – thus spawning the notorious subgenre known as “torture porn”. With its devotion to inflicting suffering in ever more ingenious and painful ways, horror had served up hellishly gruesome sadism before but never to such mainstream enthusiasm.

We are still grasping for explanations. Is it a coincidence that the subgenre’s rise mirrored the real-life mainstreaming of torture in the “war on terror”? Like the US forces at Abu Ghraib, Saw’s Jigsaw had a flimsy moral justification for his infernal machines. Torture porn also paralleled the mainstreaming of sexual practices previously considered transgressive and “extreme”, such as BDSM. Was that relevant? The “porn” element of the equation is often overlooked, but the Saw movies were always about surveillance and voyeurism, Jigsaw’s and ours. Or could it simply be that they did what horror has always done: evoke a reaction that takes viewers to a place beyond their ordinary experience?

Wan and Whannell have long since severed their links to both the Saw franchise and torture porn (a label they always disavowed). They have built new empires, telling more conventional horror stories but with better actors, such as the incredibly successful Insidious and Conjuring/Annabelle/Nun franchises (next instalment, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, is also out later this month). Wan has also directed Fast & Furious 7 and Aquaman. Whannell steered last year’s Elisabeth Moss-starring The Invisible Man in a promising new direction, light years away from torture porn. Next, he is directing Ryan Gosling as the Wolfman. Meanwhile, let’s see if Chris Rock and co can inject new blood into the flatlining Saw series, or whether we’re still in the mood for blood at all.

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