Benjamin Poole’s SAW, Reviewed by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Posted by Xavier Aldana Reyes on September 11, 2012 in Uncategorized tagged with

Although James Rose’s timely Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema Since 1970 appeared in 2009, Auteur Publishing does not generally specialise in horror publications. This is why the Devil’s Advocates series is such an exciting event: milestones in the genre are the subject of individual books that explore exhaustively their different themes and concerns, and even the controversies surrounding them. With volumes on Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) and Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) now readily available, the prospect of a specialised issue on Saw (James Wan, 2004) was highly anticipated and, to a certain extent, an inevitable occurrence. After the success of its 3D instalment in 2011, Saw has become the most profitable horror franchise ever made, managing to produce six generally consistent sequels in the space of six consecutive years. Benjamin Poole’s book is partly an unashamedly labour of love from a fan of the genre, but its multifaceted interest in all the various areas pertinent to the study of the film proves useful and insightful.

Poole very interestingly situates this film within the Gothic literary tradition and, more pertinently, compares it with the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Establishing a direct link between the claustrophobic and psychological horror of Poe’s tales and the settings and murder set pieces of Saw, Poole contextualises more overt references like the pit and pendulum scene at the beginning of Saw V (David Hackl, 2008). This is an important strategic move that allows us to see the manipulative life or death scenarios of the franchise alongside more canonical works that, despite their precise historical contexts, seem to share a similar fascination with a bleak and nihilistic depiction of the world. Poole does not stop here and establishes another link between the series and the dramatic tradition, and, if the information on the grand guignol is limited and romanticised in places, his discussion opens the series up to a wider pool of references that goes beyond recent horror cinema. After this brief approach to the sources and guiding ethos of the series, Poole turns to more specialised case studies of areas of the film that demand critical attention.

One of the most accomplished sections in the book tackles an issue that has been virtually ignored by critics and reviewers: the film’s gender dynamics. Poole shows how women, in the figure of Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and her desexualised portrayal, challenge potential critiques of misogyny, something torture porn has often been undeservedly accused of. In fact, his argument is that gender is, to a certain extent, irrelevant to the general plot of Saw. If I am not totally convinced that the enforced bleeding of males in the film may be acting as a form of ‘symbolic menstruation’ (60), or that Gordon’s ‘sawing of his limb is effectively a castration’ (60), Poole exposes the nuances of the representation of the men in Saw and how their various punishments may be read as contesting traditional archetypes of masculinity. This is backed up by a very thorough reading of the camera techniques and colour palates used to create specific empathy or alignment with certain characters at specific (and crucial) moments in the plot. Equally persuasive, and needed, is Poole’s positing of music and the narrative organisation of the film as the franchise’s signature elements. His discussion in this section centres on the very deliberate aesthetic choices (the claustrophobic and subdued mise-en-scènes, the dark, washed-out tones) made by the production designer, Julie Berghoff, and the composition of the iconographic title theme ‘Hello, Zepp’. This, together with the superbly innovative use of the camera to convey the inner turmoil and anxieties of the characters, makes for a solid defence of the film as a landmark of contemporary cinema. Most importantly, Poole’s detailed analysis of the treatment of certain events in the narrative, like the opening scene, help understand how this low-budget film may have transcended its modest origins through its execution. What is interesting about this critical stance is that it encourages an understanding of its success that goes beyond the ‘what would you do if…?’ premise of the traps. In other words, a careful look at the actual structure and technique behind Saw makes it absolutely clear that Wan’s is not merely a concept film.

Perhaps because of Poole’s eye for detail it is surprising to find certain generalisations about the horror genre which affect the general thrust of some of the arguments in the book. Statements like ‘the fantastic or even the supernatural […] are characteristically the concerns of horror’ (20) or ‘the horror fan is the adolescent male’ (30) are controversial at best. The role of the fantastic has traditionally tended to govern the study of the genre, but recent work on the slasher and the torture porn subgenre has complicated such clear-cut distinctions. This seems problematic in a volume that is single-handedly focused on an example of horror which is eminently not supernatural. As for the reception of horror films by individuals and their potential fan bases and audiences, these are areas that have recently attracted academic attention by scholars like Brigid Cherry or Matt Hills. Their absence here seems inexplicable, particularly given the references to other pieces of canonical Horror Studies like Carol J. Clover or Andrew Tudor’s writings. Even though SAW is not strictly an academic book, the volume suffers from this piecemeal approach towards what is in reality a much more complex field of studies. Similarly, some interesting ideas are left unexplored. The early affirmation that ‘[t]he cinema of SAW is one that manipulates and invokes intense audience identification, resulting in a cathartic experience’ (9) promises a critical intervention that is never followed through, and the influence of Se7en (1995) and Cube (1997) is not explained – and, on this note, why is The Abominable Dr Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) never mentioned?

But despite these critical shortcomings and its sometimes episodic nature, Poole’s book is a welcome addition to the growing criticism currently building around Saw. His focus on the morality behind the series, as well as what he terms Jigsaw’s ‘Old Testament creed’ (55), provides an interesting and innovative look at the film and the book considers a number of equally interesting topics such as class differences, the dysfunctional family setup, marketing techniques or the recurring voyeuristic winks that have otherwise been neglected. All in all, this is a thought-provoking introduction to one of the most important horror moments of the last decade, one that generated a spawn of imitations and which, together with Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005), catapulted the torture trend. Poole invites us to look closer at the text and to explore the narrative games behind its production history and directorial decisions. This book will become recommended reading for anyone writing on the franchise.

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