Before the internet became as common as the lightbulb, your induction into world cinema was restricted to cable TV channels and counterfeit CDs, if you could afford to pay for either. Film programming in India, at the time of the cable television boom, could be divided into two broad categories. The straightforward drawing room films that played from morning to night, and the late-night realm of mystery screenings, unheralded gems and even erotica. These films included both the sleazy and the sadistic, the vulgar and the violent.
Saw came out in 2005, back when the idea of horror was limited to the the supernatural or the paranormal. Violence had a more gratifying template, in that it often always felt the reserve of the action hero " smooth, safe, and charming. As the ninth film in the franchise, Spiral, prepares for release, with one of the most illustrious casts till date, it is worth reminding ourselves that the James Wan and Leigh Whannell film was not just a flash in the pan, but a bolt of lightning.
Though a limited release and relatively low publicity, the film found its viewership on cable and DVDs. I remember squirming to the audacious plot, as clueless as the two protagonists who wake up in a dingy basement.
The slasher film genre predates Saw, but most films that made up the genre until then concerned themselves with cinematic advantages of playing hide-and-seek. Shock as an act of violence itself. No one had until then thought of violence as something that had its rhythms, exaggerations, boundaries, and possibilities.
Saw brought a sense of choreography to violence, the simple yet ludicrously effective idea that if imagined, pain, and death can have countless different designs, each more sinister, more creative if you like, than the others.
Unfortunately, it is this aspect of the film that became a trope so wildly appreciated it was revised and reworked to the point of boredom and gimmickry in the sequels that followed.
There is something devilishly playful and childlike about the Saw franchise. It is an odd thing to say about a series of films that strive to find new ways people can be killed. Therein lies this comically aggressive quality that makes the franchise unique. It hit the sweet spot of a daredevil streak with the premise of the first film, and has since been twisting itself right left and centre to simply, make wardrobe adjustments in the 'killing equipment' department. From creepy dolls to sidekicks to impossibly complicated murder devices and convoluted puzzles, Saw can also feel like a teenager's scrapbook of the creepiest yet laughably simplistic things he can think of. It has since the first film " the first two if you stretch it " failed to reinvent its own bible. By now, the gore and the trademark twists are known to most fans of franchise, and yet their relentless machinations continue to fascinate for the mere suggestion that a new boundary of violence may at some time be pushed.
The first film remains the most shocking and effective to this day, its closed-corner visuals and grunge texture making it a nightmarish journey from darkness to yet more darkness. Its final reveal may well be the finest in cinema history.
Other than the violence, the twisted pathology of Saw has qualified it as loathsome yet impressive update on the slasher genre. Most body horror films are usually anchored by a mystery antagonist " the vengeful murderer. In atypical biblical style, Saw turned the trope on its head starting from the first film itself. Common people are forced to extract violence on themselves and others. By the third film, the biblical proportions of this gruesome and twisted pathology take a definitive moral turn, with the idea of penance coiled into the franchise's extreme sense of justice.
Jigsaw, played by the recurring John Kramer, graduates from nutjob who casts his subjects in horribly violent survival games to messianic judge who forces people to atone for their sins. But in doing so, Saw, in its attempt to appear sane and structured, also lost its playfully vile energy, the sheer extravagance of a killer murdering for play. Nonetheless, Jigsaw, allegedly created by the screenwriter Whannell after months of migraine pain and a subsequent MRI diagnosis, perhaps belongs alongside the likes of Hannibal Lecter, in terms of literary relevance " if explored to its full potential.
Spiral, starring Chris Rock and Samuel L Jackson, seems like a distinct upgrade on the franchise's previous slate of actors, with Donald Glover, from the first being its most well-known import. It points to two things " the relative decline the franchise and its overzealous evolution has seen, and yet the cult value that Hollywood stars believe the franchise still has to offer. It would be interesting to see if Spiral structurally deviates from the core of the franchise, and tackles questions that most predecessors have not bothered with.
That said, no Saw film would truly be itself it did not have a barbaric death trap written into the narrative, one that is both biblical and yet hilariously imaginative. Either way, fans of the franchise will be looking forward to find out.
Spiral will premiere in India on Lionsgate Play this Friday on 6 August.