Oct 31, 2009 9:47 AM by MSNBC
It started as a seven-minute short that took place in a filthy bathroom and featured two men chained by their ankles to pipes, thrust into a sinister predicament by a clever monster known as the Jigsaw Killer. Four more installments later, the "Saw" franchise is a bona fide blockbuster, raking in more than $1 billion of worldwide revenue in box office and DVD sales and becoming a Halloween treat for horror buffs.
But how does it rate in the genre's annals? Is it up there with classic horror series such as "Friday the 13th," "Halloween" and "Nightmare on Elm Street"? Or is it merely a lengthy exercise in mindless mayhem that spawned an entire sub genre derisively known as "torture porn"?
Whatever it is, it's back. "Saw VI" is the latest, and "Saw VII" is in the works. At this rate, the series might reach double digits, or rather, "Saw X," and maybe beyond. The "Friday the 13th" series contained 12 films; "Halloween" produced 10 pictures; "Nightmare on Elm Street" lasted for eight movies.
Multiple films means something's working. But is it working well?
"I like the 'Saw' movies," said Brad Miska, editor of bloody-disgusting.com, one of the most popular Web sites for horror fans. Miska said his review of an early screening of the first "Saw" helped to convince Lions Gate to release it.
"I liked the character of Jigsaw, and I think there was a cool mythology attached to it," he said. "The initial movie got me because of how cheaply it was made. Nobody expected it to turn into a big franchise. The fifth film was the only one I considered terrible; I liked the first four films and enjoyed them. The reason the fifth one was so bad is because it kind of exited from the characters that made it successful in the first place."
Ammon Gilbert is a critic for Film.com who specializes in horror films. He said he became a fan because "growing up in the '80s, my dad showed me all kinds of R-rated horror that he probably shouldn't have. From then on I was a big fan."
Gilbert said the key to a successful horror franchise - or any franchise, for that matter - is to go forward, and have a new take on what came before it.
"If you look at 'Nightmare' or 'Friday the 13th,' what stands out - not that they're all good - but that they try new things," he explained. "I don't see that with 'Saw.' They're not going in new directions, not bringing in some new elements, but rather sticking with the formula that works for them.
"They're so successful because it's Halloween, so it's basically the only horror movie around that date. They make a lot of money, so they make another one," Gilbert said. "Every year for the last five years a younger crowd buys into them, because for them it's kind of a tradition. 'It's Halloween, so let's see the new 'Saw' movie,' because they've been doing it with their buds for the last four, five years. They're not necessarily good movies, they're just strategically placed in the market."
Banging out horror movie after horror movie to satisfy a large and lustful audience with money to blow is nothing new, noted Aviva Briefel, an associate professor of English at Bowdoin College, who lectures on the horror film.
"I think it is important to look back at the original monster franchises - the Universal Studios monsters - Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, etc. - and the sequels they generated," she said. "These are the monsters that made studios and audiences aware of the appeal and profitability of the horror film.
"I think that the next great age of the franchise came in the 1980s, with 'Friday the 13th,' 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and the 'Halloween' series. Like the earlier Universal films, these narratives created memorable monsters that audiences craved to see in a variety of contexts. While many of the sequels became tired after a while, some played with the genre in interesting ways, in particular some of the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' sequels that took the dream/reality distinction in fascinating directions."
Briefel believes the "Saw" series has earned a distinguished place in horror film history, and not only because it manages to scare up millions at the box office each time out.
"The 'Saw' series derives from an incredibly interesting premise - what people would do or not do to save their own lives - and helped to disseminate the popularity of torture porn," she explained. "I also think Jigsaw is a fascinating villain; he is at once a moral figure - one who makes his 'victims' realize the consequences of not appreciating their lives - and a terrifying monster that recalls the Jason-Freddy-Michael Myers trinity."
The torture porn label is a touchy subject for some. Those who frown upon what "Saw" hath wrought - the two "Hostel" films, and "Captivity," to name a few - think it is apropos when applied to the "Saw" franchise. But fans like Miska bristle at its casual usage.
"I don't really believe in the torture porn genre," he said. "I don't think it really exists. It was just made up by certain individuals who don't understand the horror genre."
Miska said "torture porn" was coined basically to explain away poorly made films. "When a director tries to manipulate you with violence rather than draw you into a story, that's when it's not a good horror film," he said. "When a director is trying to hurt you, and you watch his film and cringe and feel disgusted, that just kind of pisses me off."
Like some of Jigsaw's victims, Mark Burg is acutely aware of the consequences of not appreciating what he has. The "Saw" franchise has enriched Twisted Pictures, the company he and partner Oren Koules started and continue to run. Yet he said he is careful not to take the series for granted.
"The minute we make a bad movie, the audiences will turn on us," he said. "They thought the 'Rocky' series would go on forever, but once he made a bad one nobody came to the theater. It took Sly (Sylvester Stallone) years to get his core audience back.
"We work hard to get fresh, original ideas to keep it going. We think 'Saw VI' will be the best one to date. It's really, really strong. People pay a lot of money to go to the movies, and they want to be entertained. You have to make a good movie and deliver or people won't come."
Burg believes the "Saw" pictures will tingle the spines of audiences for years, in much the same way that the classic series of the genre before them have done.
"I hope people will remember 'Saw' as a fresh, original franchise, a series that scared and entertained audiences for years and years," he said. "No other franchise has done six movies in six years. None. Not 'Nightmare,' not 'Halloween,' not 'Friday the 13th,' not Bond.
"In our minds, we've already broken ground."