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Beyond “Torture Porn”: Why ‘SAW’ is the Quintessential Post 9-11 Horror Film

While posing as an optimistic and promising year, 2021 also serves as the year many dominant Horror franchises (and films in general) return to the big screen. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, to name a few– but it’s the latest in the divisive and gory SAW franchise; Spiral: From the Book of Saw, that brings us here. Spiral, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and written by duo Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, is scheduled for a theatrical release on May 14th, 2021. Comedy legend Chris Rock and resident “Motherfucker” Samuel L. Jackson grapple with a new series of killings, reminiscent of the famous Jigsaw murders that transpired years prior.

This film will be the ninth entry in the long-running franchise known for its terrifying contraptions and rather convoluted storytelling, not to mention, being the impetus for the wave of “torture porn” horror that would become all the rage in the mid-2000s. However, as the series makes its seventeenth anniversary, I think it’s time we go back to where it all started by focusing on the film I believe is THE quintessential Post-9/11 horror film: James Wan’s SAW (2004).

Now, what exactly is Post-9/11 Horror Cinema? 

SAW’s release forced horror audiences to bear witness to increasingly violent, graphic, and bleak filmmaking. As coined by film critic David Edelstein, this type of filmmaking would come to be known as “torture porn”. This moniker would later be used as a demoralizing sentiment to lessen the status of these films, and by extension, these filmmakers, who seemed to have thrived in this new pocket of horror that had been formed. And while admittedly, yes, some of these films aren’t perfect (not many are), they offer this unique perspective into the collective unconscious that America had molded at the time. Enter: Post-9/11 Cinema.

As Kevin J. Wetmore, author of Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, describes, “one key difference between pre-9/11 horror and post-9/11 horror, is that the former frequently allows for hope and the latter just as frequently does not”. In his book, Wetmore establishes the two defining factors of the torture porn subgenre. Films that are ostensibly released after the events of Sept. 11th, 2001, and, more importantly, imbued with the tonal, newfound nihilism that was shared among other story-telling mediums. These horror films, such as Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and Cabin Fever (2003), The Strangers (2008), Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) & The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and the aforementioned SAW, while not directly announcing themselves as a product of the rhetoric of its time, are undeniably related and in some way influenced by certain ideas that have permeated into the 2000s American zeitgeist, and, consequently, Post-9/11 Cinema.

Looking back on it, these films that Wetmore mentions have gone down in the annals of horror history for their memorable endings and gritty tones. The unrealistic, ignorant optimism of Pre-9/11 is writhed by the new reality that we are no longer safe — anywhere.

For instance, Cabin Fever presents a formula as old as time; friends shacking up in a cabin in the woods. While past iterations of these films would at least try to indulge themselves in campiness or outrageous humor, alá Evil Dead IICabin Fever never truly adopts those sensitivities and instead hands these characters dark turn after dark turn. The last shots of the film are indicative of this more than anything; as people dance around drinking lemonade, a massive truck hosting contaminated water drives away, likely to carry this flesh-eating disease to other unsuspecting and innocent people. Again, nowhere is safe. While these mid-2000s horror films perfidiously wear hope on their sleeves, it shows that there might be a little more than just gratuitous “torture porn” to these movies.

It’s this pessimistic tone that has drenched the horror films of the early 21st-century that make them feel uniquely different than the films that have come before. The discernible shift in tonality in horror movies from the mid-to-late 90s — Scream as a for instance, to 28 Days Later — is palpable. As Wetmore explains, “After 9/11, nihilism, despair, random violence and death, combined with tropes and images generated by the terrorist attacks began to assume far greater dominance in horror cinema”.

So, how does SAW fit into all this? 

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, The Invisible Man) had their eyes set on making a disturbing and relatively inexpensive horror film in the early 2000s. Both men had traveled to Los Angeles in hopes of getting funding after being unsuccessful elsewhere, and, after creating a short film based on one of the traps from the script (the reverse bear-trap to be exact), they received the funding to go out and create the sadistic film that we all know and love today.

The film itself follows Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Whannell) who are chained to a set of pipes and struggle to beat the clock before the room they’re trapped in is locked for good; killing them in the process. During this time, the two men try to figure out their reason for being in the room, but soon find they are being put to the test by the notorious Jigsaw Killer, with Dr. Gordon’s family being held captive as collateral if he isn’t able to complete his task: kill Adam. The rest of the film plays out like a crime thriller as the two men trapped juxtapose Officer Tapp (Danny Glover) hunting down who he suspects is the Jigsaw killer in an act of retribution for his partner’s death during a previous encounter. Between all these bits lie scenes filled with sheer tension and horror as we’re forced to witness seemingly innocent people subjected to visceral self-masochism. Although being morally inexcusable, Jigsaw presents these people–not as victims–but as people who are ultimately deserving of their punishments. The traps they find themselves in serve either as a sick twist on their sins committed, or circumstances meant to test the human will to survive beyond the breaking point.

Admittedly, these are the moments people most commonly attribute to being the most obvious display of American, Post-9/11 ideals. The fact that we’re pushed to believing the people in these traps are morally flawed or inherently not good, therefore making their punishment justified, is a clear correlation to the acts of torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A) in the early 2000s under the Bush administration. There are well-documented cases of excessive torture conducted by the American government that transpired in places like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, further, these cases were seen as breaking the Geneva conventions which caused people to become massively critical of the Administration’s tactics. However, the government framed these instances as necessary evils– rhetoric that became all too familiar, and eventually, people seemed to rationalize such ideas. After a while, it seems as though anything that once was interpreted as bordering inhumane or unjust increasingly became means to an end. To some extent, the film even flirts with this notion of almost vigilante justice. Of course, the horrors that these contraptions cause are immoral but seemed to have been a manifestation of what the public craved in the response to Sept 11th. Those responsible or even affiliated to the slightest degree were “deserving,” and anything that happened as a result of that was their price to pay. Like the Jigsaw killer himself, people were willing to do what they felt was necessary for justice.

Some could argue that the feeling of these horrors being justifiable is another added layer of terror that SAW offers. As Wetmore states, “The fear is not just of [the] other but what SELF becomes in response of other. In many post-9/11 horror films, the film doesn’t end with the defeat of the monster and the return of the status quo…the paradigm shift in horror reflects the paradigm shift after 9/11.” Like many of the films that have come before SAW sliced its way in, and many films after, the horrifying realization that our protagonists are fundamentally changed, often for the worse, is the terrifying realization we come to understand as the credits roll. It’s the shocking laughter Sally lets out in the back of the pickup truck in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or Thomasin finally cracking a smile as she floats in the air with other witches in The Witch (2015); these characters, and the country, had been pushed to a realm never thought possible.

The idea of point-of-view and perspective also becomes really interesting in SAW just with how the framing of the story and who it feels like the filmmakers encourage the audience to root for. We want Dr. Gordon to make it through at the end. His family is at risk and he’s been put in an uncomfortable position that, over time, we begin building some levels of sympathy towards. However, it’s who Gordon represents that makes the perspective a compelling talking point. His character belongs in the white-upper-middle-class area of the social ladder; unlike Adam, who comes from a “shit-hole,” as he states, who clearly represents the lower-class, potentially poverty-stricken American. Like many pro-American narratives pushed by the United States at the time, the hero is often the well-off American. We specifically want him to win so he can be reunited with his family. To undo all that his family is going through and be able to make the save. Though, he can’t. It’s only really in the last few moments that he’s able to free himself and crawl away from the room. The thought of him being helpless, knowing there isn’t anything Gordon can do other than hear their cries over the phone or reminisce could indeed reflect the tragedy regarding the World Trade Center. Gordon is helpless hearing his family’s fear-stricken cries. The fact that many Americans felt helpless in being able to stop what was happening or prevent the acts from even occurring. All they could do is sit and hear the cries, adding an even darker and dreadful tone to his already horrid predicament.

Similarly, this topic of “watching” points out another key point in this film’s main connection to post-9/11 ideals: The Patriot Act.

As history dictates, The Patriot Act was a bill pushed through by the Bush Administration in late 2001 that would give the F.B.I. and the American government, by default, the permission to spy on the American people under the guise of it being a “necessary evil,” (I told you that’d come up a lot) in uncovering any potential threats on American soil or co-conspirators of a terrorist organization. This included listening in on private calls or conversations, not to mention, surveillance. This brings a more relatively modern approach to the theme of voyeurism in film, particularly horror, that reflected a 21st-Century perspective. In SAW, not only does Zepp watch Adam and Gordon through hidden cameras, but Jigsaw himself spies on both men as he’s revealed to be the dead person in the center of the bathroom. As the franchise would continue to make apparent, there’s a feeling of gratification that the evil gets in watching innocence or the wrong in peril. That same gratification could be applied to either perspective in the War on Terror. Again, the lines become more blurred as the paradigm continues to change.

Aside from all these subtextual connections that SAW has on a world after Sept. 11th–which further strengthens its position as the Post-9/11 horror film, are the more upfront and surface-level characteristics that truly help define it as such. The ending of SAW is one of the more poignant connections to Post-9/11 cinema wherein there is no “happy ending”– at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, we know that Gordon’s family is okay in the end, and as revealed later on in the series Gordon makes it out alive, sans his foot of course. However, no one leaves unscathed. Gordon’s family is surely traumatized from the experience, Gordon lost a foot and probably is a bit traumatized as well; seemingly innocent Adam is left for dead in the room and Jigsaw was able to see his twisted vision fulfilled. The realization that the good guys lost, evil still roams freely, and that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, is an even more haunting thought that lingers in your head as John Kramer shuts the door on us, shouting “Game over!”

Like most of the horror films that were released during this time, SAW offers that same grim outlook on life after the credits roll. Cabin Fever and Hostel both express that the evil will just continue undisturbed and that there is nothing you can do other than accepting that and continuing to live on acknowledging that. Zombie’s first two installments in his Firefly trilogy, House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil’s Rejects also add to this idea that evil hides amongst the outskirts of our society and preys on the virtually innocent; waiting to inflict its twisted fantasies upon them with no remorse. Whether it be a viral disease, murderous families, or a sadistic-engineering mastermind: there is no true way of defeating it. Inevitably, these characters succumb to chaos and endure something much more grueling than a reverse bear-trap. The idea that there is no true hope. That’s what Post-9/11 cinema as a whole is emblematic of. Coming to an understanding that in the reality they live in– that we live in–the monsters aren’t zombies in hockey masks hacking horny teens; dream demons with quips and finger knives; or a possessed doll. Evil is real. And to that effect, what’s stopping it from getting to us?

Though it’s clear Leigh and James hadn’t intentionally planned on commentating on such instances when they first drafted up a horror movie about a demented engineer and his puppets, it still is interesting to see that filmmakers during this time period were able to tap into something, rather unconsciously, and all comment on this one thing that was, and in some regards still is important.

That thread is what makes SAW what I consider to be a definitive example of Post-9/11 Horror Cinema. It encapsulates a lot of fear in the American zeitgeist, further reflecting a narrative theme that seems to seep its way through many horror films from that era. You could make an argument that this is reading far too deep into a film that only serves to placate an audience craving for carnage. However, any fan of the horror genre can tell you that since its very conception, Horror has always been the genre used as a vessel for allegories and social commentaries. Look at Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This film has long served as the basis for many theses in horror, or any facet of cinema. Whether it be the presentation of women in horror; chainsaws and weapons being a stand-in for male reproductive organs, thus playing to the male gaze/fantasy; commentary on American culture heading towards a more industrial-based means of production; and lastly, it has been read as a statement against America’s involvement throughout the Vietnam War.

Like Edelstein, you can always make the argument that this type of horror elicits only to shock and disturb the audience, but what are movies if not subjectivity? “Horror films do not simply mean; they generate meaning based on audience experience,” as Wetmore states. The claims made about Jigsaw’s twisted games and what they convey about fears and ideologies in American culture relative to a world after 9/11 are just one of the many that have been made since it’s sliced its way onto the silver screen. Perhaps this is why the SAW franchise did so well in the years following. It dominated the box office with its annual October release of each installment and profits being made all around. The series has made its claim for being one of the more successful horror franchises in history, and the numbers could certainly give weight to that statement. Maybe the only reason more and more of them kept being made, despite many’s (including yours truly) disenchantment with how the series continued, was to an extent a result of the visceral connection made by fans from the very first one. Like most art forms, it offered a way out. A way out into a world that could contextualize the horrors Americans and everyone else were facing, and, frankly, afraid would continue to happen. It made processing the fear tolerable.

Now, the state of horror has flourished miles past what it once was when these films had first been released. But, as the soon-to-be-released Spiral indicates, these horrors never truly go away. Sometimes, like Jigsaw, it watches from afar, waiting to shout, “Game over!”