Monday, October 29, 2007

Saw IV: Please help me

Disclaimer: I have not seen any of the Saw movies. The fourth one came out Friday and, like the first three, topped the Halloween weekend box office. Based on the trailers, reviews and film posters (which illustrate acts of torture), I will never see any of them. Yet I feel permitted to judge them, or at least judge society's appetite for them.

You are all sickos.

Look at this bewildering trend below. After each film's title is the opening date, the film's opening-weekend domestic gross and its all-time worldwide gross.

Saw. Oct. 29, 2004. $18.3 million. $103.1 million.
Saw II. Oct. 28, 2005. $31.7 million. $147.7 million.
Saw III. Oct. 27, 2006. $33.6 million. $164.9 million.

Saw IV made $32.1 million this weekend, almost triple the haul of the second-place finisher, Carell Keeps Trying to Be a Movie Star. It is the fourth consecutive Halloween weekend dominated -- nay, raped and flayed -- by a Saw movie.

There is a mass contingent of faithful followers of torture porn. They have made the genre the most reliably profitable in current cinema (given each film costs less than $10 million to produce). So please, I'd like a Saw devotee to explain why he or she makes a point to see these movies on opening weekend (or at all). If you're reading and you're a Saw fan, articulate this. I want to understand. Please. Someone convince me of their artistic or entertainment value. Please. Having not seen any of them, I'm willing to admit that there is underlying value in these movies. But the marketing inspires nothing in me but revulsion. And I can't believe that's enough to lure all these people into the theaters. Please defend these movies. Someone.

I am reminded of Viennese actionism -- a mode of art in which people reacted to horrific situations (like the Holocaust) by making horrific art. I saw an actionist exhibit in Vienna in 2003 and it was one of the most disturbing rooms I've ever been in. I can't even describe what I saw, for fear of throwing up my lunch. But if one had to assign a purpose to this awful art, it would be "psychological bloodletting." The only way these artists knew how to exorcise their own personal horror was to spew it out using some kind of artistic medium.

Do the Saw movies serve this type of purpose? Or do people like to go to be reminded of how good and stable their own lives are? Or are the movies some kind of twisted statement on the employment of torture in the political and military spheres? Something tells me, though, that the movies are nothing but a slick Hollywood product catering to the basest urges of humanity. Someone. Please. Explain.

Happy Halloween, you filthy animals.


is that so wrong? said...

Please, Saw-lovers. Explain for my sake too. Please.

cattleworks said...

I'm including a link to one of my favorite blogs, And now the screaming starts.

Anyways, this post he wrote came out after Saw 3.
You may or may not find his thoughts helpful. But, I think he's pretty thoughtful and articulate.
By coincidence, I also offer a rambling comment to his post.

Just off the top of my head, some of Saw's box office punch may be a combination of over-the-top horror and timing (the Halloween weekend). I'm going by your info that each installment has come out Halloween weekend.
That in itself is just a great variation on location, location, location, you know?
Besides die-hard horror fans, you have those movie-goers who are willing occasionally to check out something that may scare the bejesus out of them, especially with the creepy holiday around the corner.
Sort of like a romantic comedy, lamely put together or not, that comes out Valentine's Day. It just reaps the benefits.

Although, it isn't entirely that, is it? Because I just realized you posted the total box office of each film as well, so each film has done well beyond the mere opening weekend, versus, let's say, the Godzilla remake.

Uh... okay, we're all sickos.

Anyways, I don't know if this'll give you anything significant to chew on or you'll just be writing us all off as depraved...

Take care!
And hope you have a great Halloween!

J.J. said...

Thanks for that link. That's the perspective I was hoping to get.

I suppose I can't comment any further until I've actually seen them. I'm tempted to launch into a debate about genre, but will refrain.

Alanna said...

What about the show 24, which features near-weekly scenes of Jack Bauer torturing one would-be terrorist after another? I've noticed a profusion of torture scenes on plenty of other shows as well, such as Lost and Heroes. And there was that pretty unforgettable scene in Casino Royale - probably even more unforgettable to the men who watched it. I wonder if this is a post-9/11, "War on Terror" phenomenon. All ridiculous since it has been demonstrated again and again that TORTURE DOES NOT WORK. People will say anything about anyone to make you stop torturing them.

J.J. said...

This is a topic that crossed my mind. You're probably right. And we haven't even gotten into Hostel or anything. And I do believe Rendition and Lions for Lambs (both of which come out within the month) have torture at the centers of their plots.

Moohbear said... (re: 24 and torture)

I had some friends see Saw IV on opening night. They said they were disappointed because there wasn't as much blood as they'd hoped for.

J.J. said...

Did you ask them why they wanted blood? I agree that we all go to the movies because of a certain kind of carnality -- we want to see explosions, or sex, or other kinds of prurient drama. But to actively wish for more instances of brutal gore and torture (without any corresponding drama or compassion)? That is something I don't understand.

Middento said...

The piece from "And now the screaming starts" is really interesting and does provide a really fascinating view of the films. Indeed, the whiff of what the author discusses is the only thing that had me interested in the original when it came out. (I, like you, find this unnecessary and disgusting and so haven't seen them myself either.)

That said, what is more interesting from my perspective is that the whole "torture porn" phenomenon isn't exactly new -- it's just mainstream now. The stuff in this who subgenre is the stuff of exploitation films going back at least to the 50s. The difference here: they're glossier and they're minus the sex. (Yes, I've been doing some research on exploitation of late.) Again, the fascinating question is why this kind of movie is now "ready for prime time" as opposed to set back in the direct-to-video section.

I don't have an answer for that.

J.J. said...

An excellent point. It's the mainstreaming effect that's so perplexing. Why are these movies suddenly making $100 million when before they were way off the mainstream radar?

CRwM said...

Not to flog my own blog, especially after cattleworks already linked to one story on "And Now the Screaming Starts," but I wrote a longer, more detailed piece on the justification for "torture porn."

If you're curious:

I should add that the very existence of the genre of "torture porn" was somewhat overstated. You could count the number of supposed torture porn flicks on your fingers, and it is worth noting that most of them absolutely tanked at the theaters.

The four Saw flicks are really the exception. The first Hostel really made its money on video and the second died in theaters. Touristas died in the theaters. Captivity, which was reworked into torture porn to take advantage of the supposed trend, died in theaters. There may be a couple more I'm missing - indie stuff that never made it to a theater - but we're really only talking about eight flicks here, only about half of which made money (and 80% of that half is all one franchise).

Torture may have gone mainstream, but the financial picture suggests that torture porn did not make the crossover all that successfully. The fans, with the odd exception of the Saw franchise, rejected it.

J.J. said...

In the post, you say: "Human suffering is, on an animal level, arresting to see."

I agree. This is why so many people love The Passion of Joan of Arc. Or some slapstick comedy, for that matter.

Your post, in its entirety, is very valuable. And it was the perspective I was looking for. Thank you.

J.J. said...

And thanks for pointing out that the torture porn trend seems to stop with the Saw franchise. I guess I was also looping in other gorefest movies -- which do bully biz at the box office but aren't technically torture porn.

cattleworks said...

I think that's an interesting question, although the degree of this popularity change to which you're suggesting is not totally accurate, I think.
I mean, specifically, the $100 million is current currency.
Inflated ticket prices play some into that number. Actual audience numbers may be lower than you think.
For all the huge blockbuster pictures there are that are near the top of the all-time box office list, I always keep hearing that GONE WITH THE WIND still totally kicks everyone's butt with total individual ticket sales.

Having said that, obviously these films are popular, and perhaps more of a mixture between hardcore fans and so-called mainstream audiences.
I still think the timing of Halloween weekend is a huge-ass contributor to their success, but I have no real evidence to back that up.

Another factor is I think studios are becoming much more adept at marketing these things.
The grosses for these things are worldwide. That's sort of a recent phenomenon, too, isn't it?

I guess part of me is thinking that the success is partially inflation. Would you still be as impressed if each film grossed $75 million instead $100-160 million each, although, that's still a lot of money.

But, even if it made significantly less money, but still enough to justify each installment, which I think even a $75 million world gross would probably count, your question of why this subject is so popular would still hold true.

I think part of it is simple rollercoaster syndrome, a made-up name describing people who try to test their "limits" in superficial ways, such as the latest dangerous looking theme park ride.
One view of horror, I think, is horror as endurance test.
I think so-called gorehounds fall into this category, the more blood and visual mayhem the better.
Although I have NOT seen most of the horror remakes out, and there are a lot of them, I have the impression that a lot of them are upping the violence (and overly kinetic editing) as an superficial method of "updating" a classic.
(Although, I saw the new HOUSE OF WAX, and it was pretty good, but totally different from the original story, so only a remake in name).
So there's a philosophy thing going on here and I think that once you go to a certain standard of "excessive gore," just like a record in sports, that standard is meant to be broken, which is human nature.

With the internet, perhaps more like-minded individuals are coming out of the woodwork bolstered by blogs and messageboards that there are more like-minded people out there with tastes in gore.
With more advance publicity coming out on the net, people can talk up upcoming films, have an idea if it's something they're interested in, and perhaps decide ahead of time that they want to check it out at the theater versus waiting for the DVD. One explanation for larger opening weekends.

But, watching people subjected to crazy crap, even suffering for entertainment reasons, that's totally reality TV.
Fear Factor subjects people to total misery, that they volunteer for because there's money involved.
SAW is a variation on that.
True, these people are unwilling participants, but that's the horror movie aspect of it.
The other part is: what would you be willing to do if it was a matter of life and death?
I can't help but think that the whole idea that started the first SAW movie was putting a man into a situation like an animal: if you were in an animal trap and you had only a saw to get you out, would you cut your own leg off if the stakes were high enough?
I don't know if that's torture or actually car wreck voyeurism.
Or, instead of movies showing us our fantasies, they also show us things that we're glad it's NOT us, but are fascinated to watch.
Perhaps SAW had the right amount of clever situations to subject its characters to that grabbed the audience's imagination.

Although SAW seems similar in nature, I think HOSTEL actually brings up the torture porn question.
And that variation of torture is totally different from torture as a tool for interrogation, because supposedly torture is ameans to a specific end, to get information from the tortured subject.

But HOSTEL's torture is its own end, just to see the subject suffer.

So maybe SAW is "I like to watch" whereas HOSTEL is "I like to do."
I have not seen any of the HOSTEL movies, although, again, I could see how it started, creatively.
HOSTEL being a homophone for HOSTILE, cool name for a horror film!
The publicity for the first film is a great throwback to those MARK OF THE DEVIL type "we dare you to see this movie" ads, which is the whole rollercoaster syndrome thing.
But I haven't seen it, so I don't know how explicit the gore is, although I think it is pretty in your face.

But the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is not nearly as graphic as you think it is. It's just very effectively done.

Er, I'm REALLY wandering now.

cattleworks said...

Totally forgot!
Happy Halloween!

is that so wrong? said...

....all of which begs the question of torture-porn on television. "24" can't seem to go four episodes in any direction without someone torturing somebody, and even though it's less graphic than in the movies, it's still full of excess and lack of motive and more often than not absolutely ridiculous.... I can only guess the writers of "24" rely on it so much because they think people want to see it that often (i.e. want to see Jack Bauer avenge terrorism by torturing the living daylights out of anyone (anyone, and usually good guys it turns out, sad to say) who might have a stale crumb of information. Maybe torture is the best way to visually demonstrate punishment for the "bad guys"? (except when the storyline twists so that the tortured "bad guy" turns out to be a good guy.... but the writers aren't thinking that far ahead.) "24" was riding strong all through it's 5th season (which sucked, in my opinion) until the last season (its 6th) where ratings spiraled down because the viewing public just caught on that they've been recycling storylines and torture-porn scenes.

"24" isn't exactly where it stops.... other television shows such as "The Unit" and more mainstream efforts like "CSI", "NCIS", and "Without a Trace" have bathed in torture-porn here and there, and people keep gobbling it up. As said above, there may be a trend that torture-porn in the movies is no longer a cash cow, but it seems to be a good-ol' standby on primetime TV.

Anonymous said...

Someone said that modern "torture porn" (lord, I hate that term) is sexless. That is not the case at all, given that one of the most fitting movies for that dubious misnomer is Hostel. That movie is all about equating torture with sex (amidst other things), and is actually disarmingly provocative in that approach.

It's a shame then that Roth followed it up with the utterly repugnant Hostel II, which leads me to believe that the first movie was as effective as it was because it was an accident.

J.J. said...

Cattleworks: I like your analogy to reality TV. Now THAT is torture porn.

Anonymous: I can't think of a better term for this type of material than "torture porn." The use of gore is pornographic, isn't it? Don't you get bored in the scenes without torture? Please explain and, if you can, provide a more apt term.

BLISS said...

Interesting blog I'll be back to read when I have more time.....