When I heard another Saw movie would be storming the theatres in time for Halloween, I have to admit, I got a little carried away. I hoped for bacchanals in the streets, pig-masked revelers drunk on celluloid blood, intersections closed as tiny puppets pedaled their big wheels toward giddy destruction, and Tobin Bell holding sway over all.
Then, I got food poisoning and missed opening weekend. From my dank apartment, I waited for word of wonders. Nothing came. Twitter didn’t tweet, Facebook fell silent, and when I broke my own personal rule and Googled reviews for a film I hadn’t seen yet, I had to wade parietal lobe first into wave after wave of tepid, lukewarm blurbs.
No one cared about this movie.
Call me spoiled, but as a horror fan, I’m used to popular and critical reactions alike falling somewhere on the spectrum between High Moral Outrage to Base Animal Enjoyment. The Saw franchise, that viscera-splattered epic poem of my youth, had always created a nice little scatter plot of passionate reactions. Even when people hated it, they loved to hate it, and now, all the internet, that den of venom, could produce was a somnambulant, collective, “Meh.”
I just have to get this out of the way: Jigsaw is just simply not a good movie. It’s incompetent in the way that only some very unlovable movies are (think Hellraiser: Deader kind of stuff), but that’s not my concern here. As much love as I have sunk into this franchise, I could wax elegiac for way too long about the neglect and fan disrespect that went into making Jigsaw unbearable for all the wrong reasons, but instead of that, there are more provocative questions at the heart of everything Jigsaw is and isn’t.
Namely: why did some soulless studio bigwigs decide to bring back Jigsaw now, and why didn’t we, the horror community, care?
To answer this question, we have to travel back through time to the faraway land of the early 2000’s. Behold trucker hats, the Iraq wars, the rising tide of reality TV, and, of course, Donald Trump. Living in post-Make-America-Great-Again America, it’s difficult to remember a time before Trump was a superlative spouting troll lurking under every pop cultural bridge, but after fading from 80’s decadence to relative obscurity in the 1990’s, he burst straight into our collective primetime imagination with The Apprentice. Premiering January 8, 2004, it beat out the first installment of the Saw franchise by a scant eight months.
Both The Apprentice and Saw immediately became pop culture hits. Stores started carrying “You’re Fired” tee-shirts and you simply couldn’t go anywhere without hearing people parody the show’s catchphrase. As Apprentice mania built, we all took a breather from staring at Trump’s Day-Glo dye job to settle into a darkened room and watch desperate people vie for their lives while being tested, tormented, and taunted by a megalomaniacal madman. As the credits rolled, we stretched, spilled what was left of our popcorn, and rushed home to catch the episode of The Apprentice we had all Tivoed (oh, Tivo, I remember thee well…).
It’s not a stretch to see how the two franchises connect in some seriously disturbing ways. Both feature “games” or tests that often require the participants, usually the underdog, disadvantaged, or helpless, to humiliate or compromise themselves. Remember the episode of The Apprentice where an overweight man is collectively mocked for wanting to give a presentation about fitness attire and a deeply religious woman is fired for not wanting to take God’s name in vain during a commercial shoot? Sure, it’s not exactly sticking a sensitive body part on a rotary saw or diving shin first into a pit of dirty needles, but while the impresario of Saw requires physical degradation, moral and spiritual tests were often a big part of the Donald’s program.
In both Saw and The Apprentice, we watch in fascination as the field is slowly winnowed down, with the ones that “survive” being the people canny enough to intuit the desires of the man in charge. In the second Saw film, the heroine examines the traps for built-in safety mechanisms that will allow her to escape each trial with a minimum of damage, while the last apprentice standing in the boardroom is the one who was able to understand how best to stroke Trump’s ego while simultaneously turning piddling profits on the crazy tasks they were assigned.
Jigsaw, like the Trump of the show, is a shadowy entity who can’t always be bothered to show up in the torture chambers and underground cells he obliges his victims to inhabit. As a proxy, he sends puppets and willing converts to do his bidding while conducting other business or watching from afar. For former fans of The Apprentice, do you remember how many challenges are hosted not by Trump himself but by his cadre of smiling yes-men? Both even feature devoted women willing to fight to preserve the honor of their Daddy figures: Ivanka Trump and junkie-turned-torture-princess Amanda.
There is the idea in the Saw franchise that the lonely winners of Jigsaw’s wicked traps usually leave their former lives behind to join him on his righteous quest, donning pig masks and learning the basics of high-tech dapper puppets. While this is a facet of the Saw series that evolves over the course of several films, this idea was always part of The Apprentice. Even people who never watched the show know that the objective is to outlast the other players long enough to win a spot in Trump’s business empire. Like the survivors of Jigsaw, Trump’s winners usually found that they had to turn aggressive, backbite, and take every advantage to get to the prize. And like Jigsaw’s latest acolytes, they often found that the job they had signed up for wasn’t exactly what they thought it would be.
Finally, and most disturbing of all, there is a strange, almost religious insistence on what passes for “morality” in both franchises. Jigsaw seeks to punish the wicked through Dantean traps that will make them confront their sins in very visceral ways without ever stopping to think that murder, torture, and sadism might be graver transgressions than selling bad mortgages or self-harm. He displays a shocking deficit of empathy, coldly watching as his participants are forced to literally rip themselves apart for their crimes, both real and exaggerated. While some of his victims earn the ire of the audience (murderers and Neonazis come to mind immediately), he often preys on people who need real care and compassion (drug addicts, self-mutilators) instead of savagery. It would almost be a waste of time to recount all the ways that The Apprentice and Trump’s subsequent election showcased all the insensitivity and cruelty middle-America is capable of. Women, children, the mentally and physically ill, survivors of rape, abuse, and trauma–all of these were attacked in some way by Trump and his speechwriters. Jigsaw is able to convince his followers that people that are weak, that don’t contribute in ways he deems fit, that don’t measure up to his moral standard are worthy of punishment, and in order to mark his followers on their great, righteous quest, he gives them a pig mask. Trump mobilized a voting base using this same strategy– and handed out gaudy hats all the way to the White House.
Was Trump a conscious influence on the creators of Saw? I don’t think so, but I’m a big believer in the idea of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In the early 2000’s, that time of new war, the first shaky days of economic uncertainty, there was something in our culture that wanted men like Trump and Jigsaw. Sure, I would like to argue that this isn’t true, but money doesn’t lie. Look at the ticket sales for the Saw series and ratings and merchandising numbers for The Apprentice. We wanted to watch vicious men tear apart anyone weak enough to get in their way. We wanted to see heads roll (literally) in the torture chamber and figuratively in the boardroom.
So what changed?
The strength of Jigsaw as a character was his cabalistic quality. He never has more than three or four followers at a time. He’s prolific as a serial killer/torturer, but not ridiculously so (other, real-life monsters have taken more lives than him). The Saw franchise never sees Jigsaw running for mayor or opening up an entire torture town run by his exacting specifications. Jigsaw dies a lonely and painful death, he doesn’t become president.
Maybe that’s why no one could be bothered to be excited about this newest film in the Saw series. We might have seen the credits roll on Jigsaw and his zealot followers back in 2010, but 2015 to the present has been dominated by his real-life counterpart. Every time we check Twitter, look at the news, or hear a radio broadcast, we see Trump, standing behind a small but determined army of devotees, watching as the strings he pulls cuts, rips, and tears anything he wants to apart. Nearly every day, we hear about another attack on the most vulnerable among us, and when we’re not worried about ourselves and those around us, we’re just worn out.
When the film’s pig-adorned posters promised us that Jigsaw would be back, perhaps that’s why we didn’t all feel that collective thrill Twisted Pictures’ marketing team was hoping for. Maybe that’s why most people didn’t really feel anything. Exhaustion will do that to you.