This week, the fifth Saw film was released, and, like last Halloween season, it likely debuted No. 1 at the box office while being summarily dismissed by critics. This is nothing new for horror films. But this is also not the Friday the 13th franchise—mindless splatter from faceless monsters. The Saw films are oddly serious and, yes, sincere. It helps explain the series’s appeal with its peculiarly altruistic fan base (a yearly Saw blood drive for the Red Cross has the fitting slogan “Give Until It Hurts”), who, like followers of TV’s Lost, are obsessed with secret meanings and subtle hints. This makes sense; the films are written with the speed and continuity of a TV show (slapped together in three weeks, each costs no more than $11 million).
But the chief appeal is a Queens-born, Method-trained actor named Tobin Bell and his fascinating portrayal of Jigsaw, the terminally ill philosopher who constructs Rube Goldberg devices meant to inspire the wicked to reevaluate their lives. We see Bell’s face in the first Saw for just 45 seconds, but from this a franchise was born.
The thing is, Bell’s not terrifying; he spends a lot of time in each film hooked up to an IV. The producers tried putting a hoodie on Jigsaw to make him look scary. (It didn’t work.) Bell—an animal lover who admits he doesn’t enjoy horror films—says his character’s inspiration comes from the film’s central question: “What about the human condition makes us dwell on negativity?” (The serial killer as Dr. Phil.)
Listen: I’m not saying these are great films, but there’s a lot more going on than you might think. We have a villain whose goal is to save humanity, played by a man who thinks he’s in a Chekhov play, in a series that unfolds, yearly, like an old-time newsreel cliff-hanger, with victims that aren’t horror stereotypes. The disposable teenagers of Friday the 13th were offed by the libido; their inability to keep their genitals to themselves justified their gruesome ends. The slain in the Saw films aren’t nearly as innocent. Jigsaw’s goal is never to kill them; it’s to teach them a lesson about the fragility of life. Their crimes are self-absorbed banality.
Which reminds us of that other sure-to-be-a-hit sequel opening this week, the soulless monstrosity High School Musical 3: Senior Year. In Disney’s freshly scrubbed world, nobody ages or suffers or cares about much beyond keeping their teeth very, very white. Now, that’s torture. Think of the fun Jigsaw could have putting Zac Efron and his co-stars in one of his contraptions. They might learn something, and we would, you know, enjoy watching it.