Lately i’ve been watching the Final Destination and Saw movies. Feels like i’m stuck watching them, suffering an abundance of downtime in service of my neovagina’s rigorous dilation schedule. It’s somehow relieving to see normies going through much worse pain and body horror than i’ve been going through during my surgery recovery month.
In these two generously sequeled franchises, the traditional slasher killer recedes into a nostalgic figure from the sepia-toned 20th century, back when there was not a cell phone in sight, just people living and dying in the moment, being butchered by a flesh-and-blood individual wielding a good ol’ fashioned sharp object. Here in the 21st century, even getting murdered is an alienating experience. Unstoppable psycho boogeymen and their victims no longer directly interact the way they used to.
It’s debatable whether or not there’s an actual killer character in the FD movies. You could say the killer is just a supernatural force, the very spirit of the grim reaper and nothing else. But this spirit’s style of offing people displays at least as much personality as any of the people offed. The girl protag in FD 3 refers to them as a vicious, living presence, gendered masculine, which, okay, this reaper is a fully bodiless entity, but i agree men suck if that’s her implication (the boy protag describes the reaper as more of a force than a consciousness, but he’s a bro so probably wrong).
Our reaper mostly takes out folks in an unnecessarily whimsical way, tinkering banal environments into death traps, almost like flexing their embedded dominance over every aspect of our mortal world. Confident and catlike, this disembodied killer enjoys toying with victims. They’re full of fake-outs and winking reminders of their inevitable approach. Perhaps most brutally, they’re fond of playing a bit of easy-listening 1970s music. Their tinkery, teasey style is so distinctive it’s the recognizable throughline of the series, as much a piece of mascot-level icon fashion as Jason’s ski mask.
The Saw movies give the audience a killer who's an actual person. Sort of. Jigsaw is excessively fleshed out. His backstory expands throughout the sequels, if anything an overkill of context for his homicidal, sadistic tendencies.
He doesn’t slaughter to hammer home a person’s insignificance, like the FD reaper does. His traps are personalized. With a stalker’s enthusiasm, he dives into a victim’s life story and frames his torture as a milestone, like a graduation or marriage. None of this detracts from the grimy, industrial isolation of his death traps.
Jigsaw prides himself on not killing. Stuck up and righteous he’s hands off for the actual deeds. The way he sees it, if someone doesn’t have the fortitude to root a key out of their eyeball, the very key that will free them from a rusty death contraption, then they really kind of killed themselves didn’t they.
A typical Jigsaw trap will involve self-mutilation, pitting victims against each other, and some kind of grim entanglement between body and machine. One memorable trap in Saw VI harnesses the victims’ breathing to power the press of an instrument crushing their ribs, and the two people caught in this machine must compete in a holding-your-breath contest, as one will be freed when the other dies.
Also, there's always a technological mediation between Jigsaw and the victim, a tape or video recording, frequently combined with puppet theater. The technology may be lo-fi, but it’s a stark reminder of the victim’s lonely death. There’s no pleading with their killer, no way to attempt, however futilely, to make an impression on him. For the victims, their killer is so disembodied he could be dead, and he is dead starting in Saw IV. This feels like an especially early aughts expression of anxiety about technological loneliness. Jigsaw and his victims are profoundly connected in that they experience a true expression of his scary self, a torturer engineer at heart. But are they really connected? You know, since they’re not both conscious in the same room at the same time.
There may be a 20th century prototype for this indirect method of trap slashing from a distance. Memes tell me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is Saw for kids, but first of all Saw is Saw for kids. That’s right, Saw is for the children. Well, ok, adolescents. I saw Saw as an adolescent, when it was the hot new horror, and i think that’s a solid age to appreciate all the deconstruction of bodies. Still, that chocolate factory story is more unsavory. And how dare anyone conflate Jigsaw with Willy Wonka. They are very different souls.
William Wonka is an eccentrically complacent, self-absorbed capitalist, and the “deaths” he causes are freakish factory accidents, not intentional, judgmental slaughters. He’s a slave-holding landowner disconnected from the idea that human life has any worth. Isolated in his capital and power, he doesn’t need to face any consequences, a big reason why he’s wildly meh if kids nearly die on a tour of his property (or die, as it is in the musical adaptation, which is more violent than the book and movies (actually only the girls definitively die, on stage and everything, fitting in with the horror genre’s tendency to kill women more nastily than men)). The original book emphasizes the avuncular capitalist’s frustration that people don’t simply follow his rules. In the Glass Elevator sequel he gets a whole lament about it. Roald Dahl out here siding with the horrifyingly blasé patriarch.
While Jigsaw is a moralist murderer, which means he’s extremely intentional, like scary intentional. He’s homicidally invested in the idea human life has worth. His torture traps are meant to inspire his victims to push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of. He’s like a coach. Coach loves his games. You could make a good Saw type movie where a body instructor goes too far.
At the end of the day, though, the inspiration is all his. He loves to rave about the will to survive, the human body’s capacity to endure and heal: desperate rants of a dying coach, who needs all the inspiration he can get, dying and all. An additional woe for coach is the fate of his future son Gideon, who ends in utero from a drug theif’s careless door opening. Faced with these tragedies, he decides his next best bet at a legacy is rebirthing people through torture and then grooming some survivors into accomplices/copycat killers. The franchise increasingly has this weird focus on breeding (in Saw VI, a middle-aged woman's life is deemed more worth saving than a younger sad boi's, because she has kids and he's lonely).
As mentioned, in a majority of the Saw movies, coach Jigsaw is dead, resurrected in flashbacks and videos. I like this bit of the series, the way it continually embellishes the past, often as if it’s a twist and not just the filmmakers sharing story details previously withheld. It’s loopy and obnoxious, i appreciate it.
There’s something delightfully absurd about a serial killer who recruits enough help to continue his idiosyncratically complex slaying beyond the grave. Following his involved processes down to the puppet theatrics. I like to imagine him instructing, “now be sure to have the puppet crash through a barred window, sheltered in a cage, with the tape recorder playing and strapped around his little chest.” In that inimitable drawl of his!
Although it’s unclear exactly how much of the post-mortem preparations are his own specifications. Coach wanted a legacy, but, even before his death, his selfhood is lost in the composite nature of his designs: while he remains barely alive in Saw III, his first known accomplice goes against coach and kills people in traps they can’t escape from. His intentions are lost to the point that his most rogue accomplice uses one of his contraptions to murder his widow Jill by The Final Chapter (which of course isn’t the final chapter).
By the way, The Final Chapter is the most frustrating of the series: it has the best trap (garage, obviously) and the best bold costume choice for coach (a backwards baseball cap), but it’s also a parade of hot women dying gorily. They’re so eager to kill Jill they use a dream sequence to do it twice. It’s conspicuous because the other Saw movies are pretty equal in the suffering distribution between the genders.
I hear the newest Saw, Spiral, is a critique of police. This isn’t entirely new to the series. Jigsaw is a prolific cop killer. At one point i think in Saw V, someone proclaims “my entire department is dead!” which is funny and great. But I would be surprised if the new Saw actually goes saws out for the police state. The franchise only shows the most basic kind of cop corruption occurring (evidence planting), and it’s depicted as an anomaly, not the norm. They certainly don’t touch the overwhelming racism of american pigs. But i haven’t seen Spiral so i don’t know. Maybe it is the first major abolitionist horror movie.
But as far as i've seen, these aren't really statement movies. Even the stuff about health insurance in Saw VI is as much a narrative device as it is a commentary (yet more motive for coach). Same goes for FD. These are franchises all about novel ways to depict death, placing death in a void without selves and direct human interaction, outside of the traditional slasher narrative and its traditional values, its basic stories of good against evil, all that virgin final girls and lumbering stocky murderers.