Saw (2004)

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It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

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What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

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The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

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The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

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Insane Clown Posse – The Amazing Jeckel Brothers

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Insane Clown Posse finally makes a consistent, great album. It seemed impossible. Carnival of Carnage and The Ringmaster contain pretty much nothing of worth. Even Great Milenko, which produced some fantastic songs failed as an album. They had a great foundation, but somehow for four albums they failed to even comes close to fulfilling the potential.

The reason Jeckel Brothers works is simple. While on Milenko they lifted their strengths to great singles, on Jeckel Brothers they take care of the weaknesses. There are songs here called “Bitches” and “Another Love Song” and they’re both great. That’s because the Clowns are less considered with being dirty and shocking, and more with this whole act of crazy killer clowns. “Bitches” sounds so stoned and out-there it’s hard to get offended by it. Ol’ Dirty Bastard appears in it to inform us that he’s willing to have sex with fat women when he’s smoking weed. This is how overblown this album is.

The theatrical side was always the Clowns’ strength. Whenever they stopped acting like Horrorcore rappers and tried to make a soundtrack to their Dark Carnival thing, they sounded focused and original. There are two interludes dedicated to the title characters, and they both work. Banging beats with carnival sounds, circus announcer vocals and melodic hooks were what made their best songs.

The Clowns translate this new found understanding of their sound to a strong, consistent set of songs. The album’s length also comes from it. They extend it to 17 tracks not to cover up a lack of ideas, but because they have a lot of them. Songs like “Mad Professor” and “I Want My Shit” wouldn’t work in Riddle Box, or even Great Milenko. Here, they’re amusing enough get by despite the underwhelming hooks. When the hooks are there, it’s good as always.

It’s also thanks to moving further to rock-like songs. Clark’s production hasn’t changed much. It operates in the same way as Great Milenko – guitar riffs, carnival sounds and anything else odd that he can get his hands on. The songs no longer sounds like they’re Hip-Hop with guitar noises added. “Play With Me, “Nothing Left” and “Everybody Rize” rely much more on hooks and melodies, and are closer to Crazy Town than anything else. The bolder approach suits them more. It allows them to play up the theatrical aspect, instead of just making bad rap songs full of cuss words.

Only two songs don’t really work, but even then it’s not as bad as before. “The Shaggy Show” and “Fuck the World” are decent ideas, but the former is boring and the latter has a stiff, annoying flow that’s supposed to be angry but is very unconvincing. It’s a waste of a good hook. They’re at least sound like they can improved upon.

“Assassins” deserves a special mention. The last hook descents into mayhem of gunshots, guitar riffs and screaming. It’s a perfect example of when the Clowns’ music really works, even if it’s a cover. Thankfully, Jeckel Brothers wasn’t a one off. Even when their later albums were underwhelming, they still have the same verve and spark they found here. I’d understand anyone not wanting to wade through the crap in their back catalogue, but Jeckel Brother is a unique album that deserves at least one spin. It’s amazing how they went from the dullness of Carnival of Carnage to this.

3.5 jugglers out of 5