The Angry Appeal of the Saw Movies
John Kramer has always seen himself as a hero. Even in the original Saw of 2004, long before we learned about his suicide attempt, his wife’s miscarriage, or the scam depicted in Saw X, Kramer presented himself as a man with extreme self-help philosophies. That’s only grown over the course of the franchise, to the point that Kramer can declare in Saw III, “I’ve never killed anyone and I despise murderers.”
Through most of those entries, however, the audience is encouraged to stay on the side of the victims. Even those who did objectively terrible things, like killing a kid while driving drunk or burning a building for insurance money; even when we shouted in delight at the gory deaths on screen, we never really sided with Jigsaw’s philosophy. Throughout it all, Kramer came off just as deranged as his many apprentices, a guy whose lack of proportion justified the torture of drug addicts, battered wives, suicide survivors, and other victims.
It can be argued that the relationship between the popularity of the movies and the evil of John Kramer stemmed in part from America’s role on the global stage during the 2000s; the heyday of the Saw franchise. In his book Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11, San Fransisco State University Professor Aaron Michael Kerner declared, “The genre of torture porn— a brand of horror film that emerged in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror— attempts to negotiate the angst-filled years colored by the devastating terrorist attack.”
According to Kerner and others, torture porn flicks like Saw help Americans (and their allies, as is the case with Saw’s Australian creators, James Wan and Leigh Whannell) to make sense of torture as a moral good against evil terrorists. The religious jargon of the Bush administration echoed in the messages Kramer sent his contestants. Kerner sees in Kramer’s use of accomplices an echo of the U.S. using private military groups to do its dirty work overseas.
Thus when the first audiences watched Saw and its sequels, they thrilled at the gore, but they also felt more than a little guilty about their participation in the spectacle. They turned their mistrust toward Kramer, a man who, like the U.S. itself, turned a wrong against him into an excuse to spread suffering to others.
The Heroism of John Kramer
But then something funny happened on the way to later sequels. Jigsaw became a hero. It’s not entirely unusual for a killer to become the fan favorite in a horror franchise. Over time Freddy, Chucky, and Jason have all become the main attractions of their stories, with Robert Englund, Brad Dourif, and Kane Hodder winning more sympathy than whatever underdeveloped character they’re offing onscreen.