Category Archives: 2000s

The Ring Two (2005)

*. Wow. What a way to (almost?) kill a franchise. I liked The Ring and even thought it in some ways the equal to Ringu. To go from that to this . . .
*. What the hell were they thinking? This is one of those sequels that’s so bad it made me reconsider my feelings toward the first film. Was it really as good as I remembered it?
*. Is there any point even getting into a deeper discussion of a movie that fails at absolutely everything? Probably not, but here we go.
*. The story makes no sense at all, and just follows the same basic structure as the first movie. In their defence, they seem to have been hamstrung by the character of Samara. Exactly who or what she is has never been all that clear. She’s a demon in the first film, an abused child with mommy issues here, and a dark avenger in the subsequent Rings. But what do we really know about her? What are the limits of her powers and what does she want?
*. We start off with one of those terrible intro kills that are meant to set the tone. Some asshole wants to trick his girlfriend — who, by the way, looks way out of his league — into watching the haunted videotape. The usual mayhem ensues. This has been a fairly standard opening line in horror films for the last ten or twenty years now, and indeed it’s how The Ring starts as well. But they could have at least had some fun with it here, as they would in Rings.
*. The CGI is terrible. That deer attack? You have to laugh.
*. I don’t like calling out actors, but Naomi Watts clearly isn’t feeling this awful script and David Dorfman (who plays Aidan) doesn’t up his game to what is a leading role.
*. I didn’t even recognize Sissy Spacek. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her in anything. I wonder whatever . . . well. I guess stuff like this is what happened.
*. How and why does Max (a woefully underused Simon Baker) die? What does it have to do with his wanting to take Aidan’s picture? And most of all, why is his body sitting out in his truck?
*. There’s another point about this sequence: It isn’t scary. Nothing in it, from Max’s arrival at the house to Rachel’s discovery of his body, even attempts to be scary. There is no building of suspense. There aren’t even any jump scares. And this sequence follows on the heels of the earlier scene in the hospital when Aidan/Samara gets the psychologist to kill herself. What was scary about that? What did anyone think might have been scary about it? Was anyone involved with this project aware that they were making a horror movie?
*. There’s no point saying much more. There are no scares, and there’s no suspense, no atmosphere, no point to any of it. It’s actually one of the worst horror movies I’ve seen in a long time. Things could only get better. Right?


Oldboy (2003)

*. I’ll start off with a confession. The first time I saw Oldboy I didn’t like it much. In fact, I disliked it. I think this was mainly due to my not understanding what was going on, especially at the end. I’m not referring to Dae-su Oh’s enigmatic or ambiguous facial expression, but a more general sense that I must have missed something.
*. After getting the plot straight I still found it preposterous. Not only has the villain infinite resources and a long memory, he has a scheme for revenge so ridiculously elaborate and contrived it is hard to credit. Other questions also popped up. Do facilities like the prison hotel exist? Can we credit Dae-su’s mastery of the martial arts through fifteen years of shadow boxing and watching infomercials? And what of the use of hypnosis as a rather strained plot device? They might as well have made it a love potion, borrowed from some medieval fairy tale.

*. But after living with Oldboy for several years, and giving it some second chances, I’ve come around. I still think it’s a fantasy, but I’m more sympathetic toward where it’s coming from.
*. Like most fantasies, it’s meant to point a simple moral. As I see it, the moral here, and I think it’s a profound and important one, is that things that we personally experience as trivial and inconsequential may in fact have enormous impact on the lives of others. It takes Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) so long to figure out what he did to Woo-jin Lee precisely because it didn’t mean anything to him at the time. As Woo-jin tells him at the end, he didn’t have to be hypnotized to forget. “You just forgot because it wasn’t important to you.” For Dae-su, it was only Tuesday.
*. If you keep that moral in mind then I think a lot of the rest of the film’s highly questionable morality can be got around, leaving it to provide a garish backdrop that matches the horrific wallpaper. Speaking of which, is Korea the land of ugly wallpaper and even uglier bathrooms? I’m not talking about the prison hotel here but also Mi-do’s apartment, which is even worse in both regards. This was clearly a deliberate style choice (Oldboy is a very designed film) but I wonder why they wanted the sets to look so bad. Perhaps just to add to the sense of a hellish, dystopic world.

*. Returning to my main point, when I refer to the film’s “highly questionable morality” what I’m talking about are things like (1) how Dae-su is punished far beyond the nature of his crime (though this fits with the disproportionality between cause and effect that is the movie’s theme); (2) how Woo-jin basically gets away with his entire scheme, despite being a wicked man; and (3) how Dae-su’s friend is, if anything, even more culpable than he is, since he is the one who apparently starts the ball of gossip rolling. But Woo-jin only kills him in a momentary pique of anger.
*. To an audience raised on Hollywood fare, which is nothing if not conventional in its morality, I think all of this must come across as very strange. At least that’s how it struck me. But shouldn’t movies from other countries be different? I think they should. The puzzling question is why so many people in Hollywood wanted to remake Oldboy. Couldn’t they see that there was something here that was never going to translate? And before Spike Lee finally signed on Spielberg was going to take it on. I can’t think of two directors less naturally inclined to handle such material.
*. I won’t say anything more about the remake here aside from noting that it was ill-advised and turned out badly. In addition to flubbing the basic moral message, it had none of the artistry of what is a remarkably well made film.

*. What impresses me the most is the way the look and design of the film is used to evoke the variety of psychological and emotional states we travel through, and how this is done in such a way as to be both obvious and subtle. On the DVD commentary director Chan-wook Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spent almost all their time talking about technical matters, and mention how they used a lot of different techniques but that they didn’t want them to show. They wanted to hide the art of the film as much as possible. How did they manage to do this, in such an almost flamboyantly artistic film?
*. I think they did it by ramping up the extremity of the psychological and emotional states I mentioned, to the point where the audience is more interested in what is happening to the characters than in how they are being presented.

*. I’ll give one example, which is the brilliant bit of filmmaking that has Dae-su remembering what he saw at his private school. The first part of this is wonderful, using the various staircases with characters running in and out of frame to mirror the mental work that Dae-su is doing in trying to get back to the moment in the classroom. The Piranesi-like setting makes us feel like we’re inside the architecture of his brain, and while it’s very flashy, because we’re caught up in the same mental process, hot on the trail of the answer the puzzle the movie has set us right from the beginning, it’s not a flashiness that seems obtrusive.
*. This is followed by the scene where Dae-su sees the tryst in the classroom, which involves a complete change in style. Now we’re stuck with a long take shot from a single fixed camera position. It’s a real change of gear, but again you don’t notice the style so much (at least on a first viewing) because we’re stuck in the same position as Dae-su, as a voyeur to something that’s revealing on a couple of different levels. We’re just as obsessed as he is.
*. Now this is what I call filmmaking: when you can change up styles so smoothly, be so inventive, and yet perfectly match the direction to the exigencies of plot and character. And I think it’s something I didn’t appreciate enough the first time I saw the movie.

*. There are a lot of other great moments along the way. There’s some of the best use of a split screen I’ve ever seen, for one thing. Then there’s some great set design (I love the stained carpets in the prison hotel). But I think what I liked the most was the physicality of how Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su. The way he feels and tastes the rain outside his prison. The way he rubs himself over the suicidal man on the roof and tries to smell him. And perhaps best of all I like how tired he gets in the long fight scene. He’s not a superhero. He goes down a few times, gets hurt, and has to rest for a bit to get his breath back. Josh Brolin doesn’t do any of these things in the remake. He is a superman.

*. But even while coming around to Oldboy I have to say that I still find it a little too weird to fully get on board with. A really great movie shouldn’t have this crazy a plot. That is, however, the same problem I have with Vertigo. It’s just a matter of taste.

Saw VI (2009)

*. The sixth time round and it should have been the last. For two reasons: (1) they were obviously running out of ideas (or had run out a while ago); and (2) this is actually one of the best films in the series and they could have ended on a high note. Alas, the “final chapter” was still to be written, and may not be written yet.
*. What makes it better than the franchise average? Well, for starters the traps (or “gags” are they are affectionately known in the industry) are better. From the Merchant of Venice opening, through the jaws-of-breath chest vice, shotgun carousel, acid rack, and final return to the reverse bear trap (which we actually see work), I would rate them all pretty high. Not because I think they’re great, but because I’ve always felt that the traps in the other films were overrated by fans. Most of them are just some variation on a victim in chains having to beat the clock or be torn apart.

*. I also liked that the plot, though complicated (or incomprehensible to anyone who missed the first five instalments), does a respectable job tying up as many loose threads as possible without trying to be gratuitously tricky. There’s a twist at the end, but it really doesn’t have much to do with the main story. They could have wrapped the series up here in a way that at least made sense.
*. It’s a more sedate film. They only break out the crazy editing a few times, and the colour scheme, especially the green torture chambers, is muted somewhat. This is a movie that has a job to do.
*. Another thing going for it is the political angle. None of the other Saw films even suggested a political subtext, preferring to hang their hat on a really dubious philosophical proposition about proving the value of your life by making a choice to live. Here, however, we’re punishing the number-crunchers who screwed people out of their health insurance or who primed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. I was actually looking forward to seeing these guys get theirs more than the druggies and criminals of the earlier films. White-collar crime is crime too! Jigsaw has his own justice system, and who’s to say it isn’t more equitable?

*. That said, there are a number of victims who appear to be nothing more than meat in some of the gags. What did the poor custodian do to deserve his place on the rack? Smoke?
*. It’s also weird how the police have been targeted by the series. This is something you don’t really notice in the first film, though Danny Glover and Ken Leung both get killed trying to hunt Jigsaw down. It’s just that in their case they were playing their own game of cops and robbers and they lost. It happens. But in Saw IV I was troubled by what crime Rigg was being punished for. Caring too much? Doing his job? And why did Strahm have to suffer such a horrible fate in Saw V?
*. In this film Erickson and Perez are slaughtered almost as an afterthought. Of course, like all the police in the Saw films they were working totally alone. That certainly helps clear up any loose ends, but how realistic is it?
*. Looking at all of this together, you get the feeling that somebody just doesn’t like cops very much. That may be making a political point as well, but I’m not sure what it is. Is Jigsaw trying to show them how they should be doing their jobs?
*. No, I don’t think this is a good movie except in a relative sense. But since this franchise is really a serial that’s the way you have to judge them. If I were to do a ranking I might put this second on my list of favourites. It should have been the last. However, even though the box office was starting to tail off the title was still making money. The carousel would continue to spin.

Exam (2009)

*. Not what I was expecting.
*. Here’s what I thought I was getting: the Game of Death premise (contestants locked in a room and kept under surveillance while they try to escape or eliminate the competition before the clock runs out) given a political edge, made over into an allegory of the dog-eat-dog world of business. The basic premise of the Spanish film The Method, but given an extra tightening of the screw. It’s a J. G. Ballard sort of set-up, which would have made for some interesting commentary.
*. That’s not how Exam plays, at all. But, you may well ask, so what? So it’s not the movie I thought it would be or wanted it to be. That’s not the movie’s fault.
*. Unfortunately, it’s not a good movie even judged on its own terms.
*. In the first place, there’s nothing remotely realistic about it. Indeed, the premise is made even more bizarre and artificial than usual — and these locked-room stories are nothing if not artificial, mimicking the anti-reality of reality TV. The plot is given a bizarre SF overlay having to do with some new wonder drug. It seems the company isn’t a ruthless conglomerate but is instead involved in developing biotechnology that’s going to save the human race. So these contestants are going to kill each other for the opportunity to . . . do some good! Huh?

*. Then there is the challenge itself. The job applicants are given a sheet of paper and told there is one question to answer and they have a limited time to answer it. But the papers appear to be blank. So one would assume there is some sort of trick involved. There is, but since this group of corporate climbers consists of the most literal-minded types imaginable they try to solve the problem by such expedients as smashing light sources to fill the room with different frequencies of light, or setting off the sprinkler system to see if soaking the paper reveals any invisible ink.
*. This might be funny, with the applicants all being too smart for their own good, but I don’t think that’s how it’s meant to be taken. Nor is there any political allegory or message involved. In the end, the test is revealed to have been both cruel and pointless, which seems particularly odd given the CEO and his corporation’s humanistic mission.
*. To give you some idea of how jarring and out of synch the ending is, there’s a montage of flashbacks at the end that recalls the similar montage at the end of Saw. The difference is that the montage at the end of Saw explains the rest of the movie perfectly. Here it’s just a recap of what’s happened, none of which there is any point in recapping since it doesn’t give us any information that lets us reinterpret the events of the previous ninety minutes.

*. The one thing I did like was the opening credit sequence, which had the applicants appearing to be getting ready to go into battle by fixing their hair, straightening their ties, putting on make-up, and stepping into high heels. Those heels will actually come in handy later on too. I only wish there was more of that sort of thing.
*. In brief, I didn’t get the ending and I didn’t think it was any fun getting there. Surprisingly, Exam did receive some good reviews, complimenting the direction, script and cast. People seemed impressed at what was done on such a limited set. I could name some very, very bad movies made with similar limitations. As for the acting, I think the accents might have helped sell what are some pretty dull performances. I mean, another thing about the incongruity of the ending is that the winner is a character who does and says almost nothing the entire film, and about whom we know the least. So how are we to even care?
*. It was a simple enough idea, meaning the movie really only had to do a few things right. I didn’t think it did any of them well enough. That’s my final grade.

Kill Theory (2009)

*. I suppose it looked good on paper. Basically a cabin-in-the-woods, slasher flick crossbred with the Game of Death genre (the children of Saw). The psycho killer here wants a bunch of college buddies to play a game, to test the limits of their friendship in the most absolute way possible. Last man or woman standing wins. Come on people, you know the drill.
*. I’ll give the script some credit. The killer’s back story and motivation is actually pretty interesting (as far as these things go, mind you), and the obligatory twist at the end rounds things off nicely. But when all is said and done, there just wasn’t enough here to keep me interested.
*. Kills? Not very impressive. One guy gets a poker (or something) shoved through his eye. Someone else gets bludgeoned with a shovel. That’s about it. Everybody else just gets shot or stabbed. Ho-hum. Jigsaw at least kept things interesting with his Meccano-set death machines.
*. There were a couple of other problems I’d flag. In the first place, the action is all quite predictable. By now we can all be pretty damn sure that anyone who we don’t see being really killed, isn’t dead yet. If there’s any plausible way they can be brought back, they will be. So gut shots aren’t going to do it. Once you know that, a lot of the plot basically takes care of itself.
*. The other drag on the film is the acting. It’s really not very good. The players aren’t helped out by the script because they have to travel character arcs in a real hurry, but even so I had a hard time buying any of them.
*. For example Freddy, the token fat guy, loses his shit too quickly (and completely). Meanwhile, Brent makes too quick (and complete) a jump over to the dark side. In short, it just seems like the gang falls apart a little too easily. There were a number of options on the table if they wanted to try and survive together, but . . .
*. But maybe they didn’t like each other very much anyway. That, at least, is my reading of what’s going on. None of us has friends, we only have interests. In setting up the game the killer is pushing at an open door. Hell, they might have all killed each other anyway. Just taking away the fat guy’s videogames and the hot chick’s pills might have done it.
*. A decent idea, but not very well executed in any department. A footnote to a sub-genre, and one which you can easily skip.

Saw V (2008)

*. With the fifth kick at the can it’s pretty obvious that the franchise is running out of juice. Of course by now a lot of the ingredients have already become familiar. The industrial traps, usually involving a lot of metal collars, chains, and locked doors. The greenish lighting. The twitchy editing. The converging cops who don’t seem to know what the word “back-up” means (I was amazed when the FBI guy waits right up until he starts discovering bodies before he calls for help . . . and then not for back-up but for an ambulance!). All topped off with the climactic montage. That’s the formula, and they’re repeating it here.
*. But this time it feels different. We’re back to the group Game of Death premise from Saw II, bracketed with a whole bunch of backfill that retells the story of the first three movies with the character of Hoffman now injected into the proceedings. I don’t know for sure but I suspect this may have struck Sawmaniacs as an unwelcome exercise in revisionist history. It certainly seems to diminish Jigsaw to know he had a partner even before Amanda. Or at least I think Hoffman was on board before Amanda. With all the jumping around I kind of lost track.
*. The only positive to all this is that I found the plot slightly easier to follow than previous outings. The downside was that none of it seemed very interesting, especially as I didn’t care much about the Hoffman character or his nemesis Strahm (who, despite being the hero, is impossible to like). It’s also very curious how this series is progressing. Which is to say, it doesn’t advance so much as it keeps picking away at itself like a scab. It’s all two steps forward and two steps back.
*. The traps? A little better than in Saw IV but nothing that struck me as very inspired. Fans seem to like the one where they slice open their hands with a table saw but I wasn’t feeling it. I like how they start off with the pendulum gag though. You can’t go wrong with the classics (something very similar was used in the Dario Argento “Black Cat” story in Two Evil Eyes). The electrical circuit puzzle lost me. I’ll confess I’m not that smart when it comes to such things, but I think if I’d been stuck in that situation I would have demanded better instructions. Like, a whole booklet of them.
*. Not much better or worse than the rest of the series, at least to my disinterested eye. Yes, it’s all seeming old by this point, but the charm (is that the right word?) of the franchise is that curious sense of running in place, as though we’re looping for all eternity in this scum-coloured limbo of the damned. Our visions of hell define us, and are perhaps what we deserve.

Breathing Room (2008)

*. There were two horror subgenres that exploded in the twenty-first century. The first was shaky-cam or found-footage films, the second was the Game of Death or locked-room psychological thriller. To be frank, and maybe even a bit cynical, both cases were being driven by their low bottom lines. These kinds of movies got made because they were cheap and could e counted on to make a good return on minimal investments.
*. Cube is usually given credit as the original Game of Death movie, but it was the success of Saw that really got things started. Breathing Room is one of the clearest rip-offs of Saw, right down to the flickering fluorescent lights, the surveillance cameras, the miniature cassette player with taped instructions, the discovery of various in-game hints, and the shock collars used to enforce the rules. Even the general décor of the single set has a similar, if less worn, look.
*. Calling Breathing Room a rip-off doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not necessarily, anyway. It just means it takes the same basic premise and a lot of the same elements. Unfortunately, nothing about it is as well done as Saw, or even House of 9.
*. It’s not a problem that Breathing Room looks as cheap as it does. It was apparently shot on a $25,000 budget, which I would have thought was impossible. By way of comparison, Saw cost over $1 million. We may take a low budget and all that comes with it for granted when playing the Game of Death. The problem is that there’s nothing in the direction or the script to help Breathing Room rise above its limited means.
*. Say what you will about these locked-room flicks, but they do at least foreground the scriptwriter’s art. If you have a small group of characters trapped in a room interacting with each other, and that’s it, then the script has to do most of the work.
*. This is where Breathing Room falls down. It’s fun to play along with, but it’s a big tease with no payoff. Clues regularly arrive, but none of them are pertinent to anything important. The rules, such as keeping your hands clean, seem totally superfluous. A new character is introduced in the final act who has no role to play at all. There is no explanation of how the killer(s) manage to do all their work when the lights go out. But worst of all is the ending, that totally flubs the question of who is behind all of this and what the point is.
*. You could argue that Cube also left this unresolved, but it was a different sort of movie (and the later films in the Cube series filled in the blanks). What’s odd about Breathing Room is that we are taken behind the curtain but we’re left in the dark as to whether the game is a form of punishment, a social psychology experiment, private entertainment designed by a wealthy sadist, or a reality TV program. This matters because the ending is what is supposed to make sense of everything that’s gone before.
*. As with any good murder mystery, the revelation of the killer is what the whole story builds up toward and, in hindsight, can be seen as having been constructed around. Here there’s just a blank. Why is there a game? Because if there wasn’t then there wouldn’t be a movie. If the rest of the movie were better they might have got away with this, but instead we’re left feeling that the filmmakers either didn’t care or weren’t trying very hard.

Saw IV (2007)

*. I’ve heard it said that it’s best to binge-watch the Saw series, making the effect sort of like one of those Feuillade serials, with Jigsaw and his acolytes in the role of the super-criminals Fantômas or the Vampires. I’m inclined to agree with this, as I didn’t see Saw IV until long after I’d seen Saw III and, to be honest, I’d completely forgotten what had happened in that film. Since the surprise twist at the end of IV (spoiler here) is that the action has all been taking place at the same time as the events of III, if I had remembered what happened in III I might have understood this one a little better. But I doubt I would have enjoyed it any more.
*. There have been worse franchises, I’m sure, but that’s the best I can say for these movies. A lot of fans (or Sawmaniacs) like to rank them from best to worst but I don’t see the point in that. Aside from the first, none of them are very good. They’re not terrible, but if you want to call one of them better than the others you’re really going to have to roll up your critical sleeves and do some work. I just don’t have it in me.
*. For what it’s worth, Saw IV may be the most complicated Saw movie, as it marks the transition or passing of the torch from John Kramer (Tobin Bell) to Lt. Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). The story is told in a typically non-linear fashion and a second viewing may be necessary to pick up all the clues as to what is going on. That said, the big reveal had none of the same impact as Kramer rising from the dead at the end of Saw. When Hoffman is shown to be the mastermind behind the whole plot here I only felt that it made about as much sense as anything else in the movie.

*. On that last point, I realize Jigsaw is a criminal genius, but his plots here come together with no plausibility whatsoever. It even puts The Game to shame. In the next entry, Saw V, Jigsaw tells us that “if you’re good at anticipating the human mind it leaves nothing to chance.” That’s bullshit. I mean, I’m glad they at least made a belated attempt at addressing a major problem all these movies have (and one which got progressively worse as the series continued), but it’s still bullshit. At any point in the story if one little thing had gone wrong then the whole Rube Goldberg plot would have fallen to pieces. Of course, nothing ever does go wrong because then there wouldn’t be a movie. As director Darren Lynn Bousman says on the commentary: “Jigsaw knows everything. You just have to kind of buy into that believability if you’re going to go on the journey of the Saw films.”
*. There’s nothing particularly new going on in this instalment, but that shouldn’t be surprising. Audiences wanted more of the same, and Bousman (who also directed II and III) wasn’t about to disappoint them. On the commentary he even says at one point that “the Saw films direct themselves,” which was being facetious (I think) but not far from the mark. Later he remarks on how the assembly-line nature of the Saw franchise production schedule doesn’t leave any time for second-guessing or tweaking the process. But that’s what franchise filmmaking is.
*. So (after a nice blue-grey prologue with what look like colourized fleshy reds) there are the same usual morbid green tones, brightening at times to chartreuse, for the torture chambers, the same whirling dervish-style editing, the same slippery (and sometimes very clever) transitions, the same nightmare nesting of tapes and notes and photos and other clues, and of course the usual bunch of post-industrial, rust-belt inspired traps. All of this was there in the original Saw and they weren’t messing with the formula this late in the day.

*. As part of the shift from Kramer to Hoffman the beneficence of the former is stressed even more, though I don’t think very convincingly. Sure Hoffman is just a bureaucratic killer without Jigsaw’s joyless sadism and sense of mission, but I never bought Kramer’s philosophy of teaching his victims some kind of lesson even in the first film and as things went on it became increasingly tenuous. He’s saving Rigg by teaching him not to try and save people? What sense does that make? And how does Rigg’s basic sense of honour and duty make him deserving of such punishment?
*. I wonder how much Donnie Wahlberg got paid for this. I think they mentioned on the commentary that he was only there for a couple of days of filming, and while I doubt he was ever very comfortable he didn’t really have to do much either.
*. It does repay a second viewing to unpack all the little Easter eggs that have been scattered about, but even after seeing it a few times I haven’t come away liking it any more. It’s a well crafted puzzle with a decent twist, and I don’t think anyone’s to blame, but I found myself caring less and less about what’s going on as this series continued. I hate to think I’m only interested in seeing what sort of horrible contraptions they’ll come up with next, but the rest of the stuff doesn’t seem worth the effort figuring out.

Saw III (2006)

*. Since this is the one where he finally dies (though he’ll continue to hang around, a lot, in flashbacks), perhaps now’s a good time to ask how we’re meant to feel toward John Kramer, a.k.a., Jigsaw?
*. In terms of the way he functions, he’s basically just another superhuman, genius serial killer with inexhaustible stores of wealth to fund his depravities.
*. And with only that brief summary I realize I’m already at risk of upsetting his fanboys. Jigsaw himself rejects the label of serial killer, explaining on several occasions that he never kills anyone (“I don’t condone murder and I despise murderers”). For some reason critics have backed him up on this, including the usually reliable Kim Newman. This is mere casuistry. Of course Jigsaw kills his victims, and it’s very much murder in the first degree (planned and deliberate). No jury in the world would acquit. That out of the way . . .
*. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him? He is, after all, dying of a terrible disease. His tests might even be taken as metaphors of how the cure for some cancers is worse than the disease. But does anybody buy his bullshit about how he’s helping people by putting them through hell? Because it worked, and only temporarily, for Amanda doesn’t carry much weight. As with the apologists who say he doesn’t actually kill anyone this strikes me as, well, to repeat: more bullshit. To take just one example from this movie, what about all the people Jeff has to either rescue or let die in his gauntlet? Are they just being used as props? And in all these cases isn’t the punishment a hundred times worse than the crime?

*. In my notes on Saw II I mentioned how it wasn’t a good idea to give Jigsaw so much screen time (an opinion that, I also noted, was very much a minority view). I like him even less here. From being pompous and cruel he has turned bitter and self-pitying. As for what he was trying to do with Amanda, it just doesn’t bear much thinking about. I tried and it got me nowhere.
*. Turning to the movie itself, no I didn’t like it. I’ve remarked on how in Saw II there wasn’t the same brilliant interlocking of the different plot threads as in Saw and here the separate stories are even more disunited. I say that despite the desperate and strained attempt to pull them together at the end, which didn’t work for me at all.
*. I also didn’t care about the two victim-protagonists. Indeed, I had to look up their names when preparing this write-up since I couldn’t remember either of them. And in the end they aren’t even that important since they’re both only extras in Amanda’s test anyway.
*. As for the tests, they’re not very inventive or a lot of fun. There is more emphasis on physical torture instead of having to beat the clock, and most of them had similar set ups with the victims being crucified in various industrial ways. The exception was the offal death pit, which was just so stupid it went beyond imagining. I like Peter Hartlaub’s take on it: “one incredibly large and intricate torture device in this movie couldn’t have been made without four or five subcontractors, but we’re supposed to believe a mentally unbalanced ex-junkie who weighs 100 pounds put it together in, at most, a few months.” However, in the film’s defence, later entries in the series explain that there was another accomplice, and Shawnee Smith sure looks like she’s been working out.
*. It was a longer film than the first two, and for no good reason. There are a lot of flashbacks but I didn’t see why they were necessary as they didn’t explain much. And just to stick with them for a second, why is it that Amanda’s suffocating Adam is always referred to as a “mercy killing”? It seems pretty violent to me.
*. Criticism, however, is superfluous. By this point we were solidly in franchise territory, which meant that audiences just wanted more of the same with an extension of the back story or (as these things have come to be known) the mythology. An odd, unsatisfying ending both seemed to put an end to things while at the same time promising there would be more. Given the profitability of the series it was a promise that would be easy to keep.

House of 9 (2005)

*. I like how the Voice (credited as the Watcher) begins by telling everyone that he’s sure “they’ve all seen the shows.” The contestants, like the audience watching this movie, know the drill. No need for instructions or explanations. Last man or woman standing gets the cash and a showroom full of glamorous prizes. Let the games begin.
*. In 2005 I think the Watcher has to be referencing shows like Survivor and Big Brother, which both had U.S. debuts in 2000 (though they were taken from Dutch TV originals that had begun airing in 1997). Cube had been released in 1997, but while there are similarities to that film it’s really a bit different and Cube was seen by almost nobody when it first came out. Its cult status was still something new. Battle Royale was released in 2000. Saw had come out just a year earlier and while the Watcher’s lines may have been added later I don’t know how much of an inspiration Saw would have been to the initial concept.
*. Nevertheless, I think we all do get the point. House of 9 belongs to a genre we might call the Game of Death, which can be traced back to sources like The Most Dangerous Game and And Then Were None. What was new in the twenty-first century was the surveillance theme.
*. As for why the Watcher is doing this, his brief introduction gives us this explanation: “I want you to consider yourselves to be mice in a laboratory, rats in a cage if you will, because this is the ultimate test of human character, only here this test is purely for entertainment. My entertainment.”
*. Is he telling the truth? There seems to be a big gap between the experiments a scientist does and the personal gratification provided by mere entertainment. And given how much the Watcher has obviously invested in the project, don’t we think he might have splurged on some better cameras?
*. The way these movies work is pretty simple. We are the Watcher, and the game show format is both simple to understand and effective at creating drama. It’s reality TV, which, while not always scripted, has nothing at all to do with reality. Everything about what we’re seeing is artificial. We’re dropping normal people into an extraordinary, high-pressure situation and watching them come undone.
*. It’s also pared-down filmmaking. As a rule, such movies don’t have much in the way of beginnings (the characters just wake up in a locked room) or endings (with the completion of the game left vague and ambiguous). Most of the action takes place on a single set (like the cube, a grungy bathroom, an elevator, or a futuristic circle). It’s simple stuff, but such simplicity might explain the genre’s popularity with indie writers and directors.
*. You do, however, still need to have a decent script. Here is where House of 9 starts to fall apart. Specifically, it collapses with a house party the contestants decide to throw where nearly everybody gets drunk and stoned while listening to music. This struck me as a totally unbelievable moment, right down to the use of the music to make it all play like an extended pop interlude.
*. What the house party leads to is the first death, which only occurs because (a) everyone is drunk and stoned, and (b) there’s an accident. In other words, the Game of Death has been crossed with an idiot plot, needing this moment of stupidity to get things going.
*. None of the characters are remotely believable. Why is the married guy crazy? Because he’s an artist? Because his wife’s death has triggered a latent lipstick fetish? Would the story have worked if he wasn’t a psychopath? Why is the cop such an idiot about waving his gun around all the time? Why doesn’t the black guy take the cop’s gun after he kills him? And what the hell is Dennis Hopper doing here?
*. Hopper is absolutely dreadful playing an Irish priest. He has no purpose but to cross himself over and over, bless the Spartan meals, and offer up homilies and useless advice like “You must all look inside yourselves, and that which you find there will save you.” I couldn’t make up my mind whether the film was trying to make fun of him or if this was inadvertent. I think it was unintended.
*. I mean, does Father Duffy really say “You need to learn to do unto others as you’d have done to unto you“? He does. That’s hilarious. Guess there wasn’t time for a retake. Or . . . did no one notice?
*. I didn’t like much about this one. The script and performances are poor. The editing was noticeably garbled at times. The premise was just a throwaway. I did like the set, though it seemed far larger than would have been necessary. Also the twist at the end was pretty good. As with Cube, it seems we’re stuck inside a whole Game of Death universe. But then, that may be all the point these movies are making. Life is a game and then you die.