Cutting into Concepts of "Reflectionist" Cinema? The Saw Franchise and Puzzles of Post-9/11 Horror

Matt Hills

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


The Saw franchise (2004-2010), on its seventh installment at the time of writing, has been one of the success stories of noughties horror. Writing of trends in contemporary horror cinema, the scholar and critic Kim Newman suggests that there have been a relatively small number of "films and filmmakers responding with dark, brutal gut- punches that define the times... The contemporary US horror canon, which we can loosely term the Grindhouse school... , includes Eli Roth's Hostel films... and James Wan's Saw (and sequels by other hands), perhaps the only modern American horrors which will be remade a generation after the sequels run out."1 Positioning the Saw titles as possessed of at least some cultural value, Newman nevertheless argues that modern horror is not generally as politicized as its predecessors. Whereas canonical genre movies such as Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) encouraged audiences "to make connections between what they'd just seen and what was happening in the world... these films were really 'about' Vietnam or social class in America," Newman argues that, by contrast, the noughties "is not an era that cares for films which are 'about' anything....The 'message' of horror in the 1970s tended to be that there was something seriously wrong with society; the 'message' of 2000s horror is that Other People Are Shit.... Too much current horror cinema adopts apparently contradictory positions of solipsism and misanthropy that need to be outgrown."2

In this chapter, I want to develop Newman's concerns by focusing in more detail on the Saw movies, analyzing to what extent they can be interpreted as being "about" contemporary political and cultural contexts. The question, then, is one of how we can relate horror texts to cultural contexts-here, particularly, the contexts of post- 9/11 U.S. (media) culture. I want to begin by addressing the range of ways in which we can theorize horror as relating to its society-through what are sometimes dubbed "reflectionist readings"- before moving on to consider the textual and sub-generic specificities of the Saw franchise as an example of what the journalist David Edelstein has termed "torture porn.

Ultimately, I will argue that the Saw movies suppress and marginalize readings through which their scenes of torture might be related to real- world political contexts. But at the level of their narrative problematics- returning obsessively to the meanings and contradictions of supposedly "righteous torture"- the Saw films can be read as recodings of U.S. political debates. Neither allegories nor metaphors for U.S. foreign policies leading to and following 9/11, the Saw movies are nonetheless not wholly divorced from post- 9/11 contexts, especially debates over whether the United States' treatment of "prisoners of war" can be construed or defined as torture, along with media coverage of Abu Ghraib. As torture porn, these movies circle thematically around contemporary political controversies, without quite being "about" them. As such, I will argue that we need to analyze Saw's spectacular "traps"-and its absence of magical or supernatural forces4-as a type of exaggerated, heightened modality, exploiting the horror genre to "tackle highly volatile issues... at a remove from reality."5 What is called for here is a more liminal, nuanced approach to text/context "reflectionism," which can move beyond alternatively dismissing specific horror texts as mere fantasy, or concretely revalorizing them as "serious" political commentary. And it is this wider issue of historicized text and context that I want to consider first, setting the stage for my subsequent analysis of the Saw franchise.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHorror After 9/11
Subtitle of host publicationWorld of Fear, Cinema of Terror
EditorsAviva Briefel, Sam J. Miller
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9780292735330, 9780292742420
ISBN (Print)9780292726628, 9780292747586
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

NameFilm, Media, and Popular Culture
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press


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