Ten Years Later: Saw & the Torture Porn Genre


Ten long years ago a new horror movie trailer hits the internet which ends up igniting a long lasting fire in the world of horror arguably creating or at least launching a sub-genre into the mainstream. Whether horror fans like it or not the ‘torture porn’ genre is here to stay and plays an important flesh burning, blood spraying part in horror’s evolution.

2004’s Saw, by James Wan director of other notable horror flicks The Conjuring and Insidious, shocked audiences with its brutal yet creepy and thought-provoking portrayal of physical suffering, changing the landscape of horror forever. Two seemingly unconnected men awaken in a rundown bathroom chained by the ankles and separated by the corpse of another victim rotting in a pool of blood. A tape recorder explains to each of them a set of rules and instructions they must follow in order to be freed of this masochistic game they’ve been thrust into. What follows is a simply brilliantly executed horror film, chilling to the bone and wildly cruel with twists and turns to no end.

Surpassing the profits of 1996’s Scream, Saw quickly became a highly successful franchise in the years to come spawning six sequels (and rumors of more yet to come) with skyrocketing profits totaling over $100,000,000 worldwide making it one of the highest-grossing horror franchises of all time.

Saw Shawnee Smith Amanda

Whether you’re a diehard fan or not we can all agree that everyone loves a good horror film but Saw got its’ post-9/11 audiences up close and personal, making them confront a very newly relevant anxiety and topic of much debate, torture. Since the attacks in 2001 the use of coercive interrogation has increased significantly as well as the public’s knowledge of its use, naturally films reflecting this new issue began to surface shortly thereafter. Although not necessarily inventing the genres Saw did without a doubt have a great hand in defining and maybe even kick-starting the modern “game” horror and infamous torture porn genre.

Critics and fans alike have come to bastardize the term “torture porn” to harshly condemn certain films like Hostel, Martyrs, The Human Centipede, and A Serbian Film, whom all quickly followed Saw in an attempt to cash in on its success. The basic rule of thumb now almost seems to be if a film is seen as gross or graphic by anyone too old or uptight to enjoy it, it is negatively labeled “torture porn”. The visceral displays of suffering even crosses genres in films like The Passion of the Christ and Unthinkable and went on to influence new genres such as New French Extremism.

Although today the genre has become be somewhat diluted. now spawning many straight to DVD imitations, ten years later after the earth-shattering Saw we now have a well defined brutal history of creative dismemberment and graphic violence. Has it’s golden age come and gone? Perhaps, but in the end no one can deny the effect Saw had on horror narratives and no matter what your stance may be on the film and the torture porn genre its’ legacy will do doubt be long lasting. They appeal to the dark nature hidden inside all of us, and as the great Stephen King said about the genre, “sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.”


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      1. Stephen Keane February 22, 2014 at 6:51 pm

        Bloody good article and I agree all the way

      2. James McDonald February 22, 2014 at 6:58 pm

        This year is the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the SAW film series and we have yet to hear of any plans for a continuation or a re-boot. The fans want a new SAW movie, but no one seems to be interested in making one. I thought SAW 2 and SAW 3 were the best.

      3. Pat Powers February 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm

        saw sucks

      4. James McDonald February 22, 2014 at 7:04 pm

        Oops! I wrote to soon. On Wikipedia, they have written that it was reported in November 2013 that SAW VIII is in active development to be released October 23, 2015.

      5. levi5991 February 22, 2014 at 8:35 pm

        The sad thing about Saw is that people associate it with what torture porn is: a film that has little to no plot, extremely bloody and gory scenes and having unlikable characters die a horrible death. If you really think this applies to Saw, you shouldn’t be watching any horror movie made post-Scream. So yeah, basically you can thank Scream, not Saw.

      6. Levi Everaerts February 22, 2014 at 8:36 pm

        Pat Powers – Why? Because you think it’s all about “torture porn”? It’s not, Saw has a great plot and is in many ways much smarter than people make it out to be. The first trilogy is one of the best horror, nay, film trilogies ever made.

        • Zach Pitts
          Zach Pitts February 23, 2014 at 2:43 am

          Ever? Must not watch very many movies.

        • Levi Everaerts
          Levi Everaerts February 23, 2014 at 2:54 am

          It depends on which movies you watch, not how many. The character of Amanda Young is brilliantly written, and it perfectly portrays the slow build-up to a brutal mental breakdown when everything goes to shit in Saw III, which is where this character shines (technically, it’s her film, in more than one way). Many people only see the traps and the morality tale that has many flaws (which is the entire point of the franchise: Jigsaw is a fucking hypocrite). I see (at least in the first trilogy) a great character story about how villains are created, that not all of them are aware that what they’re doing is wrong, and most important of all: They’re still human. “So wait…he dies in the third film and DOESN’T come back to life or becomes a zombie? He’s like..dead? For real? Not coming back ever?” Yes, isn’t it great? No stupid cop-outs about being dragged down to Hell or living in a dream world. A real person with real emotions going absolutely mental. This is why the first film also works so well, because it has almost no gore. It’s a psychological thriller, and to be honest, the entire first trilogy is this. I hate to be that guy, but I’d rather watch this than a suspenseless film with a villain so incredibly dull and underdeveloped that it makes even Saw 3D look like a Hitchcock film (and you can bet your ass I’m talking about Halloween).

        • Sam Kelly March 2, 2014 at 11:57 am

          I’m glad someone FINALLY sees eye-to-eye with me on this one, that Saw isn’t just gore and torture porn, and the storyline is more detailed than given credit for. There are characters that I really cared for; ones that I really cared for (Amanda Young, Jill Tuck, the doctor woman in Saw III) and I was sad to see some of them die. Your short review of Amanda’s character is brilliant; she’s an accurate representation of having stuff like anxiety, depression, mental breakdowns etc.
          Jill Tuck, Jigsaw’s ex-wife, is a great character that *SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER* I was sad to see die.
          Mark Hoffman (who I thought was a fucking twat) was also a great character, and even though it was only shown in a small scene, he has GREAT intuition, as seen in the scene where Jill put him in the Reverse Bear trap and jams it into the jail cell-like bars, in the room, which understandably sets in place his hatred for Jill.
          Overall a brilliant series. I was not expecting the last one to be my favourite (you know how it is with sequels).

      7. Hez Kaminski February 22, 2014 at 10:25 pm

        This film is a big part of my life including the building of my relationship the last ten years with my boyfriend

        • James McDonald February 22, 2014 at 10:59 pm

          I bet their is an interesting story behind that.

      8. Jennifer Berndt February 22, 2014 at 11:42 pm

        ” basic rule of thumb now almost seems to be if a film is seen as gross or graphic by anyone too old or uptight to enjoy it, it is negatively labeled “torture porn”.”

        You’re saying that if a shitty horror movie receives bad reviews and is called torture porn, it is automatically and undeniably because the reviewer is ” too old or uptight to enjoy it”? Sorry dude, there are tons of legitimately terrible movies that are rightly reviewed as terrible, and it has nothing to do with everyone just being old and uptight.

      9. Tiago February 22, 2014 at 11:43 pm

        The plot for Saw is an lousy excuse to explore torture, and gore. It is exploitation without tits. I agree with the post 9/11 stuff in the sense that after what happened on live TV what can really shock people? Now Martyrs is a good example that a movie can be violent as hell, and still be good and relevant, because the violence serves the plot, and not the other way around.
        The target audience for Serbian Film is the first line to go to hell. I refuse to watch that movie. Human Centipede is harmless bad film making for people with psychological issues.
        Hostel is just poor taste, boring torture exploitation. Is this the best this “genre” has to offer?
        Torture porn is just a symptom of a sick and dumb society, in most cases.

        • Sam Kelly March 2, 2014 at 12:05 pm

          I understand you mentioning The Human Centipede and Serbian Film as being bad movies (but holy shit am I excited for THC III) but I have to draw the line at Saw. I do have to admit that the plot kind of wobbles a bit and some bits contradict others and that it gets VERY think later into the films, but if you don’t look into JUST the bad parts, the plot is fantastic. There is always one plot twist at the end that (and this is me speaking for myself) that I didn’t exactly see coming (I admit that the plot twist at the end of Saw VII was a bit foreseeable, but nonetheless, it was good

      10. Martin (@doubleagent73) February 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm

        Excellent and interesting article, I totally agree with what you said.

      11. Brett February 25, 2014 at 6:23 pm

        Personally, I find it interesting that the first Saw is labelled as horror. I don’t consider it such. To me, it was actually a thriller. A very intelligent, well-constructed thriller, but in the end, a thriller. Not horror.

        I might also point out that torture porn existed before the movies- the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris in the early 1900’s regularly displayed plays in which characters were raped, tortured, and murdered with the villains often getting off scott-free. As much as I personally can’t stomach the sub-genre, the fact is, it’s legitimate, and it’s been around for a very, very long time.

      12. Riley (@FlapjackRiley) February 26, 2014 at 4:14 am

        Interesting point you’ve made about the post 9/11 horror film because there is definitely something to be said about how modern horror films are much more aggressive when it has to compete with reality. All you have to do is turn on your TV and watch the news to see something just as horrible. Which is why I can kinda see what Saw was trying to say in that regard but it’s own internal logic is so stupid and contrived that I can’t get behind the series.

      13. David Wojciechowski March 4, 2014 at 7:13 am

        Just want to point out New French Extremism started before Saw – Haute Tension, a classic example of the genre, was released a year before the first Saw. So…yeah.

        • David Wojciechowski March 4, 2014 at 7:16 am

          Not to mention Baise-moi and Trouble Every Day. In fact, the term “New French Extremity” was coined 8 months before Saw even came out.

        • Jared March 5, 2014 at 3:08 am

          “and went on to influence new genres such as New French Extremism”, not create.

      14. ArtH March 31, 2015 at 3:43 pm

        Feels like torture porn is when make up artists and special effects people decide to make a horror movie without a writer. I love story and plot and nuance. Horror movies lacking this are boring and “torture porn” is the worst offender.