Sunday, February 15, 2009

LionsGate's "Saw" franchise suddenly attracts (negative) attention because of NIU tragedy; but this is a great little studio

I saw the first “Saw” film on DVD in 2005 a few months after the release, and the DVD contained a lot of material about the entrepreneurial aspect of the first film, and the daunting screenwriting by Leigh Wgannell and James Wan.

The first film was quite grainy, as two men wake up in a seedy lavatory, chained, and must injure one another (to say the least) to live. Gradually we learn about the character Jigsaw, with the trademarked mask, and Jigsaw’s morbid interest in testing the characters’ will to live by placing them into situations that challenge them to go to the edge. (The punch line was always “Do you want to play a game?” Well, not really. But there’s no choice.) Yes, the worst happens, on camera. Body parts roll.

I didn’t think there needed to be a franchise (a set of a composer's symphonies is a "franchise" I guess), but Lions Gate (site) must have found it made so much money that it couldn’t resist. Tobin Bell plays the old-man villain, and in successive films we find out that he is dying of cancer himself, as chemotherapy gets mixed in to the various mechanical contraptions of death. Beverly Mitchell, from Seventh Heaven, plays in the second film. Actors do not have to be picky.

In the last movie ("Saw V" or "Saw 5"), No. 5, post-Jigsaw, or perhaps not, it seems) we see the ultimate in "killing machines" like the body-bisecting "sling blade" (even outdoing a scene I remember from New Line's "Final Destination 2"). And there's a great line in the script from one of the culprits (there seems to be a multiplicity): "You call this karma, I call it justice." Sounds like Chairman Mao, maybe. Again, the theme of playing individuals against each other to survive is carried to the ultimate. And, if the Universe is to end with "the Big Rip", this finale (and maybe the entire franchise) ends with "the Big Crush".

In fact, the LionsGate opening trademark, which the warm gears of machinery, looking to a keyhole that opens on to the “real” Lions Gate in Greece, seems to be based on this movie. Actually, I’ve always connected the gears to the classic movie “Metropolis” and I think it’s a great trademark, especially with the rising musical signature ending on a triumphant chord.

Lately the Saw movies (official website)) have attracted “negative” attention, that I’ll get to in a moment. I hope Lions Gate keeps the trademark, because it looks great. But if the connection to “Saw” seems too offensive to some, the company could try something like successive satellite photos of earth (or other worlds) beaming down to the Lions Gate in Greece.

The “Saw” franchise has suddenly gotten negative attention from CNN one year after the Northern Illinois University shootings by Steven Kazmierczak. At 11 PM Feb. 14, CNN aired a special report from its newsroom, the report titled “A Lifetime of Red Flags”, with the full news story by Abbie Boudreau and Scott Zamost, here. The report also interviewed author David Vann, with a new book about the Kazmierczak, not yet on Amazon.

There are a lot of red flags in this young man’s life, and they don’t fit anything like what you would expect in graduate school. Lose those tattoos! It’s hard to believe that he could have gotten through Army basic. With his history of mental illness, how could he buy guns? (Same question about Cho and VPI.) But the report did deal with his interest in horror movies. When I was growing up in the 50s they were thought to be “bad for you”, and, to make a "moral" point, maybe the current fad in "torture porn" (also including the two "Hostel" films) really does "entice" some unstable people. The report dealt with his apparent fascination with the “Saw” movies in particular. He and his girl friend went to “Saw IV” and went dressed as Jigsaw to a Halloween party. The CNN report makes a lot of the fact that the Jigsaw character pretends to be a psychologist. This whole development is going to make us in the media ponder when we must be our "brother's keepers", just as in the New Testament.

LionsGate (apparently based in Canada and sometime recently gone public) has always been an interesting company. It used to specialize in small independent film but in the past few years has offered much larger scale films like “3:10 to Yuma”. It sometimes works with other small distributors like Roadside Attractions (“Right at your Door”) and Freestyle Releasing (“An American Haunting”) with more controversial or specialized fare. It has also enjoyed a stake in Lifetime (“Student Seduction”). It seems to be evolving as a “mid level” indie-related studio like Overture or Summit that has several niche markets (including horror). A few years back, it took over Artisan Entertainment (“The Blair Witch Project”) which had always turned out interesting releases. Don’t be surprised if there are more mergers among these companies. But they all have great brands, and all the brands (including Artisan) ought to remain.

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