3.24.2013

Putting the pieces together, or: epistemology and the horror film, part II


The horror film as game: one of Saw's puzzle pieces.

A while back I suggested that we might make a distinction between those horror films driven by logic and those driven by sensuality, irrationality, or epistemological uncertainty.  It’s been my contention that many of the best horror films belong to the second category.  These films achieve a kind of sublime madness by resisting the urge to cohere.  Since the pleasures of horror are, I would argue, fundamentally unconscious ones, it seems to me that the most pleasurable horror films are not concerned with mirroring the real world or with affirming some sort of truth.  Nor are they narratively complex.  Horror films, like fairy tales, lend themselves best to relatively basic plots, as I discussed recently in response to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films.  Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is a similar example of a dazzling horror film blissfully unconcerned with anything other than sustaining its own hypnotic intensity.  Many of Argento’s fans will be the first to admit that plot has never been his strong suit; rather, the pleasures of his films come from his mastery of sound, color, and art direction, which is to say in their ability to immerse us in a nightmarishly beautiful dream-space.

Which brings me, regrettably, to James Wan’s Saw (2004), a film that, for all its gore, is more related to the police procedural than the horror genre.  It’s not just that it concerns itself with the investigation of a series of elaborate torture deaths; it’s that its point, finally, is to solve the mystery of its own twisted plot.  Saw presents itself as a game to be played both by the characters and the members of the audience, who must piece together clues left by a criminal mastermind known as Jigsaw.  As his name indicates, he’s a creator of elaborate—and deadly—puzzle-games, which require that participants play by very specific rules.  Break them and you risk losing both the game and your life. 

This is to say that Saw’s very conceit belies its slavish investment in epistemological certainty.  In its concern with puzzle-solving at the narrative level (the film is, at bottom, a whodunit), Saw is a glorified—or maybe gore-ified—murder mystery.  It threatens us with nothing more profound than perpetual confusion and some gross-out scares.  Better horror films, I maintain, are concerned with the undoing of epistemological certainty altogether.  They do more than make us cheerlessly solve puzzles; they affect us on a visceral level by and facilitating libidinal responses.  That Saw has spawned six sequels (!) as of this writing suggests, however, that modern audiences are satisfied with horror films that appeal to one’s logical mind rather than one’s unconscious, and while one might be inclined to claim this as a sign that horror films are getting smarter, I see it as a move in the wrong direction.  To call Saw a thinking person’s horror film is an insult to a genre that should pride itself on its disregard for logical thought.  Thinking is the thing the horror film does least well. 

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