There is no doubt that the "Torture" movie has been the unexpected success story of the horror genre over the last few years. It is a strange, perplexing comment on the modern psyche: the kind of scenes of degradation lovingly depicted in "Saw lll" would once have been reviled by the mainstream media in the most strident terms imaginable; remember Bill Lustig's "Maniac" being dismissed as "violent pornography"? "Saw lll" would have been condemned in a manner reserved only for the basest of so-called video nasties. But, these days, similar content forms the basis of most high profit Hollywood Horror crowd-pleasers. The gore is relentless: more realistic and more graphic than it ever was in the, now, almost charmingly innocent heyday of 'Godfather of Gore', Lucio Fulci.
The sub-genre has grown partly out of the desire by a new generation of young filmmakers (who remember fondly the effect and hysteria created by such radically subversive films as "Last House on the Left" and "I Spit on Your Grave") to get back to the roots of the genre. There has been an obsession lately with the idea that horror had become too "friendly" since the good old days of seventies nihilism; when the fear of the unknown or the supernatural was replaced by the fear of what humans were capable of doing to each-other. With that in mind, we had a spate of remakes of the seventies classics — "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "The Hills Have Eyes" — and films which aimed to emulate their ruthless pursuit of nastiness such as "Wrong Turn" and "Hostel". Most of these films involve torture in some form or other, since there is no supernatural threat involved in them, only human evil to be feared.
A second reason for the emergence of torture-based horror is down to the enormous influence the Japanese market has had over the genre in the last few years. The Japanese have taken the horror film in two radically opposed directions: first there is the Lewton-esque fear of the unseen and unknowable, represented by domestic ghost stories such as "Ringu" and "The Grudge". Secondly there is the taboo-bursting obsession with pain and torture represented by the Guinea Pig cycle and much of the work by Takashi Miiki -- in particular, his "Audition: a film that has had an incalculable influence on young western horror directors. You can see its shadow cast over "Hostel", for instance, and also over all three Saw films. Here the emphasis is exclusively on pain: the fear in waiting to experiencing it, what it would be like to actually experience it, the aftermath of experiencing it. The horror and suspense is generated not by a specific threat of capture by some entity — human or non-human (there are rarely any long, drawn-out stalking scenes in these films) — but entirely by the prospect of some elaborate method of torture; building up to its use on some unfortunate, and then the gory payoff.
The original "Saw" had another wrinkle to play: an ingenious plot. The elaborate and playful twists and turns of the plot line built up to a dizzying crescendo and were easily as satisfying as the horror elements of the film. This is probably what propelled it to its massive mainstream success. The trick therefore has to be repeated with each sequel; something that becomes increasingly difficult once the surprise at the end of the first film has become well-known and the general formula, familiar. "Saw ll" was as equally inventive as the first in generating cringe-inducing torture sequences but lacked the energy and playfulness of its predecessor. The twist at the end, this time, was not all that surprising, and Shawnee Smith's "elevation" from victim to accomplice of the Jigsaw killer seemed tacked on for shock value.
In this third film, there are no plot tricks based on the identity of the killer: we know that Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his willing accomplice Amanda (Shawnee Smith) are behind the convoluted series of games. Instead, the surprise at the end is an original one, and therefore equally as unexpected as that of the first film. And of course, the nastiness levels have been pushed to greater extremes than ever before: people are torn or blown to bits in a variety of cruel and clever ways, and Jigsaw's puzzles and contraptions are even more elaborate and, sometimes, plain bizarre. Drowning a man in the ground-up remains of rotting pigs, anyone?!
Before the business of the main plot line, there are a few loose ends left over from "Saw ll" to be cleared up (in other words, a few survivors). Dina Meyer's cop, Kerry is still investigating Jigsaw's gruesome murders, but the latest puzzle (a man chained with hooks through his body, in a sealed room with a bomb) seems un-solvable. This doesn't fit the pattern of the usual Jigsaw puzzle traps which, however cruel, always at least provide the possibility of escape. Meanwhile, jaded surgeon Lynne (Bahar Soomekh) finds herself kidnapped by Jigsaw's accomplice, former drug addict, Amanda, who likes to stalk about dressed in a pig mask! It seems her mentor is now in a critical condition — his brain tumour is causing his brain to swell and push against his skull. Lynne is required to keep Jigsaw alive, but it's not that simple of course; here is one more opportunity for another of his "tests". Lynne is hooked up to a device around her neck that will explode if Jigsaw flat-lines while she is operating; therefore their fates are tied together. Also, Jigsaw and Amanda have another man locked up in a crate. He has a mission to accomplish designed to test his capacity for forgiveness. It emerges that Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) has spent the last few years obsessed with getting vengeance on the hit-and-run driver who killed his son. He indulges in Travis Bickle-style fantasies, has become estranged from his wife, and even verges on neglecting his young daughter. Jigsaw has Amanda kidnap him to offer him the chance to come face-to-face with the man who killed his son, and take his ultimate revenge ... or he could use this chance to forgive his nemesis and, perhaps, finally embark on the long route necessary for recovery from all-consuming grief.
Jeff finds himself in a maze-like warren of corridors. In one room, he finds the woman who witnessed the hit-and-run accident, but didn't come forward. She is strung-up naked in a freezer room with ice-cold water jets blasting at her periodically. In another room, he finds the judge who gave the driver a very light sentence, tied up in a vat, about to be drowned in pig-derived goo! Jeff can save them and thereby earn the right to proceed to the next level, getting ever closer to confronting the man who killed his son, or he can let them die, saving only himself. it turns out that Lynne's fate, as well as being tied to Jigsaw's, is also dependent on Jeff's completion of the task. If Jeff succeeds, Jigsaw promises to let her go!
The film is probably the cruelest out of all three so far. Not just because of the nastiness of the torture traps (everything from jars of acid to a bone-snapping racks) but the emotional trials the characters now have to endure. The relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda is explored more thoroughly here: and what initially seemed like a throwaway plot twist at the end of "Saw ll" (if you didn't already know about that, you shouldn't be reading a review of "Saw lll" should you!) now becomes crucial to the whole plot. Shawnee Smith's character turns out to be dangerously psychologically unstable, dependent on Jigsaw's approval but also likely to go completely off the rails at any moment. Tobin Bell's Jigsaw has now become a kind of perverse anti-hero: exposing the character flaws of his victims and moralising on their shortcomings with a confidence quite unsettling for one who has been responsible for the deaths of quite a large number of people by this point!
Actually, although the gore level is the most immediately noticeable aspect of this sequel, the script is also quite cunningly constructed, utilising flashbacks, manipulating how information is delivered to the viewer, and tying together seemingly unrelated plot points with great skill. This sequel gets much closer to emulating the taut, inter-linking that made the first film's screenplay such an enjoyable box of tricks. There is not quite the same surprise factor when the strands are finally brought together, in the final minutes, for the big reveal that underpins the whole film, of course — but it's skilfully done and delivered with an explosive finality that will force any future sequels to take a very different direction. The one sequence that this film will undoubtedly be remembered for is the brain operation scene, which takes realism to unparalleled levels of unpleasantness.
Lion's Gate's DVD offers the usual array of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a grand total of three commentaries! These, not surprisingly, repeat quite a lot of information; though they do offer varying perspectives on the film making process which sometimes contradict each other. The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks very good, and the 5.1 audio track offers a robust soundscape of creepy noises and squelchy sound effects that add a good deal to the effectiveness of the gruesome imagery. Fans of the first film will be more than pleased with this effectively nasty addition to the Saw franchise.