I just watched Dead Snow again. I really like it. There’s something incredibly compelling about its total lack of tone consistency. Here’s a deadly serious scene. Here’s a silly scene. As I wrote in Short Takes, “It’s two halves of the perfect zombie picture.”
One of the silliest scenes is where Martin gets bitten by a zombie. And on the basis of a comment by Erlend that you shouldn’t let yourself get bit by a zombie, Martin saws off his arm with a chainsaw.
It’s badly motivated. You’d think Martin would wait to see if he even survives to do something that is unbearably painful. Not that I’m complaining.
It was the lead-up to Martin being bitten on his penis by a zombie. Martin gets a dreadful look on his face because he realizes he shouldn’t have cut off his arm because he certainly isn’t going to cut off his dick.
But it does raise a broader question. How useful is this trope? It isn’t much use outside of comedy. I seem to be one of the few people around who thinks that The Evil Dead is better than Evil Dead II. And a big part of that is all the nonsense with the chainsaw. It works. But it also turns that universe into a notably silly thing.
I know what a lot of people are thinking: what about Aron Ralston? He’s the guy who cut off part of his arm when it got trapped while canyoneering. The problem with him as an example is that he didn’t just whip out a knife and start cutting.
He was trapped for five days. He was certain to die. He was hallucinating. And regardless, the body’s ability to process pain when it is dying is reduced.
There’s a reason why 127 Hours is gripping just because of this one thing. As a throwaway scene, to set up a dick joke, it isn’t something that we take seriously.
None of this is to say that saws shouldn’t be used in other contexts. I’ve always really liked the scene at the end of Mad Max where Max throws the bad guy a hacksaw noting that he might not blow up if he saws off his arm. As horrible as the guy is, I can’t see Max in a positive light after that. (I realize this is not the way most people read the film.)
People do horrible things to others. It’s a lot harder to do horrible things to yourself. So if a character is going to do something ridiculously painful to themselves, it needs to be motivated — highly motivated.
In Saw, Cary Elwes saws off his own foot. It’s well-motivated, but even there, little screen time is provided to it and it isn’t gory.
But Saw also demonstrates how difficult self-harm is as a construct. After the first film, the plots rarely rise above the level of torture porn. There’s clearly a limit to how much people want to watch victims placed in the position of having to hurt themselves.
There’s another problem: forcing victims to harm themselves puts the villain at a distance. It also requires the villain to be a super-genius. If the Jigsaw Killer wasn’t unbelievable enough in the first film, by the third he might as well be God.
Film as Puzzle
To me, all the films I’ve discussed have one thing in common: they are intellectual. They all attack their plots more as puzzles than as stories that would actually happen.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is contrived in some ways. But at base, it’s about a family of cannibals that just wants to be left alone to live their lives. I can imagine being in the situations of the kids. But even in Saw, with its motivated foot-sawing, I imagine just sitting there and dying.
Sawing off a limb is the kind of thing that cartoon characters do. So in a comedy, it can work well enough. In something that is supposed to be real, it’s extremely limited.