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Speculating Saw: Deep Deconstruction of the SAW Franchise

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saw movies

The infamous Saw franchise started back in 2004 and was immediately met with mixed reviews. For the most part, they’re the sort of movies that you love, hate, or love to hate, and people usually form pretty strong opinions about them. Regardless of personal views about the films, it’s hard to deny the massive impact that they made in the horror community, as this is possibly the most influential modern horror franchise in current existence.

What this article is going to do is take a look at each of the Saw installations as both individual movies and as part of the series, and then highlight some of the key points which will include a synopsis and then the strengths and weaknesses of that particular feature. I will warn you now of course, that this will reflect my own personal views on the series as the writer of the article, and there will be more than a little editorializing. Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion, and I think it’s the different opinions about this franchise that make it one of the most interesting horror topics to discuss. That being said, let me tell you right now that I love each and every single one of the seven Saw movies, because even in the films that for whatever reason(s) didn’t work, they all had concepts that made you think, which is something I look for not just in my cinema, but in all entertainment. A strong, intriguing concept is one of the most important elements in a movie to me, and that puts me solidly on the side of loving these films. So, as a fan, I’m pretty excited to tear these apart analytically.

SPOILER WARNING: This article is an analysis of the Saw series, both in its parts and in its entirety and there are a ton of spoilers. If you haven’t seen them and are intending to, you should go watch them right now before reading any further.

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Saw:

My biggest problem with the first movie was, believe it or not, advertising. When I first started seeing previews for this back in 2004, I was already an avid horror fan, and this looked like the stupidest concept for a movie in the whole world. Between the trailers I had seen that were just random clips of a man trying to saw his foot off, and the posters with the phrase “He doesn’t kill his victims; he makes his victims kill themselves.” I was convinced that this had to be one of the worst horror movies ever, and I vowed never to see it. It wasn’t until a year later when trailers started coming out for the second one that my interest was piqued, and even then I was hesitant to watch the first one.

I am so glad that I did, because it was not at all what I was expecting. Due to its reputation for being the goriest movie of the year, I was surprised at how mild the violence was. The concepts were chillingly graphic, but very little of that was actually shown in the film. In fact, this movie plays out almost more like a psychological thriller than like a horror movie. The slogan that had given me so many doubts about the film was actually derived from one of Dr. Gordon’s quotes in the movie: “Technically, he’s not a killer. He’s never killed anyone. He finds ways for his victims to kill themselves.” In the scene, Dr. Gordon is trying to explain Jigsaw’s motives with the limited information he has on the subject. In the movie it makes sense and is a fine quote, but when paraphrased and then taken out of context, it just sounds terrible.

The motive behind Jigsaw’s games is so much more intriguing than a deranged man forcing his victims into violent suicides, and is in fact one of the more interesting aspects of the series. In each installment we get to find out a little bit more of his reasoning behind putting people through these “games” “tests” or “traps” depending on how you prefer to view them. We’ll get into more of that later of course, but for right now let’s take a closer look at the first movie in particular.

The movie shows two men in a room, each of them chained to opposite walls, with the corpse of a man in the center. One man (Adam) we learn, had been hired to take pictures of the other (Dr. Lawrence Gordon) and neither of them have any recollection of how they got there. As the movie progresses, we learn more about the situation at hand. This is part of a test. To win his personal game, Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam before 6:00, or he will be left for dead and his wife and daughter will be killed. Through flashbacks and conversation, we learn more about the previous victims of the “Jigsaw Killer.”

A lot happens in between the beginning and end of the film, it takes a few twists, but the biggest of course is at the end when the “corpse” in the center of the room stands up, pulls off his makeup, and reveals himself to be Jigsaw. This had to be one of my favorite movies of all time, because there was just this moment where it all clicked in. We had seen that man in the flashbacks, as he was Dr. Gordon’s patient. Zep, (who is assisting Jigsaw as part of his own test) has already brought up how interesting he was, and they also mention in one of the crime scene investigations how he likes to get front row seats to see his games play out in person. All the hints are there if you’re paying attention, but they were written in subtly enough so as to not be obvious.

The movie doesn’t spell out his motives for you, but you’re left with the impression that he simply wants people to appreciate their lives, as he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. You’re left not knowing the ultimate fate of either Adam or Lawrence (who we get to watch saw off his own foot in order to escape the room and get help.)

This movie worked. It worked as the start of a series, it worked on it’s own, and I can honestly say I think it’s one of the most underrated horror films of all time. The writing was incredible, it was paced excellently, and it was so much more than I ever expected it to be. The lighting and the scenery were outstanding, and even though it barely scratched the surface of the concept, it was captivating enough that I was hooked right away.

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Saw II:

The man being testing in this movie is our main protagonist, Eric Matthews, whose son has been missing for a number of days. He successfully tracks down Jigsaw, who we now know to be Jon Kramer, but can’t take him into custody because he sees that his own son is in one of Jigsaw’s traps, and continues to watch him through the monitors that Jon has set up for the occasion. He notices in short order that all of the people in the group test with his son, are people who he has sentenced to prison under false pretenses.

Jigsaw tells him straight at the beginning that his son is in a safe place, and all Eric has to do to pass his test is talk to him for long enough, which gives us a real insight into the nature of some of Jon’s less obvious games. Of course, Eric has a tough time doing that as he watches people getting picked off one at a time on the monitors.

We also get to see the test that Eric is watching on the monitors. It features 8 people who are all locked in a house. They will be released from the house in 3 hours, but are breathing a deadly toxin that will kill them within two hours unless they find an antidote. There are antidotes hidden around the house, but of course they will all come at a price. Among the victims of this trap is not only Eric’s son Daniel, but also Amanda (who we were introduced to in one of the flashbacks in the first movie. She was one of the first people to survive one of Jigsaw’s games.)

Eric eventually snaps, not being able to take it anymore, and he forces Jigsaw to take him to the house on the monitors. When he gets there, it’s revealed that the house is already empty, Daniel isn’t there, and the game that he had been watching on the monitors was pre-recorded. We learn that Daniel was in a safe back in the room where Eric and Jon had been talking. All Eric would have had to do was just talk to Jon for long enough, exactly like he was told.

Again, this movie worked. The directing was incredible, as was the writing, and again, the shock value was great. We also get some very interesting information for the overall story that the series is telling. Amanda was not just in the trap because of self harm, as she originally claims. She is working as Jon’s apprentice, and the end of the movie ends on her capturing Eric, and explaining how she will take over for Jon when he dies to carry on his legacy, which of course has strong implications for the upcoming installments.

I also need to take a moment to note the interesting backstory information that we get here in regards to Jon’s inspiration for his “tests” and how he got his name. After being diagnosed with the terminal cancer we learned about in the last movie, Jon drives himself off a cliff in a suicide attempt. He gets impaled, yet he still manages to survive. He’s baffled at how his body is simultaneously dying and still strong enough to survive an injury like that. After surviving, he vows to spend whatever days remain to him “testing the fabric of human nature.”

I think this is just beyond fascinating. Normally in movies, the killer is either motivated by a self-righteous sense of purpose, or is curious about how humans react under extreme situations. Jon Kramer, or “Jigsaw”, is both. Yes, he wants to help people in his own sick way, and yes he wants people to survive his games and come out the better for it, but it’s a morbid curiosity that makes him take each test to such an extreme. He simply wants to know what people are made out of.

We also get a more clear idea of how he gets the title “Jigsaw Killer.” This refers to the fact that he cuts a puzzle piece out of all of the deceased test subjects, to symbolize that they were missing what he views as the “most important piece of the human puzzle; the survival instinct.”

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Saw III: This was my personal favorite out of all seven. I think the writing was phenomenal, it was gross, it was shocking, and it definitely made me think, which I already mentioned is a huge selling point for me.

Early on, the topic of Amanda’s traps gets talked about in the film. Her traps are designed in a way that the people being tested cannot survive, even if they manage to do what the challenges ask of them. This goes against Jon’s mission statement of giving people a new life.

The movie then transitions into the tests of Lynn and Jeff who are playing through their games simultaneously. Lynn is charged with the task of keeping Jigsaw alive while Jeff (though she’s not told who he is at the time) gets through his tests. Amanda locks a collar on her neck that will detonate if Jon’s heart rate monitor flatlines, so if Jon dies, she dies. Jeff on the other hand is charged with numerous tasks of forgiveness, where he must endure a personal loss to help save the life of someone who was involved in the drunk driving accident responsible for the death of his son.

We see Amanda’s tension grow higher and higher as the movie progresses and she comes ever closer to the reality of living without Jon. Toward the end, she kills Lynn, just as Jeff is reaching the end of his tests and coming into the room. It is then that we learn Jeff and Lynn are husband and wife. Jeff kills Amanda instantly for shooting his wife, and then we get to the big twist ending, where we learn that the whole thing was actually Amanda’s test, not Lynn’s. Jon wanted to test her again before he died to see if she could follow the rules of the game no matter what, to see if she was worthy to carry on his work after he died. Of course, by shooting Lynn who completed her challenge, she broke the rules, failing her challenge and paying for it with her life.

Jeff has then gotten to his final test. Jon tells him that all he has to do to pass is forgive him for the pain that he has caused Jeff’s family that night. Jeff kills Jon which in turn detonates Lynn’s collar. We then find that Jeff’s daughter has also been taken, and Jon was allegedly the only person who know where she was at, leaving another cliffhanger aspect to the film.

This movie was a turning point in the series for two main reasons. The first is obviously in regards to plot. With Jon and Amanda both dead, it left it’s audience wondering how the series would be continued. The second is a bit more subtle in that it didn’t affect the story of the franchise, but rather the tone of it.

The Saw movies already had a reputation for being overly gory, which I’ve already mentioned, was misleading since neither of the first two were particularly graphic. That can not be said for the third installation, which was definitely not a film for anyone with a weak stomach. Three is arguably the most graphic film in the series, but from this point on in the series, they all earn their title of “gory”, leaving nothing to the imagination. Whether this was a good or a bad change is up for debate, but I have to say that I’m glad it happened here.

The continuity in the films falters after the first three, and I’m glad that they at least brought in the excessive gore before all the changes in the story, because otherwise continuity would be have been an even bigger issue. That being said, I think they might have gone overboard a couple of times trying to gross out the audience. (Particularly in three, which I believe was the biggest drawback of the movie.)

Still, this movie worked. It was a good film, as I already mentioned I adore the writing, the visual effects were disgusting, but even when the gore was over the top the special effects team really pulled it off. The story had the definite shock factor that I had at this point come to expect from the Saw films, and I was very pleased with this installment overall.

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Saw IV: This was the film where the series started to fall in part in my opinion. It pains me to say this not only because I think the storyline for this one had a lot of potential, but also because like the previous two Saw installations it was done by Darren Lynn Bousman, who is one of my favorite directors. I still love most of his work to pieces, but this movie was a trainwreck, and is without a doubt my least favorite of the series.

Part of my problem with this movie (and the fifth movie for that matter) was casting. Normally I do my best to overlook things like that, which have so little to do with the story, but it really got to me in this case. Agent Mark Hoffman (played by Costas Mandylor) and Special Agent Peter Strahm (played by Scott Patterson) simply looked too much alike. They had drastically different rolls in the film, yet it I often got them confused. This actually bothered me a little more in the fifth one than it did here, but this movie was the hardest to follow on its own, so the extra confusion was just unwelcome.

Confusion is also the reason that I disliked the editing in this movie. The story is complex, which is a staple of the films in this series, but unlike with the previous (and in fact later movies) the information is not presented in a way where you necessarily understand it the first time watching. I had to watch it multiple times before it really sank in and made sense, and even then it required a lot of thought.

The movie opens on Jigsaw’s autopsy, which is chronologically the last thing to happen in the film. While that’s supposed to be part of the big twist (that and of course the identity of the new Jigsaw) what it actually does is make the already complex timeline of the film more confusing.

While overall the film was the biggest let down of the series, it did have a lot of really interesting information that despite not being presented well, was vital to the series and very important to Jigsaw’s history. It’s in this film that we learn his terminal cancer and experience with suicide were not the only things fueling his desire to test the fabric of human nature in such a violent and disturbing way. He was also motivated by his wife miscarrying his son, Giddian. We also learn of Jon’s fascination with the Chinese Zodiac which explains some of the symbolism in the previous films. The pig mask that we see most often worn by Amanda, was to honor his son (who should have been born in the year of the pig.) This also became part of the ritual, as his first victim was abducted at a Year of the Pig Festival. I think it was really interesting to see Jon abduct someone in a decorative pig mask in this film after seeing him work with the hyper-realistic (and far more frightening) pig mask that he’s used in the previous films.

We also get to see Jon’s first trap, and more interestingly, his first victim. The man’s name is Cecil, and he was the addict who accidentally hit Jon’s wife (Jill Tuck), causing her to miscarry. This trap is more simple than anything we’re used to seeing by Jigsaw, and it was interesting to see the sort of things he started with. Another interesting thing to mention is that we see the iconic puppet that Jigsaw uses as a proxy in his videos. It was originally meant as a gift for his son, and it’s only later that Jon adds the mechanical factor to the doll and makes it exponentially more terrifying.

The main test in this film is that of detective Rigg, who is head of the SWAT team whose members keep dying off in Jigsaw related events. For this reason, he has become obsessed with the case (and finding the still-missing Eric Matthews), and the aim of his test is to rid him of the obsession. Each of the traps he encounters on his journey bring him a little closer to understanding why Jigsaw does what he does.

The thing I liked most about this movie was that in spite of its many faults, this one definitely made you think about the moral code that Jon lived by and used to guide his tests. While the people in traps from the previous films were placed there for not appreciating what they had, the people in this film had all done something wrong. They weren’t being tested for things like infidelity or substance abuse, but rather for things like rape and child abuse. The people who Riggs sees in these traps are bad people who have done something wrong to hurt others. This is of course not to say that they deserve what they get, but it does get one thinking about the morals and the flaws in the judicial system that let people get away with things like this. It also really gets you thinking about your own morals, because as you watch these particular tests, you find yourself not rooting for the victims as you might have in some of the previous traps.

Rigg is told early on that Eric Matthews is still alive and will have 90 minutes to save himself. Much like in Saw 2, all detective Rigg has to do is spend enough time away. Eric’s trap will end at the end of the 90 minutes, but of course the detective misunderstands the game and does his best to get there before the timer runs out. This results in the death of all the people involved in the trap except for Mark Hoffman. Throughout the whole movie we see him “trapped” in the same contraption holding Eric, but at the end he remains unharmed. It is then that he releases himself and identifies himself as the next Jigsaw.

The twist would have been much more effective had the timeline not been so confusing to figure out, but it still left us with a lot to ponder and, more importantly; it gave us a new Jigsaw killer to carry on the series with.

This film did not work. It certainly didn’t work on it’s own because it was entirely dependent on us knowing the story up to that point. It makes sense that you’re going to be confused if you jump in in the middle of a series, but I think that the other movies would have still been somewhat self sufficient if you had no idea what was going on. That was certainly not the case with this movie. This one also didn’t work as part of the series (at least not very effectively) because while all the information was there, it was jumbled up and confusing. The best thing that we can say it did to really further the story, was assure us that there was someone to carry on Jigsaw’s work, and let the audience know that there was more to come.

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Saw V: This was a decent addition to the franchise as it went back and explained a lot of the story that was confusing people in 4. It also had an interesting story for the people involved in the main trap. I didn’t like it much as a movie on its own though, simply because while it didn’t have any glaring problems like 4 did, the writing was a little underwhelming, there’s not much development in the Jigsaw storyline (since it mostly just goes back and explains the information we got in 4) and the stories just didn’t tie together very well. It had a lot of interesting things, but the writing was a lot sloppier than what I would have hoped for, and had come to expect from the Saw movies.

The film features a group test of 5 people who have all played a key role in a fire that took 8 lives. One person dies in each of the first three test rooms, as it is the shared belief of the victims that the tests are designed to pick off one person in each test. Of course, in the final room, they realize that all of the previous tests were made for five people, and that had they worked together not a single one of the tests would have been fatal. It was an interesting story, and it really was told well.

The rest of the movie goes back and tells about how Mark Hoffman got involved with Jon’s work. He wanted to kill a man named Seth Baxter, who got away with the murder of Mark’s sister, and he thought a good way to avoid suspicion was to pin the killing on Jigsaw. He sets up a trap for Seth that was impossible to escape and of course, the murder is attributed to Jon, who doesn’t appreciate taking credit for what he views as inferior work. He ultimately blackmails Mark into becoming his new recruit.

Strahm meanwhile is figuring out that Mark has been the accomplice that they’ve been looking for, but his obsession causes him to fail his test (much like with Rigg in the fourth film.) When he dies, he is of course pinned with being the very accomplice that he was trying to catch.

Again, it wasn’t a bad movie, and my biggest issue with it was simply that the stories were so minimally connected to one another, so it just seemed lacking in comparison to the others. That being said, it was still entertaining and furthered the overall story of the series. I’d definitely say that it worked better as an installment of the franchise than as a movie on it’s own.

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Saw VI: This was disappointing to me in many of the same ways that the fifth one was. I thought both storylines were really good, and while they seemed to connect a little more in this one than in 5, it still wasn’t as tied together as I would have liked. What I really did like about this one was the story of the people being tested, because once again it really made its audience think about morality.

The victims in this movie are chosen for having done something wrong (much like the victims in 4) only these people aren’t breaking any laws, they’re doing their jobs. The two people from the beginning are loan sharks who have ruined people’s lives because of their work. All the victims in the main game work for a health insurance company, which provides for some interesting social commentary.

There have been a lot of different takes on the issue of health insurance companies both through movies and television, but this was my personal favorite. Of course, it is the least factual which has its drawbacks, and the consequences are illustrated to an absurd degree, but I still think that as an eye opener and as a story it was effective.

The main test is performed by William Easton, an executive for the health insurance company who develops an equation to determine who they will consider for coverage. Of course, we find out this is the same man who declined coverage for an experimental cancer treatment for Jon. He passes through a series of tests that put his morals and his equation to the test.

Ultimately, we learn that the test wasn’t his however, and his fate lies in the hands of the wife of a man who was denied coverage as well. This was intended as the big twist, and while it was written in a way that could definitely have been shocking, I feel like this was a little easier to see through than the surprise endings of other films.

This movie tried to connect William’s story to the part of the story that dealt with Jon’s work being carried out, but this was done a lot sloppier than anything from the first three movies. William’s sister (who we see is also in the main trap) has written a book on the life of Jon Kramer for her own gain, and there are also the obvious ties to Jon’s backstory. William of course had a run in with Jon as well, but they’re just not as connected as I would have liked for them to be.

Mark in the meantime, struggles to keep his involvement with Jon Kramer and the more recent Jigsaw killings away from the police, who are almost on to him. He barely escapes, and even then he only does so by murdering a number of people when they learn the truth. We also see Jill trying to carry out the last request of her husband by testing Mark, a test that is supposed to be fatal to him but he manages to escape.

While overall I was disappointed with most of the story, I really liked some of the things we learned in flashbacks. For instance; Amanda didn’t fail her test because of emotional stress, she failed her test because she was being blackmailed by Mark. She had been with Cecil on the night that he forced Jill to miscarry, and Mark threatened to tell Jon about that if she didn’t shoot Lynn (knowing full well that she was being tested and that this would prove fatal to her.)

It had many of the same pros and cons that the fifth one had, but I think it did more to further the overall story and it was also more entertaining as a stand alone piece. It was one of my favorites after the original three.

IF

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter: I think that as an independent piece, this was my least favorite (other than 4) but as an ending to the series it was actually pretty effective. It opens with three members of a love triangle stuck in one of the traps. The woman has been sleeping with both of the men, and while I think this is a really weak motive for being chosen, I did like the opening overall. Unlike all the other traps, this one took place in a display case, right out in public, which there was of course a massive audience for. I think it would have been more effective if they had either carried the public theme throughout the other traps in the movie, or at the very least explained how it was set up. It seemed completely unconnected to everything else in the film, but it was very shocking, which was a good way to start off the final Saw movie.

In this film, we see the tests of a man name Bobby, who has written a book about his experience surviving a Jigsaw trap. This was a scam, as he had never been tested by Jigsaw prior to writing this book, but he is being tested now, along with all of the people who helped him with this illusion (even those who did it unknowingly.) While his story was fake, we do get to see into the lives of those who actually survived the killings, which was a very interesting addition to the film, and retroactively added a sense of depth to the story. We get to see how people were really affected, and the different reactions to Jigsaw’s tests.

It also lets us see Lawrence, who we have been wondering about since the end of the first movie. He did survive, and we get to see him briefly at the support group meeting, which was nice after not knowing what happened to him for so long.

One of the biggest complaints that I have about the movie is the set of traps that Bobby goes through in his test. They don’t seem particularly inventive or difficult in comparison to those that we’ve seen in previous movies. It’s not just the traps that Bobby goes through (because this could be explained away by the fact that Mark is the weakest engineer out of all those who have ever been involved with the Jigsaw killings) but also the ones that we see in the flashbacks of the survivors who are introduced in this film.

There’s also a bit of a contradiction here, as there were a lot more survivors at the meeting than there should have been. I didn’t worry about it too much, figuring that there were also a lot of family members of victims, but it still sort of negates a lot of what was implied in the first movie about the recent start of Jigsaw’s tests, and there’s not really a logical place to insert the new survivors into the timeline where it makes a lot of sense. That aside, I still really liked meeting new survivors and seeing the support group.

As the movie progresses, we see that Bobby is in charge of rescuing the people who helped him with his scam, and he ultimately is unable to pass a single one of Jigsaw’s tests, proving himself unworthy of being called a survivor after all. In the meantime, we meet Investigator Matt Gibson, who is working on the word of Jill Tuck to try and stop Hoffman.

The twists in this movie are extremely underwhelming where the traps and backstory are concerned, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the ending. After going on another insanely implausible killing spree where he kills Detective Gibson, Jill Tuck and just about everyone else in the department, Mark Hoffman is brought down by three people who are wearing pig masks. While we don’t learn the identities of two of the figures, one pulls off his mask and we see that it’s none other than Dr. Lawrence Gordon. We then learn that he not only survived, but has been helping Jigsaw since the end of the first movie, performing medical procedures when they were needed in the tests. (Explaining how the key got behind the man’s eye in the opening of the second movie for instance.) He then leaves Mark for dead in the same room where he had his test, bringing the series full circle, which I for one felt was a very satisfying end.

I also have another marketing complaint for this one. It was called “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter” and as you can imagine, it was released to theaters in 3D. Now, like with many 3D movies, bits of the movie were obviously shot in a way that was supposed to be impressive with the 3D effect, but the special effects for the film seemed to be completely banking on the fact that you were seeing it in 3D. This was fine in the theater, but the DVD was only ever released in 2D, so, I’m sure you can see my issues with that.

Some story issues and major effects issues aside, I think that overall the movie did justice to wrapping up the film, and it did tie up a lot of loose ends while adding new information and giving us a more realistic connection to the survivors. It maybe didn’t work as well as some of the other ones, but I think it also deserves a little more credit than it got.

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So, with the seven movies covered, the only thing left to talk about is the series as a whole. Like the individual movies, the series had its ups and downs, but as I said in the beginning of this article, I’m a huge fan. I think it was worth watching just for the concept alone. I think if you enjoyed the first couple, then even the later ones which are not as good are worth watching just for the new information you get about the characters.

There’s also the fact that this series made a huge impact on other horror films. The “creative death apparatus” genre as I like to refer to it (more commonly referred to as “torture porn”) was practically defined by the Saw films. We have Saw to thanks for many movies that have been released since then, such as Gag, Are You Scared, Vile, Captivity, and countless other horror titles that were clearly inspired by this franchise.

Hopefully this has illustrated some of the opinions that other Saw fans have, and has made those who hated the series consider some of the finer points of the franchise in a new light, but either way, thank you guys for reading.

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Posted by on Wednesday, September 20th, 2017. Filed under Headline, Horror, Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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