JIGSAW Review

In the seven years since the last Saw movie things haven’t necessarily changed per say, but horror has certainly entered a new realm of nostalgia for the fond clichés and structures of the slasher genre and kids who are smarter than any adult that happens to be in the movie with them. In the last two months alone we’ve had the likes of both IT and Happy Death Day not just pitch the revival, but more or less confirm what we’ve all suspected for a long time now: horror works in cycles and the eighties are most definitely back in fashion. Though this subgenre of teens being chased by an inescapable presence might spawn from some earlier form of horror (or maybe it really was just The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) this set-up that came to real prominence in the late seventies and on through to the eighties would die out only to see a resurgence in the late nineties with the knowing Scream and a slew of such copycats and homages before it again became taboo leaving horror to look for something new less than a decade later. Enter James Wan's Saw in 2004, a movie that would not only play on the current, but fading trend of M. Night Shyamalan's twist ending-type of psychological horror, but would introduce the world to a different kind of scary: the wince and squirm type of terror that would come to be labeled as torture porn. It worked and it spawned a Halloween tradition like none in recent memory where, for seven consecutive years, Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures were able to haul in audiences over the weekend prior to All Hallow's Eve and subject them to a killer who constructed devious traps for his victims that would cut, slash, drill, gut, and/or blown up unknown actors in sadistic but inventive ways while holding true to the agenda that he was making the world a better place by playing his "game". It was a weird time and there were plenty of studios that tried to jump on the bandwagon (everyone remember Hostel?), but even Saw couldn't last forever as five years later the handheld horror genre would rise with Paranormal Activity which would then spawn a new tradition before dying out itself only to give rise to the next phase of whatever horror phenomenon might come to pass. That phase is here, in force, in the form of nostalgia, but with the release of Jigsaw, seven years after what was claimed to be "The Final Chapter", the question was always going to be if Saw could still be relevant, but Jigsaw answers that question with an irrevocable "no".

From left: Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Laura Vandervoot are the latest victim's of John Kramer's twisted games in Jigsaw.
 Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 - Liongate
Talk about excuses, Jigsaw feels like nothing more than a blatant opportunity to try and cash in on another brand that was once noteworthy and profitable rather than any kind of re-invention of the series which it seemed the film might be given the time between the last installment and this one, the fact Lionsgate brought in sibling directing duo the Spierig brothers (Daybreakers, Predestination) to reboot the franchise, as well as the fact analyzed in the opening paragraph of this review in regards to the horror genre itself having morphed into something completely different than it was when the Saw franchise was in the midst of its heyday over a decade ago. There is no progression in Jigsaw though, but rather the film and the screenplay from Piranha 3D and Sorority Row scribes Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg resorts to trotting out old tricks that came to be cliché in the countless, aforementioned sequels. Jigsaw follows that same template of introducing a collection of unknown actors who just so happen to be in a set of very unfortunate circumstances before informing the audience of what we already know while confirming for these "contestants" what they no doubt fear to be true: that they are a part of Jigsaw AKA John Kramer's latest experiment in psychological correction. As has been the case since the first sequel, Jigsaw also enlists a parallel storyline that is a police procedural following the detectives who are tasked with solving how Kramer might still be committing crimes despite the fact he's been dead for ten years. As these things go, one detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), is appropriately slimy while his partner, Detective Hunt (Clé Bennett), has been onto Halloran for a while now as it seems everyone is already aware the guy is a creep, but this doesn't stop him from immediately jumping to the first two people he runs into post-murder before he decides to pin them as suspects. This might seem a little hasty on this reviewer's part given this is a Saw movie and given the procedural aspect isn't exactly where this thing is supposed to shine, but these two individuals Halloran immediately suspects are the coroner's performing the autopsy on the latest Jigsaw victim. This is where one inserts that look of speechlessness. Logan (Matt Passmore) and his assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) may as well step into their first scene with the detectives and admit to playing some role in this story otherwise the plot wouldn't introduce them at all. That said, the segments featuring Jigsaw's game are neither as gruesome nor as inventive as I remember them being and the twist ending again feels like something more akin to a last resort than the evolution of a natural arc that might extend John Kramer's legacy far past "The Final Chapter".

To place it rather simply, Jigsaw is a stinker. There is little that is interesting or even scary about this latest entry in the franchise which is genuinely disappointing given I rather enjoyed the Spierig brothers previous film, Predestination, which you can read my full thoughts on here. To summarize, I considered it as one of my favorite films of 2015 despite the fact it was relegated to a January release. That said, one can then imagine how surprising it was to learn how disparaging Jigsaw turned out to be. Granted, this was a desperate attempt to cash-in on a once viable brand name through and through, but the hiring of the Spierig's gave me hope there might be some kind of energy or enthusiasm about revisiting, if not the same characters necessarily, at least taking on the mantle of the film's namesake and figuring out how to best bring Kramer's mission into the present day. These are the same complaints I've been logging for some time now though, so let's get to the bottom of it: Why does Jigsaw stink? Really? Why does it not even accomplish the basics of what it sets out to do which aren't terribly complicated in the first place? For starters, it's pretty evident from the get-go that there was no care or interest in making this new film look or feel anything like that of the early movies in the series. That initial film from Wan and the series of follow-ups that were all constructed by Darren Lynn Bousman shared an aesthetic that was both unhinged and grimy; there were layers to unfold whereas both The Final Chapter and this new film have more of a slick, artificial look that make for these entries to not feel so much like a continuation of the same story, but cheap rip-offs that are created from fan-fiction. On top of this, there is also the always lingering concern over the questionable actors and acting choices that have been cast in the movie as most are unknowns you've never seen or heard of before, but while the victims are generally fair here it is the main players of Rennie and Passmore that come off not just as stale, archetypes, but stale archetypes of the types of actors who have played these types of roles for years. Bringing nothing new, nothing insightful, and nothing intriguing to the characters no one comes to benefit from what unfolds on screen with the twist itself only serving to be less exciting than it already is due to some of these very factors. Laura Vandervoot, Paul Braunstein, and Mandela Van Peebles are the three individuals who deserve the most credit here as each play Jigsaw's victim's with pasts where he hopes to dementedly guide them towards salvation, but while each of their characters are given some of the least inventive traps and challenges in the franchise's history their characters at least still have shades of mystery to them which is something to latch onto in a movie that doesn't offer much else.

Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) stumbles upon the scene of a crime that could have only been concocted by the infamous Jigsaw.
Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 - Liongate
The pieces were there, certainly, but Jigsaw is both too timid to actually try anything bold while not successful enough at what it once did best to serve as passable. In the beginning, Saw served as a series that symbolized much of the best aspects of horror films and by that I mean it offered an intriguing villain, serviceable mysteries with plenty of twists and turns along the way, while much of the time serving up some kind of psychological and/or social commentary. Some of the best horror films serve as analogies to the horrors we face in the real world and Saw always strove to expose the worst sides of ourselves, the side we don't like to acknowledge while even mustering up certain instances that forced both the characters in question and the audience participating to ask themselves if change was truly a possibility. I'm not trying to say that the Saw franchise was ever a beacon of emotional and intellectual insight or that they served as knowing parables for a degenerative society, but they always seemed to be striving for something more while delivering that torture porn baseline. For what it's worth, I looked forward to every Halloween from the time I was eighteen or so until I was twenty-two when seeing a new Saw movie every year turned into something of a tradition. It was clear when the steam began to run low after that sixth installment and I remember not even caring to see that seventh film in theaters, which had been shot in 3D to capitalize on that craze, but realized well enough that it had provided a Freddy Krueger or Mike Myers for my generation that might come to be revered years down the road with at least five or six solid entries to carry on its legacy. Like those horror icons of decades past though, movie studios can't help but to try and keep mining them for all their worth and it seems John Kramer AKA Jigsaw will be no different. Speaking of our titular character, the man under the black and red cloak-Tobin Bell-he does indeed show up for a short time if not to breathe new life into his definitive character or necessarily add insight to Kramer's motivations (which is no fault of Bell's as those sequels mined Jigsaw's origins for all they were worth), but rather Bell too goes through the motions and hits the beats he knows all too well leaving those lusting after a little more torturous fun with the original man behind the mask feeling not necessarily malnourished, but nowhere near as sustained as Saw once did.