The Saw movies seemed to do best when they were released under Republican presidents. There seemed something enticing and fascinating about the moralistic serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) then, under the spectre of value-voter conservatism and the moral majority hypocrisy present so heavily in the early aughts that it’s totally understandable that the franchise breathed its last breath once Obama took office.
The climate had changed, and we wanted our horror immediate and real once again. Now that the political winds have shifted once again, we’re greeted with another one of these films, Jigsaw, this time named after the killer rather than the long-lost implement of gory horror and directed by the Spierig Brothers, who have made a couple of quietly excellent genre films (Daybreakers, in which Willem Dafoe crashes his car and promptly bursts into flame as he smashes through his windshield, and Predestination, which featured one of the best performances of 2015 from Australian actress Sarah Snook).
The results are good enough, I guess.
What the Spierig Brothers have done here doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel — it’s still the kind of darkly ironic and moralistic vigilante murder fantasy that these films so gamely provide, albeit with a few fun twists — and for the most part, Jigsaw succeeds at being a nice bridge between the original Saw movies and whatever the hell will come later on. They’ve taken the plain set-up implied in the title — the Jigsaw killer is back and he’s got five new victims, Mister Police, and he’s giving you all the clues to find them — and ensure that it’s delivered in a moderately engaging fashion between the grisliness. Yes, the movie is deeply stupid, and depends on some utterly bizarre character choices on the part of supposed hard-asses and some silly coincidences in order to work perfectly, but I saw that as less of a bug and more of a feature. Regardless of what’s going on screen, there’s plenty to chuckle at, even if it is a bit tame by the series’ own standards.
Bell is, of course, back as the titular character (what, did you think that him being uncredited meant that he wasn’t in the movie? HE’S ON THE DAMN POSTER), and he gives a kind of laconic gravitas to a role that was presumably written as thinly as the check wasn’t. He’s the only performer of note amongst the bunch, as this is a quick Halloween cash-in, and you wouldn’t want to waste honest-to-god talent on this, now would you?
On the other hand, the ensemble is fun enough to sell some tremendously silly shit to us, like the fact that the first people the police suspect are the morticians assigned to the case, or that a main character has a literal museum of Jigsaw’s horror devices in a giant warehouse in what must be the cheapest real-estate mecca in all of the US for her to afford on her salary. The gore is restrained and proper, as to attract the audience that the ugliness of the original series drove away, but it’s got its own small pleasures — the opening death trap, involving chains attached to bucket-helmets and circular saws, is a fun tease of what’s to come — and it builds up towards an effective moment at the end. The Spierigs seem bored by all of this, though, and the gun-for-hire aesthetic wears on them slightly.
As it stands, Jigsaw is definitely worth a trip to the theater if you’re at all interested in doing something silly at the multiplex for Halloween, but I can’t tell you what you’ll enjoy or what you won’t if you’re the kind of super-fan who’d have a replica of Jigsaw’s doll lying around somehwere. To be frank, I’m not an expert on any of these matters — I haven’t seen one of the Saw movies in years and years — but I can say without a doubt that those who are in similar predicaments won’t have any trouble following along and wincing (or chuckling if you’re a sicko like me) at the right moments, and will be able to engage well enough with the story.
All I truly know is that years after the total implosion of the Paranormal Activity franchise and the deaths of mainstream horror icons like Wes Craven, it’s nice to have some horror back on the screen right around Halloween, even if it’s as cheap and quick as this. It’s just kind of sad that it seems to be a harbinger for darkness on a global level, even if it’s totally coincidental.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Still via Lionsgate.