He’s quite the renaissance man, John Kramer. Also known as the Jigsaw Killer, he’s a master of engineering, miraculously good at time management, and a savant when it comes to predicting human behavior. In short, he’s the all-knowing Dungeon Master of the Saw franchise. Even death can’t halt Kramer’s murderous antics; in the later films in the series, a bunch of acolytes took up the reigns and staged the torturous locked-room challenges for him.
A genius though Kramer is (or was), there’s one thing he couldn’t control, even if he wanted to: the law of diminishing returns. After a spell of interest where the Saw movies were an annual attraction at cinemas each Halloween, the box office numbers began to fall off as the franchise headed towards double figures; by 2010’s Saw 3D, even Lionsgate began to get cold feet, and what was once planned as a two-part story was instead compressed into one.
Saw 3D, with its gory stereoscopic traps, was therefore the seventh and last in the series – at least until 2017, when Lionsgate brought John Kramer (an increasingly weary-looking Tobin Bell) out of retirement (kind of) with Jigsaw. Yes, like other horror franchises before it – Halloween, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, even Alien – the recognisability of its brand means it’s just too valuable to leave alone.
Jigsaw, then, was a chance to wipe the slate clean. It brought in new writers (Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger) and directors fresh to the franchise – the Spierig brothers, who made the hugely underrated genre films Daybreakers (2010) and Predestination (2014). The budget was down considerably from Saw 3D ($10 million versus the previous film’s $20 million), but then again, that could’ve fed into a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach. The original, a surprise hit back in 2004, was made for a lean $1.4 million. Maybe, we thought, Jigsaw will recapture some of that film’s raw, grubby energy.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how Jigsaw pans out. Pretty much from the opening sequence, it’s clear that we’re in familiar territory: five strangers wake up in a locked room loaded with traps. A gravelly voice rings out now and again to give the strangers a lesson in morals; the strangers are forced to make horrible split-second decisions and usually die in the process. Meanwhile, across town, a group of cops are rubbing their foreheads over this new set of murders (for some reason, the killer’s dumping bodies from his twisted games all over the place). As the grisly deaths mount, the cops begin to suspect one another; is the Jigsaw Killer really back, or is there another protege doing the dirty work on his behalf?
The mix of locked-room horror and cop thriller harks right back to the original Saw, when Danny Glover was one of the detectives on the Jigsaw Killer’s case. It’s a reminder, really, of how far the series has drifted from its roots. In 2004, Kramer’s traps were relatively simple, intimate affairs: sure, there was that ‘reverse bear trap’ contraption and a few other Heath Robinson-type things, but its most memorable life-or-death quandary took in nothing more elaborate than a hacksaw.
In Jigsaw, much like the other sequels, the absurdly complicated traps are the stars of the show. Here you’ll find a pulley system, some circular saws and ad-hoc masks made out of buckets. There’s also a positively gigantic mechanism capable of turning a screaming man into a strawberry milkshake. (One highlight involves a grain silo and various kitchen utensils falling on some victims below. It’s one of those moments that shouldn’t be funny but undoubtedly is.)
The traps are less startlingly cruel in Jigsaw than previous Saw movies, but they’ve also lost sight of what worked about the better entries (namely Saws I-III): the intimacy. When a luckless individual’s asked to slice into his eyeball in Saw II, we’re left reeling because we immediately want to clap a hand over our own eye to protect it. The question of whether or not we’d cut our own foot off to save ourselves is an unsettling one because it’s not quite outside the bounds of possibility. Being slowly lowered face-down into a 30-foot-tall food blender might scare up a wince, but it’s hardly a scenario most of us will lose sleep over.
Saw is a franchise partly built on shock value, so it’s something of a problem when its chief selling point starts to ebb. Where there should be nervous tension, there are only questions: what sort of budget does the Jigsaw Killer have for all these elaborate traps? How can one person single-handedly kidnap a man from a hospital, dig up a grave, put the man in the coffin and bury the coffin again in one night?
As we’ve already seen, diminishing returns are inevitable in all horror franchises – and that’s true in terms of their creativity as well as their box office numbers. A Nightmare On Elm Street descended into self-parody as Freddy Krueger morphed from terrifying dream demon to unlikely rapper and all-round figure of fun. The lo-fi shocks of the Paranormal Activity series rapidly went from chilling to predictable as the sequels mounted. In the latter entries of both franchises, we can almost hear the gears turning in the writers’ heads: what ingenious new methods can we come up with to keep the audience on its toes?
Admittedly, Jigsaw‘s writers do have a couple of interesting tricks up their sleeves. The third act has a quite nice turn that plays with our perception of time, even if the reveal of the true killer is clumsily handled. The film also flirts with the idea that there are a group of fetishists on the Dark Web who are fans of the Jigsaw Killer’s work. One of these fans turns out to be in the cops’ midst – medical examiner Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) has an entire warehouse space dedicated to Kramer’s old traps.
For a second, it looks as though Jigsaw might engage with the inherent kinkiness lurking under the Saw franchise’s skin – the fascination with restraints, chains, razor blades, and other trappings of extreme sado-masochism. Like so many vaguely interesting ideas in Jigsaw, though, all of this is a secondary concern to the bloodletting; by now, even the characters we find trapped in a Saw locked-room challenge are beginning to look and sound decidedly rote.
Among the victims this time you will find: a 20-something guy who once sold a malfunctioning motorcycle; a woman who stole another woman’s purse; a schlubby middle-aged bigamist who once caused a fatal car accident. Beyond their physical appearances and their assorted sins, there isn’t much more to say about them – which has long been a problem with the Saw franchise, above and beyond all the problems we’ve discussed so far. As Mitch (Mario Van Peebles) was lowered into the giant liquidiser, we couldn’t help thinking: what if we actually cared about this person? What if we’d spent a good 20 minutes or so in his company, and we were pained at the thought of his being whizzed into a gooey mess?
If there’s one thing the Saw franchise needs to do if it’s to survive, it’s make the characters something more than shouting, bickering cattle. Admittedly, this is a criticism that could be levelled at most horror franchises, but it’s particularly true of Saw. The killer’s method of tormenting his victims is inherently mechanical, from the design and construction of complicated traps to working out in advance what they’ll do to try to escape.
It’s vital, then, that the characters themselves – whether they’re victims in a locked barn or cops on the killer’s trail – be the organic factor in these clockwork-puzzle stories. Had Jigsaw relied more on suspense – giving the characters room to breathe, and allow time for the audience to properly invest in them – then the gory pay-off may have been more effective. Instead, everyone in Jigsaw moves through their predefined motions: there’s a panicking one who shrieks “Who’s doing this to us?!”; there’s a selfish one who has a tendency to let other people die horribly so they can survive. Couple these with some fairly stock cops and pathologists from a procedural TV show, and you’re left with a movie that almost looks like it was created using a computer algorithm.
Jigsaw wasn’t a colossal hit in cinemas last autumn, but it still made about 10 times its initial budget back; the word is that Lionsgate’s currently working on a sequel. As long as they make economic sense, the Saw franchise is sure to keep on spinning, then. But as long as the movies keep favouring increasingly outlandish traps over engaging characters, the franchise will, at least for this writer, always feel like a puzzle with a vital piece missing.