2017 | rated R | starring Laura Vandervoort, Callum Keith Rennie | directed by Michael and Peter Spierig | 1hr 32mins |

Studio Pitch: Let’s make a Saw movie. Again!

Few movie series are as obnoxiously frustrating, yet luridly compelling, as the Saw series. Compelling because their endless twists and traps indicate a potential for it to be more clever than it’s slasher movie/torture porn DNA; because with each new entry it appears to write itself into a show-stopping corner and then bend over backwards to get out of it. Frustrating because in now 8 movies it never comes close to fulfilling that twisty, gory promise. They have an anarchist quality that favors bleak endings, unceremoniously killing off their apparent heroes and bring it’s messy strands together in increasingly absurd ways; but they defiantly refuse to put in the littlest effort, make one more pass at the script, to bring a little imagination to the proceedings. Each entry brings a new promised re-invention and each time it gets pulled from us like Charlie Brown’s football in favor of whatever the quickest, cheapest and simplest path to the finish line the movie could take. When they work, they aren’t bad – I’m partial to the first, 2nd and 6th. When they don’t, look out.

In retrospect it was probably foolish of me to think that a series of low budget horror movies that rake in millions of dollars would turn around and reinvest that money to build better traps, hire better talent, give itself more time and expand it’s vision. That’s why despite my B-movie enjoyment of some of these movies, the series as a whole represents the most cynical and calculating side of Hollywood where if a studio can get by with the lowest common denominator they will do it every time.

Anyway – 7 years after Saw: The Final Chapter and 10 years in movie time since the death of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the suits at Twisted Pictures decided it was time to bring back the new millennial horror icon we may not love, but probably deserve. Bodies start showing up all over town – buckets fused to their heads, ghastly mutilations and the trademark branding of the reportedly long dead Jigsaw killer. While doctors Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) are increasingly vexed by physical evidence that points to a ghost, detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Cle Bennett) try to find the remaining victims, who are simultaneously chained up in a barn and racing to stay alive in Jigsaw torture traps that demand confessions for their sins.

All of the Saw films tried to balance an A-story where hapless victims try to survive traps with a detective B-story where the bumbling police chase their tail around trying to save them. Jigsaw is particularly heavy on the cop story and light on the trap story, running out of ideas pretty early. The traps also require an incredible amount of foresight on Jigsaw’s part. He talks to each participant by name as if he knows exactly which one will be alive at every point in the challenge.

Everyone in the film, like everyone in the series, is nasty and vile in some way. Whether it’s the cops who make up a rogue gallery of suspects or the survivors, these morons always make your average slasher movie camp counselor look like a MENSA member. Nelson is a veteran with a quick temper, Halloran is a crooked cop and morgue attendant Bonneville is the most interesting, a Jigsaw devotee who frequents the killer’s numerous worship sites on the dark web. Because she’s a chick every guy in the movie asks her if she “gets off on that kind of stuff” because this is the Saw-verse where everyone is awful. Inside the barn, Laura Vandervoort (Smallville) leads the survivors and Paul Braunstein stands out as the shred of humor for a largely humorless series – before he is infected with the Saw tone and devolves into a screaming maniac too. Its a tried-and-true trademark of all these films that the trapped participants spend their time screaming at each other instead of trying to work through the puzzle.

This entry’s glimmer of hope for reinvention comes from The Spierig Brothers (Undead, Daybreakers and Predestination) taking the reigns. Truth be told, this is at least the best looking film in the series by a wide margin. For a series that is set mostly in generic, grimy, filthy basements, warehouses and corridors (so that you can cheaply re-dress one room and hallway for 10 more), the simple change of venue is a breath of fresh air. The film stays away from James Wan’s insane, over-edited, spinning camera work as well as the torture porn blood-lust sadism of the series sequels. The surprise headline here is that Jigsaw, like the first Saw, isn’t really a torture film at all.

But that’s pretty much where the changes end. Its still humorless, the mystery goes for the dullest possible conclusion and the traps make even less sense than before – we’re miles away from the original Saw’s mantra of making people appreciate their life and seeing what they will sacrifice to save themselves. Now it’s just kill or be killed. Or be fast, or be able to dodge random falling blades in a grain silo. In the past Jigsaw created cult followers out of those that survive his traps, now his fans are just serial killer enthusiasts. The Spierigs can’t bring any tension or fun to this mess and most of the trademarks of the series remain faithfully intact. You’d think it was a James Bond movie the way Twisted Pictures keeps Jigsaw slavishly close to the Saw formula.

There are a few twists and turns in the final act that are interesting. I particularly like the rebooted way the movie brings Jigsaw back into the fold and ties it’s loose strands together (even if it is predictable, especially if you’ve seen previous Saw twists). At first I was impressed, that’s what a series that beats down your expectations does to you. Really all it was doing was taking a pile of gaping plot holes and red herrings and closing them so that the story has some shred of cohesion. Jigsaw surpasses the low standards set by the series to become better than half of the other Saw movies (not better than 1, 2 and 6), but the latest promised reinvention is only in the tiniest details when this whole thing needs a new engine.

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