“I want to play a game…” - ?
And the Saw movies keep on coming, eight movies later – here comes the ninth. Normally, you’d expect a film franchise to be fast running out of steam by now, particularly a horror movie franchise. But not the Saw movies. Why is that?
Personally, I think it’s the quality of writing – an odd thing to say about a series of films that are basically seen as exercises in torture porn, but bear with me here. Watched individually, the films seem to be little more than an excuse to get from one stomach flipping torture device to another. But watched close together (if your stomach can take it) – there’s a finely crafted episodic story that comes very much into play that borders on genius.
I recently re-watched all of the original films Saw I – VII, plus Jigsaw, which followed, on blu-ray in the American unrated versions. (Trust me, the unrated versions are definitely not for the squeamish – the space between your second and third fingers should never be in the same space as a buzz saw, nor should your head be inserted into a customised bear trap, I could go on but I’ve just had breakfast.) But holding all these scenes together is a plotline of revenge and retribution, with more twists, turns and red herrings than a maze in a fish market. And ultimately, all the pieces fit together to make a whole – just like a jigsaw. They’re unbelievably nasty, incredibly imaginative hard to watch, yet compelling. (For the sake of your nerves and your digestive system, just watch the rated versions – they’re a little gentler on your last meal.)
Saw I – Saw VII covered the story of cancer victim John Kramer (Tobin Bell) who was known as the Jigsaw killer, lured or kidnapped people who he had judged in need of retribution to a number of traps, that would force them to make a sacrifice to alter their way – usually costing them a body part. The traps were industrial strength exercises in torture, so you’d have to sacrifice a limb, or sight to set yourself free. The films came around full circle, as some of his surviving victims would become his disciples.
Spiral intrigued me, because where could they possibly go? The original films had told the whole story, Jigsaw had dealt with a copycat killer our for revenge – plus casting comedian Chris Rock in the lead? It all seemed like a recipe for disaster. Yes, you can parody a slasher film due to their rigid adherence to a formula – but the hardcore horror of Saw? Darren Lynn Bousman who had directed Saw II, III & IV returns to direct a script by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, who had previously written Jigsaw – so there’s hope.
Very early in the film, there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s no way this is going to be anything remotely gentle or a comedic take on the established concept. Not when we see a victim forced to tear out his own tongue if he wants to survive being splattered by a subway train. (Trust me, my triple scoop ice cream was threatening to creep back up my throat in the first five minutes of the movie.)
Investigating the incident (which doesn’t end well) is Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) and his young rookie partner Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella). At this stage, full rein is given to Rock’s usual routine of rapid-fire profanity. His character borders on cliché as an embittered lone wolf cop in the best tradition Clint Eastwood, despised by his colleagues for having turned in a bad cop some years earlier – so think a hybrid of Dirty Harry and Serpico. He doesn’t want a partner, but is forced to accept the rookie detective – yes, we’ve seen all this before. His father is ex Police Chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L Jackson) His character, largely Chris Rock playing Chris Rock seems at odds with this being a Saw film, albeit a spinoff and at this point, I was wondering if this odd clash of styles was going to be what I feared, as Rock is credited as Executive Producer, a vanity project. Yes, Rock is funny – but his trademarked smartmouth personality would surely detract from the Saw conventions. There’s not much comedic ad-libbing possible when someone has just been splattered with their tongue skewered. Possibly even Melissa McCarthy would shy away from this one.
But much as I’ve mocked the football commentator for remarking that a particular game he was commenting on was a game of two halves – I kind of get what he meant while watching this film. It’s as if Rock was given the first part of the film to get his expected schtick out of the way, then we can get started on the REAL story.
It’s very well done too. As the film progresses, we discover that there’s a Jigsaw copycat out there somewhere – and he’s targeting cops. It’s done very much in the style of the previous films, with tortures and devices in abandoned industrial sites -the devices are ingenious, and the suffering they cause are as hard to watch as ever – but there was one, with flying shards of broken glass, that I found to push credibility a bit. But as the plot intensifies – almost at a subliminal level, the traditional Saw theme music swells up gradually, signalling the transition from a typical Rock vehicle to a traditional Saw instalment.
All in all, I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. The twists, turns and misdirections before the reveal of the killer made the film compelling. In fact, it’s a far better film than the ninth entry in a horror franchise has a right to be. There’s still some blood to be squeezed out of this.
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