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Seen: 'Jigsaw' and 'Spiral'
Our retrospective of horror's longest running cinematic soap opera concludes.
I want to play a game: In anticipation of the September 29 release date of Saw X, I’m going to take a look back at all nine previous entries in the divisive Saw franchise. Previously, I revisited the original Saw, Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV, and Saw V, Saw VI, and Saw 3D; today, I’m concluding with Jigsaw and Spiral. My characteristically-neurotic thoughts about the movie are below. Read or die: Make your choice…
As we wind down our Saw series retrospective today, I’m going to talk about the last two films in the franchise in the reverse order of when they were released. I know this probably seems confusing but hopefully, by the time you get to the end, you’ll see there’s a method to my madness that is, at the very least, as sound Jigsaw’s.
Since the release of Saw 3D in 2010, there have been two attempts to gently-reboot the franchise. Neither of these seem to have connected with hardcore fans, let alone mainstream mass audiences, the way the first batch of movies did.
2021’s Spiral is easily the more disappointing of the two, partially because of Chris Rock’s involvement, and partially for other reasons I’ll get into later.
Rock infamously initiated Spiral’s creation when he pitched the idea to Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns at a wedding. When the movie was first announced, it was said that Rock had a specific “take” on the franchise - meaning he had a vision for how to push it in a new and exciting direction.
But as it turned out, this was hardly the case: Rock’s pitch, made completely on the fly, was that they make the new Saw movie “in the comedic style of Murphy’s 48 Hours,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Which is not a terrible idea… but it’s not exactly revolutionary, and, perhaps more importantly, not really what they ended up doing: Other than a couple of moments where Rock basically gets to recite stand-up bits, Spiral isn’t just unfunny, it’s patently no different from any other Saw movie. It was even directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the same guy who helmed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. It had a budget roughly twice the size of the most expensive Saw flick produced up until that point, which basically that they could afford to pay Sam Jackson for a couple days of filming. But for the most part, this is really just another Saw movie, and not an especially good one at that.
The picture has quite a few issues, not least of which is the fact that it telegraphs the killer’s identity - every death happens on-screen except for one, so it’s like, “Oh, well, that dude did it.”
It’s also almost completely detached from the other Saw movies; the killer is another Jigsaw copycat, but he has no relationship to John Kramer (Tobin Bell), and other than the titular pattern, uses a good amount of his own iconography (e.g., Billy has been replaced by a pig puppet, the creepy, electronically-modulated voice the killer uses is completely different from the one Jigsaw used, etc.). I understand the logic behind this decision in terms of attracting new viewers, which the creators had ample reason to believe they could do because of Rock. But since they didn’t really bother to do anything else to differentiate Spiral from the other Saws, all they really ended up doing was alienating the hardcore fan base that was so invested in the ongoing soap opera of John Kramer and everyone unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity; Rock’s presence simply wasn’t enough to convert people who didn’t like these movies in the first place.
But I actually think the flick’s biggest problem is that it squanders the best premise of any of these movies since series high point Saw VI… which is that the killer is targeting corrupt cops. Rock’s character is basically Serpico - he broke the blue wall of silence by testifying that his partner killed a witness in cold blood, and consequently, none of the other cops in his precinct have his back.
That clearly leaves room for the story to go some provocative and dramatic places, but the movie really only just barely scratches the surface of those possibilities. The killer turns out to be Rock’s new partner, who has a beef with Rock’s precinct because the poor guy whose murder Rock witnessed was, in fact, Not-Jigsaw’s father. At the end, Not-Jigsaw manipulates things so that the precinct’s former captain (Jackson), who also happens to be Rock’s dad, is shot dead by other police in a manner clearly meant to mirror the neverending murders of innocent Black citizens at the hands of cops.
Thing is, the killer is played by The Social Network’s Max Minghella (son of The English Patient/The Talented Mr. Ripley director Anthony Minghella). Minghella’s heritage is, in reality, diverse, and if you told me that he had faced racism from people who assumed he was of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, I’d believe it. But when Spiral was made, people weren’t out there protesting the police killing innocent Middle Easterners; they were protesting people killing innocent Black people. And I’m not quite sure how we’re meant to interpret the fact that Rock and Jackson are, as you’ve likely noticed, Black. Is the implication meant to be that they’re Uncle Toms… or are we meant to think that there’s no connection between race and police brutality? Because the movie’s sincere point-of-view is never really made clear, the means by which Jackson’s character is killed feels exploitative. You can’t bring such a serious issue into a story and then treat that issue as just another form of entertainment; to do so feels gauche.
Then there’s Jigsaw, released in 2017. This is the Saw film that most benefitted from my rewatch: I remember thinking the movie sucked, and it doesn’t suck. In fact, the reasons I disliked it when it was released are the exact reasons for which I now appreciate it.
Jigsaw is set ten years after the death of John Kramer… although good luck figuring out what the actual year is. It’s not clear how much time passes between the events of Saw and Saw II, but Saw III and Saw IV are very specifically set six months after Saw II and then Saw V, Saw VI, and Saw 3D all seem to take place within days of Saw III and IV so -
Okay so maybe let’s not overthink that part.
ANYWAY, as I was saying, Jigsaw takes place ten years after the death of John Kramer… and yet, there’s a new game afoot, with the victims’ remains popping up all over town. Is it a copycat killer… or is it possible that John Kramer is somehow alive? It’s up to a whole new group of cops we’ve never met before to figure shit out before it’s too late.
Jigsaw brought in some fresh creative blood. It was directed by The Spierig Brothers, whose previous credits include Daybreakers, a post-apocalyptic vampire movie/political allegory that’s considerably more creative than you might suspect. And it was written by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger, who also wrote Piranha 3D, which remains one of the greatest accomplishments in all of 21st century cinema. These new guys were in a tight spot though, ‘cause Saw 3D effectively ended every story thread we’d been following up until that point. But they had a solid idea regarding how to tackle this issue: The decision to apply the “explained supernatural” approach of Gothic literature (or, if you prefer, the “Scooby-Doo ending”) to John Kramer is a fun one, because unlike many other slasher franchises, Saw has never really dipped its toe in supernatural waters. The Spierig Brothers are also very good at making a relatively-low-budget movie seem like a relatively-high-budget movie - Jigsaw feels, at every turn, like a bigger, slicker film than its siblings.
Jigsaw also has what I believe is the funniest kill in the whole series, because of the nonsensical complexity of the trap, the contrast between the moment of respite when the victim thinks he’s off the hook and the abruptness with which he learns he’s wrong, the horrible gargling noise he makes as he’s killed, and the state of his corpse once he loses. This kind of gallows humor is exactly what I want in my slasher movies.
I’m also quite entertained by what happens to this poor bastard’s head at the very end of the movie:
So why did the fanbase ultimately reject Jigsaw?
My theory, based entirely on how I personally felt about the movie upon its release, is that it got too far away from the soap opera that was so central to its predecessors. As I said, the previous story threads had been resolved, and all the characters we’ve come to know and
love know some more - John, Dr. Jill Tuck, Hoffman, Amanda, Donnie Wahlberg, Cary Elwes’ decayed severed foot, etc. - are now dead (by the end of Saw 3D, they’ve even killed off the coroner from all the other movies). So the villain here turns out to be this police pathologist, Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore). And it would be one thing if Logan was just a Jigsaw copycat - but the movie would have us believe that he was actually the ORIGINAL John Kramer disciple, pre-dating Amanda and Hoffman and yet somehow never being mentioned at all during the initial batch of movies.
I think for a lot of people, it just feels like a step too far to say “Oh also this other guy has been around the entire time.” Especially given that Logan’s backstory and motivation are so convoluted that the very word “convoluted” doesn’t do them justice: He was in the military, where he was captured and tortured, so while suffering from PTSD, he accidentally mislabeled John Kramer’s x-rays, so John Kramer didn’t find out he had cancer as soon as he should have, so John put Logan in a test, but then John forgave Logan and freed him from that test, and then Logan worked with John for years, and then John died and Logan did nothing for a decade until he was ready to exact revenge for the death of his wife, and then -
Yeah, y’know what, actually? Don’t worry about it. It’s delightfully ludicrous, it renders events in earlier franchise entries nonsensical, and it raises a lot of questions about whatever happened to the group of Jigsaw followers from the end of Saw 3D.
Thing is, being incredibly convoluted and saying “Oh also this other guy has been around the entire time” is a time-honored tradition within the Saw movies. And while that would be annoying in most other narratives (e.g., Nikki and Paulo on Lost), in the Saws, they SO over-utilize this tactic that it becomes camp… and camp is where these movies need to live. Otherwise, they’d just be stupid and boring, not stupid and fun. Re-watching Jigsaw for the first time since it was in theaters, only vaguely recalling bits and pieces of its plot, I wanted to stand up and cheer when I realized the creators were, once again, going to bend so far backwards to justify this ridiculous movie that their spines would snap.
I haven’t seen Saw X yet, but a recent poster for the movie promises that its story “cuts through time,” and I really, really hope that means it makes no fucking sense whatsoever. I want an Avengers of Saw movies, where John, Logan, Amanda, and Hoffman are all together. Hell, while they’re at it, toss in Dr. Jill Tuck, the Max Minghella character from Spiral, and some completely random new person we’ve never heard of before but who was actually there the entire time before anyone else!!! I would also not be disappointed if they used actual time travel to somehow explain all this shit. When it comes to Saw, the sillier, the better.
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