Sometimes, the best cinematic advice is to leave well enough alone. Sure, some can make a go of revamping previous classics, but for the most part, when you want to revive a flagging franchise, you better be careful less you anger the original fanbase and underwhelm the current crop of potential devotees. Take James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s horror breakthrough, Saw. From the moment it broke onto festival screens, it announced a new master of terror while upping the violence that so many PG-13 frights of the era were missing.
Seven sequels later and few were figuring that the long dead John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, aka Tobin Bell, would be revived for more torture porn pleasures. Having died at the end of installment number three, every film since then strained credibility by tying more and more ancillary characters to the maniac as mentor. As Wan turned over the directing chores to filmmakers both bravura (Darren Lynn Bousman) and boring (David Hackl, Kevin Greutert), Saw was seen as a successful concept drained of all its potential to become product.
So one would think that the latest update–a reboot/follow-up known as Jigsaw–would trade in the terrifying traps that made this franchise fun. Like the slice and dice dynamic that lead Friday the 13th and Halloween to multiple slasher installments, the various games that our killer wants to indulge in have come to define the entire concept’s raison d’etra. Sadly, the new film offers one of the weakest puzzle collections in the Saw legacy. We should have gotten something to celebrate. After all, the combo of Peter and Michael Spierig are responsible for a couple of clever horror romps (Undead, Daybreakers) but even they underwhelm.
The story starts with a criminal named Edgar Munsen (Josiah Black) being pursued by police. He is eventually shot by Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie). Along with his partner, Detective Hunt (Cle Bennett), they begin to investigate a series of murders that follow the pattern established by the infamous Jigsaw. Elsewhere, a group of five people are being held hostage and tested by an unseen individual who seems to be vying to take the notorious killer’s place. Suspicion surrounds two police pathologists (Matt Passmore and Hannah Emily Anderson), one of whom is a major fan of John Kramer and his legacy. Then there’s a big twist. And a reveal. And lots of narrative cheats.
Jigsaw is the Final Destination 5 of the Saw franchise, and let’s just leave it at that. The Spierigs may be known for reinvesting tired fear concepts with new life, but they do nothing here to enliven the otherwise lackluster proceedings. Even the typically abundant gore the series is known for is muted here, the arterial spray more like a trickle. Instead of moving the franchise forward, this is backwards glancing without the fan service we’ve come to expect from such approaches. There’s nothing really new or inventive here, and that’s the film’s biggest problem.
While many blame James Wan for starting all this splatterfest mumbo jumbo, the truth is that the original Saw had more in common with Hitchcock than it did Hostel (which is the real benchmark for the whole torture porn subgenre). It was a stylish, surprise filled form of audience anticipation and release. But ever since Bouseman transformed the series into a series of more and more terrifying (and often illogical traps), the Saw films have wallowed in such excesses. Jigsaw tries to match up, menace wise, but just can’t. Even the mandatory “ah ha” is a groan inducer, especially for those who could see the this particular gotcha a mile or two away.
For fans of the series, Jigsaw is the law of diminishing returns elevated to lamentable levels.