Content Warning: Due to the nature of this movie, I’m not using pictures for this one. Not because it’s super horrifying, just because it’s not really very important. There’s some medical horror in this one, and a lot of gory fake dead bodies mangled up in messy ways. I’m also not really talking about spoilers beyond ‘there is a twist,’ which is sort of du jour for horror movies in the Saw franchise.
With that in mind, we now begin the presentation.
Just how good can this movie be?
That’s not a rhetorical flourish! This is a serious question about exactly how you can even grade the quality of movies like this. Jigsaw, the 2017 sort-of-sequel, sort-of-relaunch of the Saw franchise, follows in a tradition of horror movie sequels. Horror movies exist in a sort of life cycle that can be compared to butterflies, where there’s an initial appearance, which usually does something pretty solid and dazzling, and which gives a great return on what’s usually a very small investment. It’s very efficient at that point, and that’s when it starts to grow. It grows and it grows, and its rate of growth slows, until it hits a tipping point where it can’t reasonably get any bigger with its current rate of consumption, where every bit of new food is returning only barely as much as it cost to get, and then, the franchise does something, folding itself up in itself, turning into a sort of strange, formless soup, dormant as it’s restructured and designed, before bursting out of this chrysalis as something large and alien and horrible.
It is at this point, inevitably, nothing like its origin point, lasts a very short amount of time, and usually starts something that results in the whole franchise starting over again with that same original burst of surprise, just somehow a bit lesser than the first one because you’ve seen it before. The Halloween franchise has eleven movies, and twice, those movies have been about pretending the previous movies except the first never happened. There are nine Elm Street movies, and twelve Friday the 13th movies. It’s generally accepted that with these movies, the further they come from the original, the worse they are, with some weirdness around how the franchise ‘really’ started with the second, or the third one is a different type of movie or whatever. This is all very insider knowledge, stuff for the real fans of horror.
There is therefore, a perception to some extent of rot over time. The older the franchise, the more iterations it gets, the weaker each new one is. These franchises are old franchises with Halloween starting in 1979. At eleven movies over forty years, that’s a rate that seems to be about a movie every three and a half years.
For comparison, there have been eight Saw movies since 2004. What’s more, setting aside Jigsaw, in 2010, there were seven Saw movies, with movies being released every year on October. The general consensus is that whatever rot there is sets in fast for Saw, which started out with a movie about closed rooms and limited information and eventually became a spiralling mess of conflicting games set across multiple timelines, and mostly only interesting to the people who were already invested in the idea of there being a Saw franchise.
If these franchises rot over time and get reincarnated as lesser alternatives to their own earlier selves, then Saw was seemingly pressure-cooked into sludge until by the end it resembled a long-running seinen manga, where at the end there’s tons of gore and characters reacting with loud shouts about a single playing card or something like that, with dream fakeouts and sudden twists at the end that tell you to be surprised, rather than surprise you.
How do you judge Jigsaw then?
If you look at Jigsaw as an inheritor to the first movie, it’s pretty bad. There’s not nearly the same kind of long, grinding torment and that single initial question about when you gave up hope on the scenario. It’s a race against time and generally, it’s accepted as being a pretty good one, with a revelation at the end changing the way you view the whole story. It also benefits from not being about built-up mythology; the story of the character in the heart of Saw is something of an urban legend, a horror story that you could maybe imagine someone putting together with a dedicated workshop over the course of a few years, rather than the near nationwide conspiracy of (extremely conveniently positioned) people presented in later films. Saw is still pretty good. Jigsaw is comparatively, kinda nonsense.
But Jigsaw isn’t a mess of bloated continuities like the movie just one earlier. It’s not messy. It’s got a clever twist at the end, it’s a race against time, and the death traps, while pretty elaborate, are even framed as being too elaborate to be practical. They use components that work for that same idea of someone who might be able to make them with a bit of help from a few people… well, maybe.
Can you judge Jigsaw then on its own merits? Pretend there’s no Saw, and look at it as a horror movie? Well in that case it’s certainly a bit decent. There’s a lot of really convoluted stuff that doesn’t work so well if you’re trying too hard to work it out ahead of time, like this building full of automated deathtraps all triggering on perfect timings, the successes and the failures and the idea of treating all these deathtraps as moral tests as meaningful when people are desperately screaming and trying to avoid death, all that kind of thing. It’s elaborate and it’s very goofy, and the end –
Man, the ending.
Basically, up to the point where you’re meant to be paying attention to things that you could build in a mechanic’s shop with the right kind of patience and a twisted mind, Jigsaw‘s traps work pretty well, once you know how the story is working its tricks on you. But that’s what happens before lasers get involved, and once lasers get involved, it’s all really silly.
But then, it’s a horror movie, and lots of horror movies are pretty good and taut and enjoyable as horror movies right up until the end and… then they get very silly? There’s a lot of these classic movies that kind of just get ridiculous right at the conclusion. Is that a dealbreaker? Should it be a dealbreaker? Is Jigsaw good if you imagine that final confrontation happens a different way and maybe involves something other than lasers?
Weirdly, no? Because the nature of the twist they use can’t use something other than lasers, and that means you’re left with this really well thought out use of something ridiculous to include.
I liked Jigsaw, I thought it was pretty good. It was definitely a breath of fresh air compared to previous Saw films, which were pretty ridiculous. It made some things really horrible without them being tailor-made for horribleness, like how much it can hurt breaking through a floor, or how grain silos are terrifying. It plays pretty fair by the standards of movies where these things can get very silly and I don’t feel like it’s embarrassing to call, say, the second best Saw movie.
Traditionally, Saw movies come out just before Halloween, and you might have missed this one, because the conventional series stopped, ten years ago. Well, Jigsaw is a pretty good halloween spooky horror mystery movie. It’s full of all the kinds of horror content warnings, and I don’t remember anyone saying anything transphobic or gross – I mean the grossness that’s not necessary, not the grossness that’s revelling in stuff like deliberate misogyny.
It’s not a good movie.
It’s just not really all that bad.