I don’t think anyone could have predicted the cultural force that Saw would become after it made its debut in 2004, leading to a greater narrative of violence and suspense. Each subsequent year meant a new Saw film, spawning a new Halloween tradition for moviegoers and horror fans alike. That said, as time went on, the quality of the series began to decline.
What started out as “torture porn” with a psychological edge eventually morphed into shallow soap opera. Each following movie, specifically Saw V and onward, chipped away at what made the initial first three films excellent in my opinion. What promise was teased in Saw IV was dropped for conventional splatter fests and bland emotion. Though I have a fondness for Saw, I only find myself truly interested in revisiting those first few titles, finding very little to enjoy in the latter ones.
Then Spiral: From the Book of Saw was announced. Let alone it starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson – with Rock having come up with the original story concept – the film appears to be a reboot. Darren Lynn Bousman is directing it, who is perhaps the strongest director associated with the past films (alongside that of James Wan).
With Spiral’s release this year (the film’s current date is May 14th), I thought that it would be worth talking about the strengths and flaws of the Saw movies. What went wrong with the films? And what can Spiral take away from the good and the bad? Everyone who has watched the Saw films has their own personal ranking of them, so please keep in mind my opinions are my own. And there will be some spoilers regarding the series as a whole.
What sets Saw apart from other films of similar ilk? Well, besides that of the trap gimmick, it is the psychological/philosophical angle it had going for it. In the first Saw, it is discussed between characters how Jigsaw uses his games to rehabilitate people; to force them to acknowledge their wrongs and to gain a new appreciation for their lives. Though it’s a problematic view, it’s also expressed how he doesn’t actually kill people (just puts them in situations where they have to maim themselves, you know). I won’t go into this too much, for there are other essays that speak to this in heavier detail, but much of Jigsaw’s philosophy is the idea of struggle bringing about change; that if a person endures enough, they will gain something profound.
A serial killer with this concept in mind is leagues above the average splatter flick. Not only do the games work to effectively disturb the audience through their physical violence, but they also offer an emotional element. Jigsaw takes people who have done crappy things to others, or who take their lives for granted, and places them in positions that symbolically reflect their particular circumstances. One of the strongest examples of this concept being in Saw III.
After losing his son in a tragic accident, Jeff becomes distant from his family, as he is consumed with grief. Given his obsession and unwillingness to let go, Jigsaw has Jeff kidnapped and placed into a game where he must confront individuals associated with the accident that took his son’s life. In each trap, Jeff is given the choice to hold onto his anger, to watch these people suffer and die, or to forgive and possibly save them.
Though the first Saw offers an intriguing premise, brutal violence, and strong suspense, it is Saw II and III that really dive in on concepts of morality, forgiveness, and self-acceptance. Besides its gore, Saw offered more to chew on; its thematic depth helped set it apart from the rest of the “torture porn” crowd, allowing it to be a fascinating work of horror at the time. And then came Saw IV. While well directed, it would also mark the beginning for Saw’s unfortunate decline in quality.
So, what ended up hurting Saw?
For starters, the story became too bloated with melodrama once Jigsaw died. The twist that Detective Hoffman was an accomplice to him is interesting and could have made for a neat narrative to follow; sadly, most of his story is a letdown. Unlike Jigsaw, Hoffman lacks substance. As misguided and wrong as he is, Jigsaw has a philosophy that makes him an interesting character at the very least. Hoffman has a relatively understandable reason behind his first kill, but then proves to have no greater drive outside of being blackmailed and continuing the games. His story could have been a lot more interesting – possibly examining the impact that Jigsaw’s ideas had on him. Perhaps he became more inspired and sought to carry on Jigsaw’s legacy. But no, besides some surface level philosophy mentioned there and then, Hoffman is a very generic killer.
In this direction, the films also lose their emotional and intellectual edge, not including a few games that make stronger efforts to explore morality and internal change. For the most part though, the story begins to roll out weak drama, as well as a heavier focus on twists. Twists in Saw movies are a lot of fun generally speaking, but in my opinion, there’s a difference between how they were used earlier in the series and what they became. When looking back on twists in the earlier films, there is more of a narrative potency to them – they have some form of emotional weight on the characters. As the films continued, the number of twists the writers used only increased, hence losing some of that power to mean anything special. There’s a saying that “Less is more,” and Saw’s writers could have used a hell of a lot less twists (and applied more care to the story).
In Saw I – III, plot information isn’t rolled out to the viewer with speedy carelessness; there is more time dedicated to being with each character and absorbing their struggles. But as the Saw movies went on, they began providing their essential story details in a quick, paper thin manner – here are a couple quick points about so and so to throw at the audience. Story and character became second to that of the traps and “Ah ha!” moments. Where the series began with somewhat of a contemplative nature alongside its violence, that too was stripped away, leading to a nonsensical story.
All these problems speak to how vapid Saw became overtime. I’m not saying Saw is a work of immense intellectual wealth, but it absolutely had something interesting going for it early on. Though Saws IV – Jigsaw have some strong moments among them, they lack thematic depth and interesting characters (for the most part). Many of the games throughout the series continued to be exhilarating and grim, but if one looks at Saw as only having that one appeal, what really sets it apart from any other splatter movie?
The big take away from all this is that Spiral could give viewers a more engaging story. I’m not saying it needs to be all uppity with philosophical musing, but it could give more to contemplate. Spiral could involve deeper character studies. Individuals who are truly suffering with something in life, have done something horrible, or who are blind to what they have, and now must save themselves. There’s also the opportunity to feature a new killer who has a philosophy in mind, who sees a twisted logic to their actions.
Personally, I want Spiral to unnerve me the way Saw did back in 2004. If I were to think of one element I want out of Spiral, it would be to challenge. To make its audience uncomfortable, to explore subjects of morality and offer an experience that will carry the brutality of Saw, while also including its better dramatic qualities. This franchise still has a special place in pop culture – Spiral is the opportunity to bring Saw back into the horror limelight.