Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig. Starring Callum Keith Rennie, Tobin Bell, Hannah Emily Anderson, Matt Passmore, Cle Bennett, Brittany Allen. USA 2017 92 mins Certificate: 18
Released by Lionsgate on VOD February 19th 2018 and DVD / Blu-Ray on February 26th 2018
“Oh yes, there will be blood…”
Hard to believe as it is, the SAW franchise has been around for 15 years. It first emerged in 2003 as a nine-minute short Australian film, excerpted from a feature length script by Leigh Whannell and director James Wan in order to attract funding for the full-length version. It was a punchy, intense calling card for Wan in particular, offering a highly suspenseful survivalist scenario in which hospital orderly Whannell wakes up with a reverse bear trap fixed to his face and a solitary opportunity to escape involving the retrieval of a key from the stomach of a paralysed man in the same room. Set to a jarring industrial score and sustaining a sense of dread via restless, circling camera work and hyperkinetic editing, it proved attractive to the rising independent Lionsgate and by the end of 2004, the theatrical SAW – famously reworking the iconic bear trap sequence – became a hit at Sundance and a box office hit spawning a sequel every October until the “finale” SAW 3-D in 2010. SAW was as pivotal a movie for Lionsgate as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was for New Line Cinema, and its ingeniously structured, thematically sadistic narrative “game” cannily incorporated elements of SE7EN, THE USUAL SUSPECTS and various 1970’s horror films. Wan’s career went stratospheric after he initiated two horror brand-names (THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS) before joining the big leagues of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise.
SAW burned itself out from the highly familiar horror trend of too-many-sequels-too-soon, losing audience goodwill from the contrivances needed to continue the story after killing off Tobin Bell’s soft-spoken antagonist at the end of SAW III, and taking a substantial box-office dip after the uncharacteristically flat SAW V. The relish with which the series delivered elaborate set piece mutilations proved a major drawing card in the post-Guantanamo Bay-climate of ‘ordeal horror’, but the genre and its audience moved on to less visceral, more fright-driven fare like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and Wan’s own INSIDIOUS by the end of the 21st century’s first decade. It became increasingly fashionable to dismiss SAW’s succession of sequels as mere “torture porn” – a label with all the dismissive condescension of the term “video nasties” – which overlooked the fact that the series had a rare commitment to continuity, and often delivered on its own terms. It’s worth noting that the finely crafted, post-credit crunch SAW VI is one of the smartest and engaging mainstream horror pictures of its period.
In a year in which horror enjoyed almost unprecedented critical success with thoughtful, non-gory, character-driven movies like GET OUT and SPLIT, Lionsgate dusted off SAW for a revival: let’s face it, no massively profitable franchise has ever been truly sincere when calling one of its sequels “The Final Chapter”. The talented Spierig brothers, who themselves rose from the ranks of an inventive low budget Australian horror film to studio genre fare like DAYBREAKERS, take over a series that had latterly become the domain of writers Marcus Dunston and Patrick Melton and director Kevin Greutert (here returning in an editing capacity). The newcomers successfully reproduce the pace and twisting narratives of their predecessors while, sensibly, downplaying the more brutal tendencies of the gore gags to reflect the shifting climate, and largely shedding the frenetic editing styles and oppressively grungy, decayed visual aesthetic that had started to look a tad passé by 2010.
The punchy opening car chase and subsequent police confrontation with a panicky gunman reflect a move toward more fun, action-driven suspense. As with most of the earlier movies, the narrative cuts between police procedural scenes investigating a series of gruesome crimes and a depleting group of strangers imprisoned in a Jigsaw-like trap-laden farmhouse. In this case, an ensemble of variously sinning strangers (a guy who sold bad mortgages, good coke and had extra marital affairs ; a woman who killed her baby in a fit of post-natal depression, a purse-snatcher) are forced to cut themselves on a range of buzzsaws to which they are chained. The cops, led by Callum Keith Rennie, figure they are looking at a Jigsaw copycat (ten years after his apparent death) when a hanging, bucket-headed victim found in the park boasts Jigsaw’s trademark, complete with his dulcet tones on a file in an embedded memory card.
Deftly executed and spirited, this has a lighter touch than the humourless earlier entries (“She seems to get off on this sick shit!” someone says of a key character at one point), though doesn’t stint on gruesome autopsies, acid injections and scenes in which characters have an assortment of sharp objects dropped on them. The new protagonists are stronger than most : Matt Passmore underplays as the buff lieutenant hero – tortured in Afghanistan – whose character arc unleashes a subtle malevolence in the final furlong, and Hannah Emily Anderson is sexy and suitably shifty as a coroner with her own museum of classic Jigsaw traps. Like many horror sequels in which the central antagonist is established as “dead”, the movie unfolds as a “who-is-it?” with various red herrings (plus an exhumation of Jigsaw’s coffin) while also unfolding in a world in which everyone knows who Jigsaw is, complete with dark-web fan sites and potentially psychotic fans.
The Spierigs update the traps and devices from the more medieval-slanted style of earlier films, even showcasing head-slicing lasers in the final act, though prefer knockabout gory spectacle rather than cringe-inducing mutilations. Echoing their predecessors, they also deliver outrageous contrivances and climactic montages, once again employing Charlie Clouser’s familiar music, a final-act reveal and a sliding-door punchline. Those who have been paying attention up to this point will recognise the biggest twist as a variant on a narrative trick employed back in SAW II, but the movie revives the franchise with such eager-to-please elan that it’s hard to grumble. Crucially, it reminds us why Tobin Bell became such an iconic presence and why we enjoyed these things every Halloween in the first place.
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