Seven years is a long time in the life of a franchise. James Wan's modest, low-budget shocker Saw was a surprise smash in 2004 and kickstarted one of the most profitable horror properties of all time. But by 2010, audiences were beginning to look elsewhere for their scares, and the final two movies--Saw VI and Saw 3D--were the least successful of the lot. Lionsgate wisely parked the series, and the supernatural scares of the Paranormal Activity, Conjuring, and Insidious movies became the big horror franchise hits of the following decade.
But nothing in the genre stays dead for long, and seven years later, Saw is back. Jigsaw acts as both a sequel and reboot, which is smart given that many of its target audience of young adults may have been too young to see the original movies. So while it does continue the basic story--the ongoing legacy of crazy John Kramer, aka The Jigsaw Killer--it doesn't require any specific knowledge of the previous films. Which, given how ridiculously complicated they got by the end, is not a bad thing.
The movie begins with a punchy cold open. A man named Edgar is on the run from cops, claiming that the trigger he holds in his hand will begin a series of new games if pressed. He is shot, the button is pressed, and in an unknown location somewhere, five strangers awaken. All have buckets on their heads, which are chained to a wall of spinning blades. A familiar voice emerges from speakers--it's John Kramer (Tobin Bell), supposedly dead for a decade, informing them that a new series of gruesome games is about to begin.
While the later Saw movies were marked by a surfeit of characters, bewildering twists, and callbacks to events in previous movies, Jigsaw keeps things relatively simple. For much of the running time, it intercuts two storylines. There's the quintet of victims, all of whom have a dark secret and must work together to survive a series of deadly tests. Every time one dies, the mutilated body is left for the cops to find, a jigsaw-shaped piece of flesh cut from them. We also have detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett), who are working with a pathologist called Nelson (Matt Passmore) and his assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) to figure out if the killer is really Kramer, back from the dead. Like the victims, these characters have dark pasts, and no one is as they seem.
Jigsaw is directed by the Spierig brothers, who previously helmed the vampire flick Daybreakers and the underrated sci-fi thriller Predestination. They're experienced genre filmmakers and know exactly how to get the the franchise back on track, which could potentially start the ball rolling on a new series of films. Everything that made the first few movies so popular is here: the games, the mystery, the twists, the voice of Jigsaw, and Billy the creepy puppet. The sequence of traps in a single location and a rapidly diminishing group of victims plays out much as it did in Saw II, while the unfolding mystery is refreshingly unpredictable for once.
The Spierigs had previously stated that Jigsaw would be more "fun" than some of the earlier films, and it's true that the level of sadism is dialled down a little. But fans shouldn't go away too disappointed on that front; there's still plenty of limb-lopping, flesh-melting, and head-splitting. The plot just about hangs together, despite a barrage of twists in the last ten minutes. That said, it's probably not worth thinking too much about how Jigsaw fits in with some of the previous entries; key characters, such as Kramer's various apprentices or his wife Jill, are barely mentioned at all.
Jigsaw is unlikely to win non-fans over, and it's certainly not the best of the series, as it lacks both the first movie's claustrophobic intensity and Saw VI's viscous, satirical bite. It has little of the hyperactive editing style that gave the earlier movies their own visual identity, and with the exception of Bell, who can still terrify with a few words spoken through a dictaphone, the performances are solid but hardly spectacular. But it's fast-moving and entertaining--and miles better than the terrible Saw 3D. If this is to be the first in a new series of Saw movies, it's a good start. Let the games continue.
Keeps the plot straight-forward
Nothing we haven't seen before
Not very scary
Gore is toned down
Average performances (apart from Tobin Bell)