Tobin Bell makes his unlikely return as the 21st Century’s Nastiest Boogeyman.
When the corpse on the floor stood up at the climax of 2004’s Saw, my body reacted with a cartoonishly extreme fist pump from my front row center seat in a theater jammed with horror fanatics looking for the Sundance hype to be proven. Can you believe that the original Saw screened at Sundance in Park City? True story. After ten months of anticipation, this micro-budgeted indie shocker had every gore geek in the country frothing for the next Halloween. While I was never quite invested in the torturous screams of the two dolts locked in room, that clever “Gotcha” reveal sealed my satisfaction with the entire experience. The next year, Saw II upped the ante by filling an entire house with barbarous traps. Goonies may never say die, but these sinners wouldn’t shut up about it. One after the other, some disgusting human being would drop into a vat of needles or have their socket blown out the back of their head. For the next six years, for every Halloween season, we could expect a nauseating trip through the morality of the Jigsaw killer. Then Paranormal Activity had to go and ruin it all.
Seven years after the final installment pretty much tied the entire switchbacking mythology together, Tobin Bell returns as John Kramer, the psychotic toymaker. Or does he? One of the dizzying pleasures (or detractors, if you fall into the hater camp) of the original series of films is how Bell’s moral serial killer kept the traps alive after he was killed off in the third film. Through a collection of protégés, Jigsaw encouraged the mice in his maze to value their measly existence while meat hooks penetrated their ribcages. Jigsaw was no Freddy Krueger. He met his end. Dead meant dead. The franchise became about Kramer’s twisted code of ethics. Through torture he would show the lowliest of society the value of their lives. Trouble occurred when his acolytes didn’t believe like he did.
After launching the series, James Wan left the saga in the hands of Darren Lynn Bousman who truly transformed the narrative into the torture porn we mark the franchise as today. Production designer David Hackl took over for Saw V while editor Kevin Greutert (who returns to edit on Jigsaw) helmed the last two entries that supposedly sealed the fate of John Kramer. To resurrect the madman, the producers elected The Spierig Brothers to take up the Jigsaw philosophy. Known for their high concept sci-fi horror ventures like Undead, Daybreakers, and Predestination, they seemed like a perfect fit to solve the dead villain problem. To maintain the pleasurable threat of Jigsaw, the Spierigs had to get wacky. Success. But is this new threat still in the spirit of the original convoluted flashback within flashback storytelling that set Saw apart from all other slashers sequelized into meaninglessness?
Jigsaw has all the goresploitation you would want or expect. The film opens with a stomach-churning horror involving the usual cast of fodder. Junkies, deviants, and corporate assholes worthy of their predicament turn on each other before big fuck-off chains drag them to their doom. The rest of the cast fill their slaughterhouse slots appropriately. Whether they make it out or not is less interesting than the mystery surrounding the cult of Kramer. It’s great to see Supergirl’s Laura Vandervoort grind through Jigsaw’s house, but how can she compete with our affection for Tobin Bell.
The film works best when it sticks to the helpless or digs deeper into the absurd backstory. Matt Passmore’s bumbling medical examiner and his creepy, freakazoid assistant are less compelling. Callum Keith Rennie and Cle Bennett are no Danny Glover and Ken Leung. They can barely surpass Donnie Wahlberg’s detective skills, as their investigation is laughable and borderline boring. The only point they serve is to give us a little relief from the repellant splurts of Karo syrup and stretch the runtime to an acceptable length.
Tobin Bell is Saw. We don’t want to suffer through these atrocities without him. Through his quiet contempt-filled whispers, Bell sells every mad thought that constructs his insanity. A different color scheme, or a slight shift in the audience’s POV, and suddenly Jigsaw’s dark knight avenger isn’t that far off from Batman’s special brand of crazy. He’s certainly a guy ready for his Marvel Team-Up with The Punisher. He’s Death Wish’s Paul Kersey pulled screaming from the fear-consumed streets of 1980s New York and into the barbed wire hellscape of post-Trump’s America. However, he’s not the hero, the anti-hero, or a real-deal villain. Jigsaw is the demon of our own making, and we can absolutely understand his disappointed judgments filtered through the everyday hell witnessed on Fox News. Heck, some days I may welcome it.