If all was good and right in the world, we would have already seen the unfortunately subtitled Spiral: From the Book of Saw back in May. The film is positioned as a soft reboot of sorts to the long-running horror franchise, but different from the previous soft reboot of sorts that was 2017’s Jigsaw, although it does carry over the same screenwriters (Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger).
The most fascinating aspect of this new film is that the story for Spiral was proposed by none other than Chris Rock, who it turns out is a huge fan of the series. Rock stars in the film alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella, immediately making giving it the most high-profile cast in the franchise’s history, not an insignificant achievement for its ninth entry. Hopes have been high among fans that this could return Saw to its glory days, or at the very least shepherd the franchise into a new and interesting direction.
While this could still turn out to be the case, we’ll now have to wait until May 2021 to find out, because all is not good and right in the world, especially not here in the U.S., and Spiral is one of countless cinematic casualties this year whose release dates needed to be reshuffled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As we near Halloween, which for seven years harkened the release of a new entry in the series, now seems as good a time as any to revisit the Saw films, to dredge up what made them popular, and indeed, what made them stand out in an era where such horror franchises are long past their heyday.
First of all, let’s address the mutilated elephant in the room. These films are chock full of blood and gore, often viscerally so. The MPAA described the violence in the first film as “grisly”, which seems as apt a word as any. Human beings are dismembered, disfigured, torn to pieces, eviscerated, and otherwise maimed, either by their own hands of via increasingly complicated sets of rusted machinery, which look so grimy and disgusting throughout that even if they don’t kill you, they’ll certain at least give you tetanus.
All of this is to say that these films are not for the faint of heart, and they were never going to appeal to everyone. Even people who generally consider themselves fans of horror will often turn their noses up at the grotesqueries on display, and the series has usually been dismissed by non-fans with the label of “torture porn”. It is true that every film in the series derives their set pieces from people going through sequences of intense torture. And it is true that a certain subset of the audience for them are there primarily to watch people get torn apart as elaborately as possible. So, while the label isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also fails to encapsulate all that makes the series so iconic.
Unlike its contemporaries, such as Hostel or the later entries of The Human Centipede, the Saw films create a level of immersion that goes beyond just witnessing pretty people getting carved up. The traps that populate the various entries are all intended as morality tests, reflections of their victims’ inner failings, and as such transcend beyond being mere torture for its own sake. These are games, with objectives, and (at least in theory) it is possible for them to be survived. The laws of splatter movie math (more death equals more engagement) dictate that more often than not, the victims are unsuccessful. But it’s that little carrot of survivability, the existential question of “how much blood will you shed to stay alive”, that gives them their real hook. The audience is invited to vicariously experience these physical and psychological tests along with the characters, and contemplate within themselves whether they would be able to escape such a predicament.
Now it is true that the vast majority of these tests seem borderline impossible, and as the series goes on, more than a few of them are revealed to be rigged, thus denying their victims a fair chance. That is because they are being designed not by any higher power or divine entity. They are designed by a man. A very sick man with an axe to grind. And thus, we get to the real meat of the franchise (no pun intended). The series is at its most engaging when it deals with the life and legacy of John Kramer. The films are so tied to his unique persona and perspective that he feels like a central character as early as the first film, even though he isn’t visually revealed until the final moments. And even after he dies in the third film, he remains an intense and effective presence throughout the rest of the series, regularly appearing in flashback and through the memories of those who knew him.
It cannot be overstated just how good Tobin Bell is in this role. Even when we’re only hearing his voice from behind a puppet, his gravely intonations helped set the tone as early as the initial trailers. Striking a balance between fatherly kindness and sadistic malice, John is a deeply complicated individual, warped by the trauma that he and his loved ones have endured, and by a newfound cynicism of the world around him.
At the same time, all of his horrific designs and grand schemes are motivated at their core by a genuine desire to help people, to save their souls, to show them the value of life that he feels they so carelessly take for granted. This is obviously colored by his own inoperable cancer prognosis, but the fact that he truly believes that what he’s doing is a kind of service, even when forcing people to inflict unimaginable bodily damage to themselves and others, is what makes him such a compelling character, and the gravitas lent to him by Bell ensures that any scene featuring the character is never less than captivating.
That said, once John’s presence is reduced primarily to flashbacks and pre-recorded messages (of which there seem to be an endless supply), the films do fall victim to a certain level of convolution, as the story has to start twisting itself into pretzels in order to keep the conceit going. The primary method of doing so is to introduce a number of apprentices, of which there are at least four throughout the series, depending on who you count. The most notorious of these is Detective Mark Hoffman, and unfortunately one of the franchise’s greatest missteps is to shift the focus from John to him. No disrespect is intended to actor Costas Mandylor, who has a certain thuggish menace that makes him at least physically imposing. But sadly, he lacks the charisma to carry the series following John’s death, and considering that at least half of the entries ultimately revolve around him, this misstep feels all the more pronounced.
Luckily, these films aren’t really about the acting, which overall never really rises to Bell’s level. These are cheap, dirty, grimy films, whose ambitions may ultimately exceed their resources. What keeps them going, then, is less the focus on any one character (much of the supporting cast comes and goes throughout the sequels, most of which are inevitably destined for the meat grinder), but more on the overarching battle over John’s legacy. There is a whole host of revolving detectives and police-adjacent characters who always seem to be a few steps behind. There is John’s widow, Jill Tuck, who always has a few secrets of her own. There are the various apprentices, many of whom hate one another and fall prey to increasingly vicious infighting. There is the endless supply of victims, most of whom just want to survive, but some of whom find themselves with far larger parts to play.
All these ingredients come together to create a mythology that feels less like an empty series of slasher movies and more like a serial killer soap opera. At times it can be too twisty for its own good, and the rules of morality are a little touch and go, but the branching narrative proved addicting, and even if the writers were flying by the seat of their pants (as was necessitated by producing a new movie every year for 7 years), they displayed an impressive attention to detail. Plot threads would be introduced in one entry only to be resolved three films down the line. If something seemed logically questionable, odds were good that there’s be a flashback later on to explain how it came to pass. Even as mainstream audiences gradually lost interest, the core fanbase would return, Halloween after Halloween, excited to see in what new directions the story would unfold.
Consider this commitment to continuity for a moment. If a flashback in part 5 involved a minor player from part 2, you can bet they’d get the same actor back, even if they’re only onscreen for less than five minutes between both films. Leigh Whannell, who has since gone on to enjoy an excellent directing career of his own, was willing to reprise his role from the first film in part 3, essentially just to wake up and be immediately suffocated (though it probably didn’t hurt that he helped with that film’s screenplay, back when it was going to be the final entry). Even Cary Elwes, who was embroiled in legal battles with the producers for years after starring in the original, was coerced into returning for part 7, thus confirming innumerable fan theories.
What other slasher series would do this? Compare to the Halloween series, which reboots its continuity every 2-3 movies, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which rarely makes it more than one entry at a time before starting from scratch. A Nightmare on Elm Street occasionally brings characters back from the previous entry, only to kill them off almost immediately. Friday the 13th can barely remember where it left Jason the last time around, much less worry about building any lasting character dynamics. And while The Conjuring and its many attendant spinoffs are a bit better about this, the various entries are so loosely connected that they can barely be considered the same series at all.
What a shame, then, that the first attempt to bring the franchise back after its initial run was Jigsaw, a film completely unconcerned with the intricate worldbuilding that came before, copying various setups and plot twists haphazardly without bringing new life to the series or branching out on its own, content to put a fresh coat of paint on what worked before without creating anything new. One can only hope that Spiral, which comes to us from a highly unexpected fan, and brings back the director of three of its earliest installments (Darren Lynn Bousman), can reinvigorate what made so many of the early Saw films compelling, and honor the fact that their interconnectivity made them all more than the sum of their parts.
(For more on the Saw franchise, check out the latest episode of the Awards Radar podcast, where Joey, Kendall, and myself go through each film in detail, and discuss what we love about the series and our hopes for its future.)