Welcome to the first entry in what I hope to be an ongoing series of posts that I am tentatively calling Dane's Written Review On Needless Groups, to coincide with our new, hopefully successful, segment of the podcast, Dane's Loquacious Assessment of Multiple Entries. The idea being that I watch a group of things in a franchise or that are thematically linked and give my thoughts. I'm not a professional critic, just a long time film fan who thinks too highly of himself, so what better place for my opinions than on the internet, right?
Do not expect deep thematic analysis or narrative synopsis here, just my assessment of individual entries in a group that I picked arbitrarily. Is that worthwhile? I hope so. All I can promise is that my opinions here are genuinely mine and only that, opinions. If you like something and I don't, or vice versa, no hard feelings. I don't think you're dumb or tasteless, and I would hope you would extend me the same courtesy.
Possible Groups: TMNT, time travel, 90's shows, Don Bluth animation, goofball duos, meta horror, Paranormal Activity.
Also, I'm more than willing to take requests. So if you have an idea for a Needless Group, please don't hesitate to let me know. However, please keep in mind the group has to be reasonably accessible and available.
So all that said, let's get to it.
Starting off is the small scale, low budget, proof of concept piece. In the startings of this endeavor, this is the one, I found, people seem to remember being the best. Off-handedly referred to as the "only good one" by people that haven't watched them in years or only caught entries intermittently. I can understand why someone would say that after viewing them all, but I believe they are incorrect.
Saw in the most reserved of the series, though that does not mean that it's simple. The plot is moderately complex on purpose and attempts to work on multiple levels. However, the freshman effort lives up to the namesake. The film is awkwardly paced, aggressive in its offensive nature, and has yet to find its place in the world. All the jumping around to concurrent events and flashbacks doesn't serve to build tension; they just break the flow. The spastic montages of characters freaking out intercut with light flashes manage to assault the viewer as much as the gruesome content of the scenes themselves. Later films would key into what makes the series work when it does work, but for now, the germ of a good idea lives here: A mysterious and dark situation with layered reveals. This idea is what makes the series worthwhile, for a few entries at least.
The other ongoing topic with the series is going to be the returning cast and crew. However, Saw does not have as much bearing on the franchise as the subsequent entries, with a few exceptions. The most important of which is the stellar casting of Tobin Bell as The Jigsaw Killer. Unfortunately, we only get a taste of his greatness on, the hallmark of the series, the game-rule tape recorders and videos. I will be bringing him up more as we go along.
All in all, I can understand why it stuck with people, and they would want to see the rest. It sets itself up like a mystery story, with details hidden amid the scenes, the final series of reveals, and the ending recap that spells it all out for you. It is satisfying at a base level, to finally make sense of all the disparate information it was giving you. That does not excuse the clunky plot construction and spastic editing.
Jigsaw Kill Count: 7
Final Thought: There's interesting stuff to see here, but don't expect to be as impressed as you remember.
Without hesitation, I want to say; Saw II is the highpoint of the series. The characters are more developed, nuanced, and well performed, the plot moves along at a good clip and drip feeds reveals that are rewarding for the viewer, and it understands the claustrophobic nature of the first while still managing to be bigger in scale.
The filmmakers realized Tobin Bell was criminally underused in the first, so Jigsaw, here revealed to be named John Kramer, is given actual interactions and not simply relegated to being set dressing. There's no denying he is the gem of the series. Saw II understands this and does everything it can to use him sparingly to be certain he feels mysterious and threatening. Subsequent entries will not be so wise. Likewise, Donnie Wahlberg does a surprisingly good job as a well-meaning dad with aggression issues.
The story gets more complicated with the captives being connected and the "games" getting more intricate, but the film manages to get away without being confusing. The connections between the characters play a prominent role, but in the end, it is mostly about putting a lot of damaged people in a box filled with traps and watching them get primal. Nothing wrong with that, and it leads to what is easily the best scene in the series.
The Syringe Pit. If you've seen Saw II, you remember it. It is perfectly executed. The characters behave consistently, the editing is tight and tense, the situation is gruesome and horrifying, and the result informs the character decisions through the rest of the movie. In a series filled with grotesque mutilations, rampant murder, and human filth, this is the single scene that made me turn away, a visceral reaction that was unreplicated in any further entry. Provoking that type of response is not easy and isn't what many people may be looking for in a movie, but considering the goal of the film is to shock and horrify, I'd say it's perfect. So perfect, in fact, this scene was enough to raise my final score a full point.
I'll reiterate; Saw II is the best of the series. And, aside from a callback to the first at the end, it stands wholly on its own. So there's no reason to watch any of the further sequels or the first, just watch Saw II, and you'll have seen enough. It does not get any better.
Jigsaw Kill Count: 9
Final Thought: I wish I would follow my own advice.
If you insisted on continuing to watch these movies, Saw III might have made you hopeful. It did for me. There are some genuinely good elements here, enough for me to tell you that Saw III is pretty good. Not up to its predecessor's quality, but not a mess like the first either.
Once again, Tobin Bell's Jigsaw is a treat. You see him here in varying states of health and even witness his eventual demise. Elsewhere you will see Shawnee Smith's Amanda taking an even bigger role in this outing. Unfortunately, her character is inconsistently written, vacillating between a vicious disciple of Jigsaw and an ineffectual sobbing mess, seeking validation from her requisite daddy figure. Interestingly, though she will die here as well, she is the only character aside from Jigsaw to appear in every entry. Noteworthy, the ostensible protagonist is... a woman! Though, thinking about it, horror does have a strong history in this regard. Bahar Soomekh's Dr. Lynn Denlon is strong and capable, contrasting the indecisive and weak-willed captive of the primary game, Jeff, played by Angus Macfadyen.
This entry is built up as the capstone. The final piece of the puzzle(I'm so clever) that will fully contextualize the plans of the Jigsaw Killer and lay it all bare. In pursuit of that, the focus shifts from the captives to the captors. The games of Jigsaw's hostages are not nearly as important as learning what his intentions are and how his story will play out. This marks an interesting change from the previous films and allows us a chance to get to know Jigsaw a bit better before his time is up. Regrettably, it does somewhat trivialize the traps.
Unfortunate, considering we see some inventive ones here. Possibly a touch over-elaborate but still in the realm of believability. They serve as interesting set pieces, even allowing a person to be saved! A fitting end to a series about grizzly deaths.
For what it's worth, Saw III isn't bad. It tries some good things and does most of them well. It bucks tradition in a number of ways, it sports a smaller body count (a cardinal sin of horror sequels), focuses on interpersonal conflict rather than just violence, and even passes the infamous Bechdel test. Viewed as the final piece of a trilogy it's satisfying. But...
Jigsaw Kill Count: 7
Final Thought: Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.
That is where I'm going to leave it for now. This is getting way longer than I anticipated, so the second half will be up soon. Let me know what you think, what you'd like to see, and why I'm wrong.