Five strangers sealed in a filthy bedroom. The voice from a tape recorder explains their predicament and what they must do to survive. A dilapidated bed is thrown aside to reveal a grave of spent, broken syringes. The key is somewhere inside. One of their number, Amanda, is mercilessly hauled into the shards and starts to spasm and scream in pain. Against all odds she locates the key but is left skewered, torn and sliced.
It’s been 16 years since Saw II, a film which went on to become the second instalment of the lucrative nine-part franchise. And with Spiral – the first film in the newly titled Book of Saw reboot – set to welcome us back to theatres on May 17th the question stands: do audiences still have the stomach for Saw?
Back in the festival season of 2004 Lionsgate were in search of another low-budget / maximum-profit sleeper hit. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever had given them a taste for what horror could yield financially two years earlier, the distribution rights for Roth’s flesh-eating flick purchased for just $3.5 million and quickly becoming the studio’s biggest hit that year, grossing over $20 million in the US alone. So before Saw had even premiered director James Wan and writer/star Leigh Whannell were already celebrating: Lionsgate had optioned the film, the catch being they wanted to bypass cinemas and relegate it to a straight video release. However following runs at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals it became clear that for audiences Saw cut deep: so deep in fact that the studio agreed to distribute the film theatrically across the US.
Eight sequels and 51 grizzly deaths later and the Saw films are one of the most profitable horror franchises of all time. And despite only two instalments in the last twelve years the games are not over yet.
Following the coronavirus pandemic UK cinemas are set to reopen on May 17th 2021, a day that hordes of film fanatics have been waiting almost a year for, when they can sink back into those plush velvet seats and feel their pulse quicken as the lights dim and they’re bathed in the comforting, all-encompassing glow of the silver screen. One of the films which will welcome returning audiences is Spiral, the “next chapter in The Book of Saw”. At first glance Spiral seems to be a far cry from the grimy series, the trailer offering sun-soaked vistas and major Hollywood players including producer/star Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson (reinforcing his masterful status as the man to appear in the most franchises ever, including Star Wars, the MCU, Jurassic Park, XXX, The Incredibles and others). However, for the faithful there are apparent hints at Jigsaw’s legacy, from the crude red signature left by the killer to the twine-tied gift boxes bequeathed to each victim. Further proof that Spiral is directly related to Saw arrived days before release with the first 3 minutes being leaked online by the studio. Needlessly to say, the franchise is taking no prisoners.
Horror is not a genre that stands still for very long: it mutates, shifts and metamorphizes. The last five years have been some of the most potent and culturally didactic in recent times, with films such as Get Out, The Witch, Raw and Whannel’s own The Invisible Man offering genuine thrills whilst commenting on a multitude of contemporary concerns. The fandom, and mainstream viewers alike, have recognised their significance: in a world of Trump Tweets and global pandemics, horror has offered an outlet for many creatives to shine a light on the injustices that permeate society. And audiences have lapped it up.
The Saw franchise is a very different beast, the thrash metal to Aster and Peele’s operatic tones. It revels in its candid nature and could never be described as subtle. Has the palate been cleansed so much that casual viewers will gag on Spiral?
To suggest that gore-fans have been starved since Saw’s last ‘Game over’ would be flawed. Who could forget the head-crushing bestowed by humongous hammer wielding cultists in Midsommar? Or when Coralie Fargeat offered one of the most blood-soaked finales in cinema history in the ground-breaking Revenge, which included a particularly dramatic interior redesign (needless to say the colour scheme was red). No, horror continues to deliver graphic content synonymous with the genre. Unlike this franchise though, modern horror has shed the MTV aesthetic, the jarring edits and carnival SFX in favour of something more elegant.
Jigsaw’s traps – and how to escape them – are renowned for being puzzling, from the head-scratching Reverse Bear Trap to the tough-to-crack Rack. But just striving to understand the plot of one of these films is challenging enough, with eight being damn near impenetrable. To call the latter films convoluted would be a kindness; to a casual viewer they are needlessly baffling. And, although horror fans are no strangers to unconventional plotting and flip-flopping narrative structure, the Saw films require viewers to not only suspend disbelief but to surrender their brains to its labyrinthine machinations.
Horror excels in simplicity. Keeping the story lean allows room for experimentation, thematic exploration or just a tonne of fantastic scares, 2018’s A Quiet Place being all the evidence needed to prove that a neat concept conquers all.
Despite all of this, perhaps what the world needs right now is to play a game. In a world in which repercussions are hard to come by, maybe people need some escapist, cathartic retribution? To be moral and exist within an immoral and unfair world takes it toll, and that overwhelming feeling of futility must be exorcised somewhere. One of the reasons that the superhero format is so popular at present is because the physically perfect do-gooder wins the day and protects the world from corrupt politicians, genocidal aliens and well…Nazis. Jigsaw’s methods are of course extreme, but his vision is also ideologically straightforward: punish the ones who have eluded justice.
Unlike many releases scheduled for 2020, Lionsgate made the decision to bypass VOD and allow audiences the opportunity to see Spiral on the big screen. It doesn’t have a massive budget, huge action set pieces or stunning cinematography; it isn’t a Bond film or a Tom Cruise stunt spectacular. So why wait? The answer is simple and timeless: fear is more fun in crowds. As with a rabble squirming at a circus act or hundreds gasping as an escape artist risks their life, Saw offers a unique communal experience: the opportunity to scream in terror, retch with disgust and giggle in relief with a room of complete strangers, something which has not been possible this past year. And not a phenomenon that will be taken for granted anytime soon.