The question with a movie like “Jigsaw,” which was preceded by seven “Saw” movies and did not screen for press, isn’t “Is it good?” but rather “How bad is it?” The answer, dear reader, is “quite.” “Jigsaw” is quite bad.
Not that it matters much. The eighth installment in a horror franchise isn’t meant to be good; it’s meant to be gruesome. The Spierig Brothers’ contribution to the series is certainly that: One scene finds a team of medical examiners studiously examining a man with half his head blown off; another shows the results of a woman being injected with hydrochloric acid in all its gory detail. 13 years in, the filmmakers have all but given up pretending that such moments exist for any reason beyond their own sake.
It is the fate of most great horror movies to turn into dire franchises that almost make you resent the original film’s success, with everything from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” to “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” turning into shells of their former selves. (At least arthouse hits are spared from this eventuality; “The Witch” and “It Follows” both remain stellar one-offs, at least for now.)
“Saw” has experienced a similar mission drift, a relic of the torture-porn heyday it helped bring about that refuses to go away — even “Hostel” gave up the ghost after two sequels. In attempting to one-up its many predecessors, “Jigsaw” has the most diminishing of returns. Its Rube Goldberg Machine–like torture devices are elaborate, yes, but there’s a difference between scaring your viewers and punishing them alongside your characters. This film is content to do the latter, more endurance test than entertainment.
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The premise will be familiar to anyone who’s seen one of these before. A group of strangers wake up in a strange place, where a tape recording informs them they’re being punished for past misdeeds; if they confess and play by the rules, they might just survive. (This time, the would-be victims include Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, and Mandela Van Peebles, grandson of Melvin.) Most deflect blame, break the rules, or both. For their efforts, they’re met with the most grisly of ends: buzzsaws, syringes, shotgun blasts.
The first movie — which, for what it’s worth 13 years later, really was quite good — revealed that the person responsible was a cancer patient who violently resented his victims’ disregard for both their own lives and those of others. A cult of personality has since grown around the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), who’s said to have succumbed to his illness — though, as tends to be the case with such figures, doubt remains.
What follows in “Jigsaw” is academic, a thin variation on a tired theme that feels especially needless given that the most recent addition to the mythos was released seven years ago.
You really have to wonder if, after eight movies and scores of victims, the hands pulling these strings begin to question their methods. Jigsaw’s philosophy is skewed, as all mass murderers’ are, but because Bell’s raspy voice sounds cool when delivering lines like “Live or die, the choice is yours,” we’re meant not to notice or care. The whole world won’t go blind as a result of his eye-for-an-eye justice, but everyone watching “Jigsaw” may end up rolling their eyes long before the credits do.
“Jigsaw” is now playing nationwide.