Jigsaw (**) – Disposable Morality

JigsawJigsaw – 2017

Directors The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay by Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Starring Tobin Bell, Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson

It takes a good riff to hook one on a franchise, bad or good. The first Halloween is one of the greatest films of all time, making me a willing sucker for each subsequently horrible entry. I keep thinking it will get better. SAW was a film I didn’t think all that great the first time. The ending was clever, and the depictions of gruesome death tied to hollow morality goes back to Scrooge. That term “torture porn” was berthed with this franchise should tell you everything you need to know about this series. But there’s so much less.

The thing that hamstrings the franchise past episode one is the characters are as entirely disposable as the plot makes them to be. We find vignettes of mostly bland people in distress, in a prime position to die horribly. There is some sort of device that elicits a message from the master of their current position telling them what it is they need to do in order to stay living. It doesn’t promise them that they’ll be comfortable in their possible future existence.

Outside of their prison is even worse in terms of acting. We bounce between flashbacks of those prisoners affecting the life of John “Jigsaw” Kramer in a negative fashion and some extremely bland investigators.  Following both plot lines and their obvious tells is almost always more painful than watching the torturous deaths to which we are chained.

Almost every one of these actors are people you’ll never remember, but for how much they annoy. There are exceptions to these rules. Danny Glover, Shawnee Smith, Ken Leung and especially Donnie Wahlberg added something to the series. Cary Elwes was at least an even trade.

One of the weak points for the series is Bell’s divergent character who is suffering on one side and applying the pain on the other. He’s always played as a reluctant benefactor. It worked to begin with, but by the time they had him on the operating table it was more funny than anything.

This time, ten years gone, we’re supposed to buy the idea that he’s somehow escaped the grave and put one of his fresh victims in the box. Seeing him mope around, viewing and judging from a distance is a threadbare concept now. It’s to the point where its a wonder if he ever saw any simple kindness in his life.

If I never mention any of the acting talent in this film, I would say it ranks right up there along side, say anything produced for Lifetime or SyFy. The toughest part working through these films is fighting the thought that you literally hope most of these characters will die at least as horribly as their acting ability.

For those who like this series, this one will rank somewhere near the middle when it comes to what they want. There are some Fangoria-worthy moments. Most others that are somewhat less inspired. The logic and moral authority is thinner than ever. You really have to reach to find the reasoning even partly valid. The twist at the end has been done a few times by now and it will not resonate at all when compared to even SAW 3D.

It’s understandable that this franchise could go on forever and for no real reason other than people like to see mishaps with painful contraptions. If they really wanted to work as hard at scaring you, they’d work on your mind as much as the eyes.

Which brings us back to the first film. Do more stuff like that. Which is to say, tell unique stories.

(** out of *****)

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The Conjuring: Because we’re running out of horror titles

The-Conjuring

The Conjuring – 2013

Director James Wan
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Screenplay Chad and Carey Hayes

The path has been taken so many times by now it’s a wonder it ever works at all.  It’s about technique and its more than a little about feigning surprise.  I think that might be why Patrick Wilson can do it so well.  The best films about haunting do as little as possible.  George C. Scott’s The Changeling has always been a standard from my point of view.  Poltergeist was scary as hell, too.  The first two Paranormal Activity films work as a significant change-up to the formula.

For those familiar with the name, The Conjuring is another case of the Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They’ve been featured in such work as The Amityville Horror, A Haunting in Connecticut and countless television specials.  It is their formula that we see in the paranormal investigator shows.  Heat sensing cameras, skeptical security guys, college interns.  The movie versions often have a very happy family.  Almost spookily happy.

The Conjuring is a very loud film.  The beast that is wreaking havoc has a lot of anger.  We find out early what’s going on.  The rest of the film then becomes a procedural of how it is going to happen.  How successful it is will be a matter of taste and how much your ears can handle.  One interesting twist on the film, underused, but still effective, is the idea that the Warrens keep a museum of possessed artifacts in their home.  The thing about it is these items aren’t trophies.  They are things that contain demons, spirits and other malevolent forces.  They tell their daughter to stay out of that room.  I’ll give you one guess what happens when Grandma stays over to babysit.

The family is headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor.  Livingston will always stand out to me as the guy who spent most of Office Space in a delightful trance.  Seeing him as a concerned parent just makes me want to chuckle.  Taylor, though, is the very essence of imbalance.  Her face constantly evokes the wacked out Nell from The Haunting.  The rest of the family is no more than faces without personalities.  There is a girl who is torqued about moving into the house, but within the next couple of scenes, I can’t differentiate her from her siblings.  Different kids have different hair, but her hair is matched by one other kid.  That’s how hard it is to tell these characters apart.  If I don’t know who they are, how can I care about them?

As Ed and Lorraine, Wilson and Farmiga have an eerie presence that is forced to carry much of the film.  If the rest of the characters are fleshed out a bit more, it might feel organic.  As it is, it is alright, though not nearly scary enough for the possibilities.  When given so little to work with, the film comes across as one of the re-enactment episodes on Paranormal State.

This is not a bad film.  Wan has requisite skill to match the film-goers demands of his time.  If you want R-rated gore, like in the Saw movies, he gives it.  If you want PG-13 thrills, you have them here.  Nothing much that will linger with you, like that ball thrown off of the bridge in The Changeling.  I am sure someone will remember the doll that knocks on the door.   Just not me.

(***1/2)