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There's a brand new entry in the long-running Saw franchise hitting theaters on Friday, and it's also the biggest movie to be released strictly in theaters since Tenet came out last fall. These two things combined make Spiral: From the Book of Saw an important film release for people in my line of work, as it's one of the most important we've had in the last year. My problem was that, until a month ago, I had never seen a Saw movie. I'd never watched any of them, so I decided to blow through the films as quickly as I could in anticipation of the new film. This was an awful idea I wish I'd never had, and it was also completely brilliant.
I had a similar issue a few years ago when The Fate of the Furious was being released. I wasn't a "professional film critic" when the previous Fast & Furious films had been released, and so I just hadn't bothered with them. But knowing that what happened in the first seven films would be important in the eighth, I made the decision to watch them all ahead of time. I thought Saw would be no different, and nearly every movie in the series was available on HBO Max. So it was easy enough to do, and it didn't cost me any more money.
We did the first two Saw films in the same week as CinemaBlend Watch Parties (and you should join us for those as they happen). Then I followed those up with the rest of the series. Needless to say, I was not prepared for what the Saw movies did to me watching them all over the course of a couple of weeks. It was awful, and in some ways was worse then I expected. But in another, completely unexpected way, it was excellent and actually a major benefit to have watched them all together like that for my first outing with this franchise.
There's A Lot More To The Saw Movies Than I Expected
If you had asked me what I thought the plot of each Saw movie was before having watched them, i would have guessed they were like every other long running modern slasher franchise: the same killer keeps returning to brutally murder a new group of hapless victims. Maybe somebody survives now and then, only to come back and be murdered 20 minutes into the sequel. Maybe the killer "dies" at the end, only to be revealed as somehow still alive when the next movie starts. This is what I guessed Saw was, but if you've seen the movies, you know that isn't really the case.
There is a remarkable story going on in the Saw movies, and unlike nearly every other horror franchise of its type, it's all about the killer. Jigsaw has a life, a history and even a family. He's not really a sympathetic character, but he is, at the very least, one who can be somewhat understood. The first Saw movie only scratches the surface of all this, but that's where the sequels are actually valuable. They're not just an excuse to show off elaborate new murder machines; they're opportunities to dig deeper into Jigsaw and the other characters that make up his little cabal of homicidal lunatics.
To be fair, this is mostly done trough an absolutely ridiculous amount of retroactive continuity. For instance, we'll see a flashback scene that shows that Tobin Bell's John Kramer has been working with a certain person the entire time. And then, two movies later, here's the same scene, 15 seconds later, showing that Kramer has been working with this other person the entire time too. And the two henchman probably know about each other, but maybe not.
But because the plot has to double back on itself so many times, it's actually a benefit to watch all the movies one after the other. It's a lot easier to keep this all straight. To be sure, the movie always gives you a little flashback moment whenever it needs to reference a thing that the audience needs to remember from a previous movie, but considering the Saw flicks mostly came out a year apart, I have to wonder how many people got utterly lost trying to follow this part of the story.
Watching all the movies together doesn't make the story make that much more sense; a lot of it is still a mess, but paradoxically, a lot of it actually works, or at the very least, works well enough. Many of the movies literally insert sequences that go nowhere because they've been added so that future films can use them to mean whatever they need to mean later.
I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed watching the lore continue to spiral out of control. It was actually a lot of fun and my favorite part of watching the Saw movies. This was the reason I was able to push through, as I wanted to see what happened next with these characters.
Dear God, That's A Lot Of Murder
Which is not to say that everything about the Saw movies works in a binge-watching scenario. They are horror movies, after all, and they are horror movies where the major selling point is unique and creative ways to brutally murder people. This part makes these movies maybe not the best idea for a film festival. The Saw movies sort of vary when it comes to just how graphic the violence gets, but none of them are what you would call tame. Each death trap is shown off in all of its vulgar glory, and even for a serious fan of horror movies (which I am not), there's just... a lot.
I honestly had my fill of the on-screen decapitations and maiming around the beginning of Saw IV. The third and fourth entries seemed like the most violent overall, but perhaps I just got a little desensitized as the series went on. I had to stop myself from just skipping over each brutal death because it wasn't the reason I was watching the movies by the midpoint. It didn't matter how people were dying, it just mattered that they did.
So am I now prepared for Spiral: From the Book of Saw? I suppose I am since I know everything that happened to all the characters that came before. I know all the sorted twisted details of the lives of John Kramer, Amanda Young and everyone else. Am I looking forward to what I expect will be a collection of brutal deaths? Not really, but whatever crazy storyline the new Saw movie throws at me, I'm ready, and I'm actually excited to see if the new movie even tries to deal with the barely coherent plot of the previous films. I don't need the violence, but I love the insanity that is the Saw character drama.