by Paul Deeter
Purely Kino is a site with no unfamiliarity of the Saw franchise. We have focused coverage on the latest entry to the genre Spiral which is a new entry to a franchise that’s see it’s course of wear and tear over time. There’s a lot of love coming from a couple of the writers here for Kino, particularly I am fond of the journey of John Kramer’s life (Tobin Bell) famously known as the “jigsaw killer“, which is full of twists and turns even postpartum, where some of his disciples enter the scene as the GameMaster. The franchise suffers from the loss of his character greatly, but attempts to implement him via flashback and voice recordings at each turn. By 7 entries in its original run, the fanbase seemed to fade, and despite a semi-successful canonical film titled Jigsaw in 2017, Saw seemed only relevant among its cult followers. I’ve covered the staggering success of the bizarre and bloody R-Rated series in a previous article and discussed just how much of a flash in the pan it seemed. You can read more of my thoughts on that here.
Concurrently, supporting writer for PK, Jordan Thomas voiced in his approval for the series and the new direction that came forward in 2021’s Spiral. I’ll admit as a solid fan of Saw and a supporter of (most of) the sequels, I watched this 2021 film with mild appreciation but otherwise less than satisfying results. The movie does quite a bit to redirect itself from the dull Jigsaw and brings in a couple solid performances with Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. It also takes a more political and timelier approach to the concept and it’s targets, but for me I wouldn’t put it up to par with say a Jordan Peele feature on the subject of politically cultured modern horror films. That being said, Spiral is not a bad film, and while it didn’t quite scratch that itch for me, check out Jordan Thomas' article for a fresher perspective than mine.
Part of what makes Saw such an interesting franchise is the fact that it’s not all in all a true horror series. I think at heart Saw is a horror film but to make a better assessment of the series I’d credit the films to being smarter than just the oft-criticized comparison to “torture porn“. There’s a real creativity to the Saw franchise, and not just in the storytelling web it weaves with all of the players and their parts in the overarching game. Sure the kills are creative, as one would call the Nightmare on Elm Street series famous for the unique deaths of its characters. But more than that, the traps are creative. Occasionally we fall into a lull of take the chain off of the ouchie part to survive and escape, but sometimes the traps get incredibly complex. One of my favorite moments of the series is in the underrated Saw IV, where the opening chains a blind man to a man who’s mouth is sewn shut. The only way for them to survive is for the mute man to somehow convince the blind, very confused victim to release the key from behind his head, but he doesn’t know this and is afraid and lashing out. The trap ends in a bloody conclusion of course, but the setup is almost a riddle in its creativity, and there’s some genuine peril at stake other than just self inflicted pain.
Fairly recently did the feature Escape Room release, a 2019 horror/suspense hybrid centered around a game-like premise for its young characters. Similarly to Saw 2, the players in this game have to work together to escape the maze they are in; Saw 2 was unique for adopting a booby trapped house style narrative that was almost entirely abandoned in sequels. I enjoyed that about the film, and Escape Room is a good example of a movie that feels like a game, but more of a cooperative one. The characters in Escape Room are not being punished for their sins like Jigsaw would do to his victims. The game is organized by a shadow entity titled Minos, without vocal instructions but rooms filled with traps and keys regardless. Some of the strengths of the first film come in the peril that exists when a player is stuck in a shrinking room or on cracking ice, where time is of the essence but violence isn‘t used. This is an edge that a PG-13 suspense film has over its R-Rated counterparts. While Escape Room has one sequel, it follows through on the first film‘s style and does use grisly gore or bloodshed to shock its audience. I say this as a pretty strong fan of the Saw franchise! I’m not squeamish and do enjoy the scares and shock the franchise implements in its appeal to hardcore horror fans. But just like the trap in the 4th Saw film, part of me really wants to tone down the blood and bring back some of the tense and perilous traps that I know Saw is capable of.
All this aside there’s a lot of catching up to do for Escape Room if It wants to compare to Saw other than just in style. The numbers were good for the original, it was a commercial success and despite lukewarm critical reviews it topped the charts and held It’s own among a busy box office weekend. But as soon as the sequel Escape Room: Tournament of Champions was announced, it battled Covid-19 delays financially with a struggle to land a release date til summer 2021. Even before that, the returning director Adam Robitel had to ask himself how to outdo an original feature that covered so much. He‘s quoted here with Bloody Disgusting:
“We did fire, gravity, ice, cold, gas so we need to outdo ourselves now. We're in the box. I can't draw and quarter somebody, so what are those visual ticking clocks? We have some really cool stuff we're developing and hopefully the audience will think that way too, but it's tougher…”
Fortunately, I can confirm despite troubling reviews and a lower consensus, that this movie does quite a lot to try and keep the viewers attention with its various “rooms”. We’ve got quicksand traps surrounding a lighthouse setting and frantic time-based countdowns pushing our players through laser grids and under falling acid rain. This is where the film thrives, and it’s continuously tougher games don’t require more bloodshed but instead more intuition. These games don’t test the will of the contestants, they test their brain power.
Where Spiral met commercial success despite its tough critical reception, Escape Room 2 has not seen its share of success, even with an increased budget and more complex visual design. It’s a bit early to say what the consensus is going to be for the profit of this entry, but a quieter opening seems troublesome for a sophomore feature. There‘s no way to tell where the series may go in its release schedule, but based on the continuity of the first film and a definite cliffhanger ending of the sequel, Robitel clearly wants to continue this story.
But is this what audiences want? I didn’t love Tournament of Champions but I did see potential in the possibility of a softer opponent to Saw, a series that implemented the thrill of a life-or-death game for its characters, without overdoing the bloodshed. I’m conflicted because I am a fan of bloodshed when it comes to horror films, but it doesn’t have to be a crutch, and I’m worried that this is what the Saw franchise is comfortable leaning on. Based on modern response, audiences who watch Saw like violence, they enjoy the traps and aren’t too concerned with what critics have to say. I’m the same way, but I do tend to lean more towards critical consensus. And it’s a familiar buzz, it’s basically a classic franchise.
What does Escape Room have to do to become a successful series? It’s not making waves by inventing interesting characters; it’s biggest consensus is that the script writing is it’s greatest weakness. So if Robitel cares about continuing the success of the original, he should adhere to critical response and build on the writing along with the actual games. This could draw in a bigger crowd. He should stick to a PG-13 rating and not sell out to an older fan base. I believe audiences will come in fold, if the scares and thrills are as creative as they can be. We don’t need blood to sell horror, and that’s becoming more apparent by the year. And Escape Room’s biggest challenge yet may be its ability to outlive its “gimmick”. In ten years the escape room may be out of relevance, and crowds may prefer other forms of social entertainment. But a film like Host does not need to rely on it’s modern technology to tell a good story. With the exploration of a bigger bad in Escape Room, a villain could be established in Minos, a presence to challenge Jigsaw. We won’t ever have another Jigsaw like Tobin Bell, but I’m optimistic that Escape Room and it’s potential for future sequels can really attempt to establish itself as a series to watch. Will there ever be another franchise like Saw?Well I once argued no. But could a future franchise steal it’s thunder and become a name in horror that is genuinely fresh?
Let's hope Adam Robitel continues to think outside the box.